Middle East

Who are the ‘media activists’ covering the war?

Comrades carry the body of a Syrian photojournalist and media activist Murhaf al-Modhi, known as Abo Shuja, towards his grave during his funeral in a park in the northern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor on September 29, 2013, a day after he was killed in shelling during fighting between rebel forces and pro-Syrian government troops. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD ABOUD)

BEIRUT: While many inside and out of Syria bemoan the lack of attention that the conflict is getting internationally, it is perhaps the most “covered” war in history, given the nature of current media and technology, with thousands of YouTube channels, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages dedicated to monitoring the crisis around the clock.

Behind these groups are “media activists,” normally young Syrians committed to the revolution, and who feel they have a role to play in communicating the events on the ground to the outside world while countering the work of state media. Straddling a gray area between journalist and revolutionary, some of these groups have been subjected to criticism for manipulating the facts on the ground.

But most make no efforts to hide their allegiance to the opposition, and say they are simply trying to get an accurate picture across at the same time, a job that often requires them risking their lives in a completely voluntary capacity.

Some secure positions as “fixers” for foreign media who enter the country, setting up interviews or acting as translators. But on top of that, their work has been vital in helping the world understand events in Syria, whether the news is of advancing ground offensives, kidnappings, humanitarian aid efforts or atrocities by either side.

However, as the conflict has entered its fourth year, many media activists are finding their work increasingly difficult given the seemingly interminable conflict on the ground and the dearth of funding. But in the absence of other options, they remain committed.

While some have backgrounds in media, many others seemingly fell into the work.

Mohammad, who did not want to give his last name as he is wanted by the regime and extremists, is an independent media activist from Saraqeb in Idlib province. Originally a defector from the army, he was wounded in clashes and no longer able to fight for the opposition. So, he says, “I sold my rifle, bought a camera, a laptop and an Internet connection and started reporting within the world of YouTube and Facebook.”

The regime is searching for him, dead or alive, he says, for having deserted the army, and extremists want him because he has covered crimes they have committed.

He works alone and doubts the commitment of those who receive money in exchange for the work that they do.

“Those who receive funds are doing absolutely nothing. Once they have money, they no longer want to risk their lives.”

Abbas Qabbani is an independent media activist from Aleppo. Whenever shelling or aerial attacks by the regime strike rebel-held neighborhoods, Qabbani tries to film the aftermath, “even body parts,” and then shares the news with local outlets.

“When a certain place comes under shelling and bombing, we inform all the [local] media outlets,” he says.

“We work on the field and our only concern is to convey the truth to the entire world. Of course, it is hard to believe the news you hear, so we risk our lives to go film on the spot and show the images of what we’re really undergoing.”

Other media outlets, he says, are acting as traditional mainstream news organizations, eager to be the first with breaking news in hopes it will secure them funding. But Qabbani says he instantly shares news he gathers with all local groups. “I am first of all a revolutionary before being a media person.”

The Aleppo Media Center is another important source of news of the key northern governorate and was created when a group of independent activists formed an agency in the early days of the uprising, according to Mohammad al-Khatieb, a member of the center.

Khatieb says that the group receives no outside funding, but adds that other media outlets receive funding from the Syrian National Coalition – the largest umbrella opposition group in exile – charity and international organizations. The members of the AMC, he says, of which there are 35, each earn around $150 a month, depending on the amount of work that they sell.

Ammar al-Hasan is a media activist at the Latakia News Network, which is part of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union, a nonviolent body of over 200 groups from across the country.

The SRCU is committed to a peaceful overthrow of the regime of President Bashar Assad and does not accept any outside funding.

“Our work is voluntary at the service of our country and people,” Hasan says. “We don’t accept any money or aid that has external political purposes.”

He says they do, however, take donations from some Syrians now living abroad, “but very small amounts, without any ulterior political motives.”

Members contribute whatever they can to the running of the program, as “the whole purpose of our work is to overthrow Assad’s regime, and we try not to follow any political movements.”

Similarly, Amer al-Qalamouni, director of the Qalamoun Media Center, says that the roughly 50 members of that group do not receive wages and the center does not receive funding, because, he says, “We are a group of youth who has agreed to work in the interests of the revolution.”

With small donations from its own members and their friends, the group managed to buy three cameras.

Pesheng Alo is one of the founders of the Kurdish Brotherhood Coordination in Aleppo province, currently taking a break due to a lack of funding. “Those who wanted to fund us were either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists or I don’t know what, and we did not accept their support in order not to be somebody’s followers.”

When it was founded, the group had members from across Syrian society – Christians, Alawites, Druze and Kurds, he says, and was never solely a dedicated media outlet. “It’s a youth political group, and, of course, this needs coverage, so I think the two are intertwined.”

From the Raqqa Media Center in the east of the country, which is now held by the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Abu Abdel-Rahman al-Raqqawi says that its members receive no income, except when they help outside news agencies in gathering material for reports. But, he says, he does not want to be beholden to any political groups.

“The political sides can provide huge support, but they only do it on certain terms, in the sense that you have to be their follower, which is not at all convenient for us,” he says. “If they do something bad, not only would we have to cover it up, but we would have to defend the mistakes they had made.”

On dealing with ISIS, Raqqawi says the center accompanies the militant group on the ground to provide coverage of regime massacres, aid distribution and military operations, but never without ISIS’ permission, work which has led some to accuse them of belonging to the extremist group.

But the center has had to sign a document stating it would never film ISIS bases, members or vehicles belonging to ISIS, or women who were not in hijab. Complying with these rules, he says, has allowed them to “work easily,” in Raqqa. “We wanted to make direct contact with them in order to do our job,” he says.

Back in Aleppo, Qabbani also has no qualms about working with all colors of the opposition. “A reporter has to communicate with everyone, and it doesn’t matter whether it is Nusra or some other group.”

But others are less keen to act as a bridge between these groups and the outside world.

Nadhir Hadhafa, from the SANA Revolution media group in Damascus, says that the group was originally in contact with ISIS (the militants came to Syria in April 2013) but “after their masks, fell we cut any direct or indirect contacts.”

Mohammad Masri, an independent media activist based in southern Turkey, who spends most of his time in northern Syria, also refuses to contact ISIS: “I do not consider them to be part of the opposition. And I don’t want to be in touch with them.”

Masri was studying pharmacy abroad when the war broke out in early 2011. Originally from Qusair, a strategic town on the border with Lebanon lost to the regime after an intense battle last summer, Masri decided early on that he wanted to be part of the uprising.

“I needed to do something to make people’s voices louder,” he says.

He first started acting as a conduit between media outside the country and Free Syrian Army members on the ground and still works as a fixer and translator for foreign journalists coming into Syria across the northern border.

His work is voluntary, and he doesn’t take any money from those he helps, instead receiving limited funds from a friend who works in the Gulf, which allows him to continue in his work.

“I think journalists are helping Syria. My rules are simple: Everyone who helps the revolution is good, no matter what ideology they believe in. There are still a lot of people around the world who don’t even know that there is a country on earth called Syria.”

While not as optimistic as he once was, Masri sees no other option but to remain in his role.

“Media activists don’t matter anymore. I’m increasingly disappointed. But still I cannot leave and continue my studies. I want to, but I can’t. I still dream of a Syria without Assad, and I think I should do something. I can’t just turn my back and leave.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 29, 2014, on page 10.




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