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Political Analysis

A Cat-and-Mouse Game? How Syrian Citizen Journalists Evade State Repression

Syrian citizen journalists continue to utilise innovative measures to counteract the state’s efforts at controlling information flow regarding the ongoing Syrian civil war. These individuals specifically employ communication technologies to produce and disseminate uncensored conflict-related information, which is increasingly relied upon by foreign media organisations, despite the Syrian government’s sophisticated attempts at suppressing it. The situation resembles a technological and dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, whereby citizens are constantly trying to stay one-step ahead of the government’s varied measures of repression and thus continue reporting the war’s atrocities.

Citizen Journalists

They can be termed ‘citizen journalists’, which alludes to technologies enabling individuals beyond the mainstream media to produce and widely distribute information.


One line of argument regarding communication technologies’ impact on the flow of information is that they possess a democratising ability, by allowing citizens to distribute independent information without governmental restrictions on freedom of expression. It is a belief originally conceptualised as the ‘media empowerment thesis’,
[i] but is now generally linked with the ‘digital public sphere’. This refers to media technologies revitalising Jürgen Habermas’ ideas around private individuals coming together to openly discuss societal problems, thereby collectively organising against ‘arbitrary and oppressive forms of social and political power’.[ii]

Syrian citizens are certainly employing communication technologies in reporting the Syrian conflict. They can therefore be termed ‘citizen journalists’, which alludes to technologies enabling individuals beyond the mainstream media to produce and widely distribute information.[iii] Two factors contribute to the war’s unmediated coverage being heavily reliant on the work of these individuals. The first is the government’s control of traditional media forms.[iv] Indeed, the country’s Press Law is described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as providing ‘the government with sweeping controls’ over domestic media, including newspapers, where it mobilises its own agenda.[v] The second factor is the war’s widespread desertion by foreign correspondents. Reporters Without Borders claims the ‘risk of arrest, abduction and death’ makes journalism an extremely dangerous and difficult undertaking,[vi] with such dangers preventing news organisations from permitting conventional reporting.[vii] The 2014 killings of two American journalists,[viii] by the Islamic State, particularly revealed the perils of conducting traditional reporting.[ix] International media outlets increasingly rely upon coverage provided by freelance reporters, given they are often a cheaper and less hazardous alternative to sending their own employees to a conflict zone.[x] However, freelancers are especially vulnerable to surrounding risks. They typically have limited access to resources, such as protective equipment, and lack the necessary training to report safely from a scene of violence. It means the country is widely regarded as too dangerous even for them to report from.[xi]

Consequently, citizen journalists, in their utilisation of communication technologies, have increasingly responded to this lack of professional reporting.[xii] It is the war’s otherwise absence of independent coverage that convinces individuals to perform this role. Hussein Akoush claims ‘the absence of objectivity’ provoked him to become ‘interested in journalism’.[xiii] He regularly records and uploads videos of the war’s devastation onto social media platforms. Malek Blacktoviche, who refers to himself as the ‘Syrian Developer’ on his Twitter page,[xiv] was similarly inspired to become a citizen journalist by Syria’s traditional media being ‘so false’.[xv] As a result, he has dedicated himself to filming the conflict. For example, in 2012 he was involved in capturing and uploading a video from the Damascus suburb of Daraya, which documented a massacre by pro-government forces following the town’s recapture from rebels.[xvi] Foreign journalism-focused organisations have also supported citizen journalists in producing footage, besides relying on their accounts for their own news reports. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) is one of several organisations ‘training citizen journalists in Syria’.[xvii] It does so by guiding citizen journalists to create and disseminate news stories, through facilitating collaboration with professional reporters.[xviii]

Citizen journalists are indeed helping to decipher deliberately misleading information.


Another motivation for this level of training is to enable citizens to avoid, and even counter, the levels of rumour, propaganda and misinformation instigated by pro-government forces, which are designed to substitute for accurate news.[xix] Evidence suggests that citizen journalists are indeed helping to decipher deliberately misleading information. One example regards the August 2013 Ghouta chemical attack.[xx] The Syrian government alleged that opposition groups were to blame, claiming there to be no evidence connecting the Syrian regime with the attack.[xxi] However, HWR later concluded that government forces ‘were almost certainly responsible for the August 21 attacks’, as the weapons used could ‘only have been in the possession’ of the Syrian government.[xxii] This charge was similarly expressed by a US government inquiry.[xxiii] Both investigations relied upon citizen journalists’ footage of the attack, uploaded onto social media, which helped to identify the weapons that were used.[xxiv]

Communication technologies aid the diaspora’s political influence within host countries and their country of origin or attachment.


It is not just Syrians living inside the country who are applying communication technologies to document the conflict. ‘Diaspora activists’ are crucially important in facilitating the distribution of uncensored Syrian war reporting.[xxv] Technologies allow Syrians living in the diaspora to act as brokers, by providing an intermediary role between citizen journalists and target audiences.[xxvi] Some commentators claim communication technologies aid the diaspora’s political influence within host countries and their country of origin or attachment.[xxvii] Mary Kaldor states that the ‘diaspora plays a much more important role than formerly because of the speed of communication’.[xxviii]

Rami Abdul Rahman, who moved to Britain in 2000, operates the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) online information service.[xxix] Rahman’s work is dependent upon ‘over 230 activists’ based in Syria,[xxx] whose digital information allows him to compile war-related news reports. They are frequently cited by mainstream news outlets.[xxxi] As with citizen journalists living within Syria, Rahman was persuaded to become an activist due to information otherwise being controlled by the state. He sees documenting the Syrian conflict as his duty, owing to official information merely attempting to brainwash people into believing a distorted version of events.[xxxii] Similarly, two diaspora activists residing in Turkey, Alisar Hasan and Feras Fayyad, established the Sout Raya radio station to circumvent the Syrian government’s control of information. Fayyad claims the station’s aim is to disseminate reports to people living inside Syria.[xxxiii]

Online state repression

An alternative school of thought proposes that communication technologies merely aid states’ abilities to suppress and monitor individuals.[xxxiv] They dismiss the more technologically optimistic argument as ‘cyber-utopianism’.[xxxv] Instead, states are said to employ technologies to suppress information flows between activists and thus reaffirm their control of information.[xxxvi]

The state employs various tactics, including targeted online repression, in its endeavour to prevent a free flow of online information.


Given the Syrian government’s authoritarian approach to freedom of expression, its response to the development of communication technologies is hardly surprising. Evidence suggests the state employs various tactics, including targeted online repression, in its endeavour to prevent a free flow of online information. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) is largely responsible, given that it was created to facilitate a pro-government narrative to information coming out of Syria.[xxxvii] It effectively serves as the state’s de facto digital military service and actively targets political opponents.[xxxviii] One activist, Tareq al-Jaza’eere, claims that it fights ‘an electronic war against the rebels’.[xxxix] It does so by hacking citizens’ online communication, besides sending them threatening messages, in response to the circulation of anti-regime information.[xl] The global reach of communication technologies means that citizen journalists living in the diaspora can also be targeted. This is attested by Mariam Hamou, a ‘media liaison’ activist living in Canada. In a 2016 interview with Open Canada, Hamou described how she was a victim of a ‘spear-phishing attack’. They are designed to target individuals by hacking personal email and social media accounts.[xli]

Online repressive measures also help governments to physically locate dissenters, through surveilling their movements and locations.[xlii] Individuals are aware that producing uncensored information involves a high degree of risk. In her interviews with Syrian diaspora activists, Dana Moss revealed how respondents fully acknowledge that online communication has the ‘potential to invite retribution for themselves and for their relatives’.[xliii] This assessment is endorsed by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). They state that citizen journalists ‘are regularly followed, arrested and tortured’, which it relates to the government’s sophisticated surveillance techniques.[xliv] Alaa Nayef al-Khader al-Khalidi, a Syrian citizen photojournalist, was arrested by government forces whilst documenting conflict in the city of Douma.[xlv] He subsequently died in government detention at the infamous Sednaya Military Prison, where he was allegedly tortured.[xlvi] Such cases indicate how communication technologies aid the Syrian government in physically intercepting citizen journalists.

Adaptation

Given the varied measures of online (and offline) repression exerted by the Syrian government, the logical question to ask is ‘how do citizen journalists persist in using communication technologies to document information relating to the conflict?’ The answer, in large part, lies in Syrian citizens adapting to the state’s online repression, by exploiting innovative measures to overcome government surveillance.[xlvii] They ensure there can be at least some evasion of the government’s repressive tactics. Meanwhile, naïve activists, who have not acquired the skills to conceal their communication, are at greatest risk.[xlviii]

A 2014 report by Global Information Society Watch claims that citizen journalists have ‘become masters in the art of concealment’.[xlix] One of the methods employed has been the adoption of pseudonyms. Malek Blacktoviche does so for his personal safety.[l] However, concealment methods are largely technological. One example is citizen journalists’ use of virtual private networks (VPNs). They help to conceal a user’s identity and hide their location online. They also ensure online communication is encrypted, thereby preventing governments from monitoring citizen journalists’ reporting.[li] Journalism-focused organisations, such as the IWPR, also aid citizen journalists in adapting to online repression. They provide guidance in how to avoid their digital communication being tracked and monitored,[lii] which is understandably regarded as essential training.[liii] There is evidence of citizen journalists applying these skills. They have developed online coded language, whereby words or phrases that could reveal their location or intentions to government hackers are replaced with substitutes.[liv] One citizen journalist, Samir Najjar, claims that ‘the weather is clear’ is coded language for there being no soldiers present.[lv]

Over 130 journalists have been killed since the onset of the civil war.


Of course, such adaptive measures do not guarantee the permanent safety of citizen journalists, nor prevent every case of online repression. If individuals are in the wrong place at the wrong time, there is not much they can do. The CPJ reports that over 130 journalists have been killed since the onset of the civil war, many of them citizen journalists.[lvi] Furthermore, although the adaptive measures undoubtedly aid citizen journalists in their reporting in the short term, evidence suggests their efficacy is not permanent. This is owing to the inevitability of states’ sophisticated online tools overcoming these methods of concealment. The SEA is responding to the use of VPNs by targeting individual internet users with ‘malware’ – a software designed to disrupt and gain unauthorised access to a computer system. It bypasses security systems, including VPNs, thereby allowing online monitoring to continue.[lvii] Unless individuals quickly respond, by downloading an alternative VPN or security system, then their safety is in jeopardy as are other methods of concealment, such as the application of coded language. Therefore, the whole situation reflects a cat-and-mouse game – unless citizen journalists can continue evading the state’s sophisticated online tools of repression, they will inevitably get caught-out and be forced to end their unmediated reporting of the country’s ongoing war.

Conclusion

As Syria’s traditional media ecology consists of strict governmental control of information and freedom of expression, the question of whether or not communication technologies enable people on the ground, namely citizen journalists, to produce and share unmediated conflict-related information remains as relevant as ever. The situation continues to be complex and evolving. Individuals living in Syria and elsewhere are certainly fulfilling a citizen journalism role, by using technologies to provide valuable coverage of the conflict’s ongoing atrocities. The state’s attempts to intercept and repress this flow of information, through a variety of online techniques, means that citizens must realistically employ sophisticated methods of concealment if they are to continue their reporting. While this does not guarantee permanent security, as evidenced by the numbers of journalists killed and imprisoned, and the ways in which the state attempts to overcome adaptive measures, it nonetheless means the outside world continues to benefit from this uncensored information distributed by determined individuals. There is no reason to believe this cat-and-mouse game will cease anytime soon.

[i] R. J. Deibert, ‘International Plug ‘n Play? Citizen Activism, the Internet, and Global Public Policy’, International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 3 (2000), pp. 255-272.
[ii] J. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society (Oxford, 1992 [1962]), p. 4.
[iii] S. S. D. Mitchell and M. Lim, ‘Too Crowded for Crowdsourced Journalism: Reddit, Portability, and Citizen Participation in the Syrian Crisis’, Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 43, No. 3 (2018), p. 402.
[iv] Mitchell and Lim, ‘Too Crowded for Crowdsourced Journalism: Reddit, Portability, and Citizen Participation in the Syrian Crisis’, p. 401.
[v] ‘A Wasted Decade: Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Asad’s First Ten Years in Power’, Human Rights Watch (16 July 2010). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/07/16/wasted-decade/human-rights-syria-during-bashar-al-asads-first-ten-years-power (accessed 18 February 2022).
[vi] ‘Syria’, Reporters Without Borders website. Available at: https://rsf.org/en/syria (accessed 17 February 2022).
[vii] C. Baraniuk, ‘Citizen journalism is playing a crucial role in Aleppo – but it comes at a cost’, Wired news website (2 November 2016). Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/syrian-citizen-journalists (accessed 18 February 2022).
[viii] James Foley and Steven Sotloff were the two journalists killed by the Islamic State.
[ix] M. Yousuf and M. Taylor, ‘Helping Syrians Tell Their Story to The World: Training Syrian citizen journalists through connective journalism’, Journalism Practice, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2017), p. 309.
[x] T. Lupick, ‘Media is hypocritical when it comes to war zone freelancers’, Journalism.co.uk (12 September 2013). Available at: https://www.journalism.co.uk/news-commentary/-media-is-hypocritical-when-it-comes-to-war-zone-freelancers-/s6/a554055/ (accessed 20 February 2022).
[xi] J. Gonzales, ‘Risk and Reporting: The Dangers of Freelance Journalism in Syria’, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression website (7 April 2014). Available at: https://www.cjfe.org/risk_and_reporting_the_dangers_of_freelance_journalism_in_syria (accessed 20 February 2022).
[xii] A. Klepke and K. Olsson, ‘On the frontline: citizen journalism in Syria’, Open Democracy website (20 March 2014). Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opensecurity/on-frontline-citizen-journalism-in-syria/ (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xiii] S. D’Ignoti, ‘In Syria, where jobs are scarce, journalism becomes a means of survival’, Columbia Journalism Review news website (27 March 2018). Available at: https://www.cjr.org/analysis/syria-journalism-jobs.php (accessed 17 February 2022).
[xiv] M. Tarboush, ‘Syrian Developer’, Twitter.com. Available at: https://twitter.com/SyrianDeveloper (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xv] S-W. Chou, ‘Citizen Journalists report Syria conflict to World’, Global Journalist website (16 February 2016). Available at: https://globaljournalist.org/2016/02/citizen-journalists-report-syria-conflict-to-world/ (accessed 18 February 2022).
[xvi] Ibid
[xvii] Yousuf and Taylor, ‘Helping Syrians Tell Their Story to The World: Training Syrian citizen journalists through connective journalism’, p. 308.
[xviii] Ibid, p. 309.
[xix] Ibid, p. 302.
[xx] The attack was carried out by rockets containing a chemical agent called ‘Sarin’. At least 280 civilians died, although some estimates take it to over 1,000.
[xxi] ‘Assad: U.S. does not have “a single shred of evidence” of chemical weapons attack’, CBS News website (9 Sept 2013). Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/assad-us-does-not-have-a-single-shred-of-evidence-of-chemical-weapons-attack/ (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xxii] ‘Attacks on Ghouta: Analysis of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria’, Human Rights Watch (10 September 2013). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/09/10/attacks-ghouta/analysis-alleged-use-chemical-weapons-syria (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xxiii] Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013’, The White House – President Barack Obama: Government Archives (30 August 2013). Available at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/30/government-assessment-syrian-government-s-use-chemical-weapons-august-21 (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xxiv] ‘Attacks on Ghouta: Analysis of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria’, Human Rights Watch (10 September 2013). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/09/10/attacks-ghouta/analysis-alleged-use-chemical-weapons-syria (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xxv] ‘Diaspora activists’ is a term introduced by Kari Anden-Papadopoulos and Mervi Pantti specifically in reference to the Syrian civil war.
[xxvi] K. Anden-Papadopoulos and M. Pantti, ‘The Media Work of Syrian Diaspora Activists: Brokering Between the Protest and Mainstream Media’, International Journal of Communication, Vol 7 (2013), p. 2186.
[xxvii] See Jennier Brinkerhoff and Mary Kaldor’s work for further details on this.
[xxviii] M. Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era: Organised Violence in a Global Era (Cambridge, 2012), p. 88.
[xxix] E. Platt, ‘Citizen Journalists Playing a Crucial Role in Syrian War’, Time news website (9 October 2014). Available at: https://time.com/3481790/syria-journalism-kobani/ (accessed 18 February 2022).
[xxx] N. MacFarquhar, ‘A Very Busy Man Behind the Syrian Civil War’s Casualty Count’, The New York Times website (9 April 2013). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/world/middleeast/the-man-behind-the-casualty-figures-in-syria.html (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xxxi] Platt, ‘Citizen Journalists Playing a Crucial Role in Syrian War’, Time news website (9 October 2014). Available at: https://time.com/3481790/syria-journalism-kobani/ (accessed 18 February 2022).
[xxxii] MacFarquhar, ‘A Very Busy Man Behind the Syrian Civil War’s Casualty Count’, The New York Times website (9 April 2013). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/world/middleeast/the-man-behind-the-casualty-figures-in-syria.html (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xxxiii] Klepke and Olsson, ‘On the frontline: citizen journalism in Syria’, Open Democracy website (20 March 2014). Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opensecurity/on-frontline-citizen-journalism-in-syria/ (accessed 19 February 2022).
[xxxiv] E. Stoycheff et al., ‘Online censorship and digital surveillance: the relationship between suppression technologies and democratization across countries’, Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 23, No. 4 (2018), p. 474.
[xxxv] E. Morozov, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (London, 2011), p. xiii.
[xxxvi] P. N. Howard et al., ‘When Do States Disconnect Their Digital Networks? Regime Responses to the Political Uses of Social Media’, The Communication Review, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2011), p. 217.
[xxxvii] E. Grohe, ‘The Cyber Dimensions of the Syrian Civil War: Implications for Future Conflict’, Comparative Strategy, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2015), p. 135.
[xxxviii] Ibid, p. 135.
[xxxix] L. Harding and C. Arthur, ‘Syrian Electronic Army: Assad’s cyber warriors’, The Guardian website (30 April 2013). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/apr/29/hacking-guardian-syria-background (accessed 18 February 2022).
[xl] N. Mustafa, ‘Life in the digital shadow of the Syrian war: Even when the Syrian conflict is on the other side of the planet, digital connections put refugees, activists and humanitarians at risk’, Open Canada website (18 October 2016). Available at: https://opencanada.org/life-digital-shadow-syrian-war/ (accessed 18 February 2022).
[xli] Ibid.
[xlii] Anden-Papadopoulos and Pantti, ‘The Media Work of Syrian Diaspora Activists: Brokering Between the Protest and Mainstream Media’, p. 2188.
[xliii] D. M. Moss, ‘The ties that bind: Internet communication technologies, networked authoritarianism, and ‘voice’ in the Syrian diaspora’, Globalizations, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2016), p. 272.
[xliv] E. Galperin, ‘Don’t get your sources in Syria killed’, Committee to Protect Journalists website (21 May 2012). Available at: https://cpj.org/2012/05/dont-get-your-sources-in-syria-killed/ (accessed 17 February 2022).
[xlv] ‘Syrian journalist Alaa Nayef al-Khader al-Khalidi died under state torture, official tells family’, Committee to Protect Journalists website (22 July 2019). Available at: https://cpj.org/2019/07/syrian-journalist-alaa-nayef-al-khader-al-khalidi/ (accessed 18 February 2022).
[xlvi] Ibid.
[xlvii] K. Bitar, ‘Global Information Society Watch 2014: Communications Surveillance in the digital age’, Global Information Society Watch (2014). Available at: https://giswatch.org/sites/default/files/circumventing_surveillance_of_internet_communications.pdf (accessed 19 February 2022), p. 236.
[xlviii] Ibid, p. 238.
[xlix] Ibid, p. 238.
[l] Chou, ‘Citizen Journalists report Syria conflict to World’, Global Journalist website (16 February 2016). Available at: https://globaljournalist.org/2016/02/citizen-journalists-report-syria-conflict-to-world/ (accessed 18 February 2022).
[li] J. Clark, ‘Cyber attacks and surveillance in Assad’s Syria: ‘They can do whatever they want, they own the infrastructure’’, Syria Direct website (26 July 2018). Available at: https://syriadirect.org/cyber-attacks-and-surveillance-in-assads-syria-they-can-do-whatever-they-want-they-own-the-infrastructure/ (accessed 18 February 2022).
[lii] J. Sasseen, ‘The Video Revolution’, Center for International Media Assistance (28 August 2012). Available at: https://www.cima.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Video-revolution-FINAL.pdf (accessed 19 November 2020), p. 13.
[liii] Yousuf and Taylor, ‘Helping Syrians Tell Their Story to The World: Training Syrian citizen journalists through connective journalism’, p. 315.
[liv] Bitar, ‘Global Information Society Watch 2014: Communications Surveillance in the digital age’, Global Information Society Watch (2014). Available at: https://giswatch.org/sites/default/files/circumventing_surveillance_of_internet_communications.pdf (accessed 18 November 19 February 2022), p. 237.
[lv] Mustafa, ‘Life in the digital shadow of the Syrian war: Even when the Syrian conflict is on the other side of the planet, digital connections put refugees, activists and humanitarians at risk’, Open Canada website (18 October 2016). Available at: https://opencanada.org/life-digital-shadow-syrian-war/ (accessed 18 February 2022).
[lvi] ‘Syria / Middle East & North Africa’, Committee to Protect Journalists website. Available at: https://cpj.org/mideast/syria/ (accessed 16 November 2020).[lvii] Clark, ‘Cyber attacks and surveillance in Assad’s Syria: ‘They can do whatever they want, they own the infrastructure’’, Syria Direct website (26 July 2018). Available at: https://syriadirect.org/news/cyber-attacks-and-surveillance-in-assad%E2%80%99s-syria-%E2%80%98they-can-do-whatever-they-want-they-own-the-infrastructure%E2%80%99/ (accessed 18 February 2022).