A Syrian activist is filmed asking a woman, who seems to be dying, who attacked her.
A year and nine months after the start of the Syrian uprising, reliable information from inside the country is harder than ever to come by. Propaganda techniques used by the government have been adopted by the opposition, making it increasingly difficult for journalists to report on the situation, whether from on the ground or working online.
The Syrian regime's manipulation
According to the Syrian government, there is no popular uprising in its country. In March 2011, when the first protests took place in Deraa in southern Syria, the government was already calling them the work of “troublemakers”.
The communications battle began right away. Protesters posted their amateur videos of demonstrations on social media networks, while state-controlled media outlets claimed these videos were filmed in Iraq or in Lebanon. This technique was in fact used by Syrian government officials themselves when they promoted their “fight against terrorism”. During a press conference held in November 2011, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, showed videos filmed in Lebanon as proof of “crimes committed by terrorist groups [in Syria]”.
It appears that President Bashar al-Assad’s supporters have taken things even further recently by circulating a video purporting to show an American journalist being kidnapped by a jihadist group with links to al Qaeda. However, numerous details in this video seem to indicate that it was staged.
Activists become less and less independent
While some members of the opposition also staged videos at the start of the uprising – for example, to lead people to believe that there were mass desertions in the Syrian army’s ranks – these incidents were quite rare in comparison to the number of videos coming out of the country. At that time most activists were independent, going out on their own to film protests and the violent repression by the authorities. Some of them even went so far as to help foreign journalists verify these videos by filming details that helped prove the date and location of the events.
Lockdown on social media networks
As the fighting worsened, however, the opposition’s communication strategy changed. This past summer, “military communications bureaus” were created to handle the opposition’s public relations. These bureaus oversee activists who are embedded with the Free Syrian Army and film the rebel fighters’ operations. Foreign journalists are no longer allowed to come into direct contact with these cameramen; they are only allowed to speak with the bureaus’ spokespeople.
Revolutionary committees, which are groups of lay activists present in many cities, now also have spokespeople. These days, most people in Syria who are still active on the Internet are part of these groups, writing up daily reports on what’s happening in their cities. They each have a Facebook page, a YouTube page, and a chatroom on Skype, where journalists are invited to ask their questions. The answers they receive are meticulously prepared and given in paragraph form; real conversations are hard to come by.
Houla hospital on December 11 after the death of several Alawite civilians, which rebels attributed to militas working for the government.
Video content has changed as well. At first, activists did not hesitate to feature in their own videos. They would speak directly to the camera and give their version of events. Some of them even questioned victims, some of whom appeared to be on the verge of death.
This video was filmed after several Alawite civilians, including women and children, were killed in Akrab, near Houla in western Syria. The activist explains that the victims were used as human shields by pro-government militias before being freed by rebels from the Free Syrian Army. He then talks to a survivor, whose voice is barely audible. At 25 seconds into the video he asks her last name, then asks: "Who killed you?" She answers: "Our own clan."
“When 10 people die, the opposition says 100 and the state media doesn’t talk about them at all”
This change in communications techniques has made the job of international organisations working on the Syrian conflict more difficult. One of these organisations is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in the United Kingdom, which provides foreign media with daily death tolls from the conflict. FRANCE 24 spoke with Rami Abderrahmane, the Observatory’s president:
When 10 people die, the opposition says 100, and the state media doesn’t talk about them at all. Revolutionary committees don’t realise that by exaggerating their figures they are giving themselves a reputation for being just as unreliable as the regime.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights existed well before the start of the conflict. We have over 200 activists in Syria, who have been working with us since 2006. These are reliable people who have been tested. When incidents happen in places where we don’t have any of our activists, we cross-check all the information that we gather before we publish our reports. As for the number of victims, we ask for names and, whenever possible, video proof. If we’re not able to verify information, we don’t publish it.
While it is impossible to know the exact number of victims, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that in all, more than 43,000 people from both sides have died since the start of the conflict.
“On the ground, we’re completely dependant on rebels”
In light of these difficulties, it might seem like reporting from the ground in Syria would be the only way to obtain accurate, objective information. However, since the start of the conflict, the Syrian government has refused to let most foreign journalists into the country. This means that journalists have to rely on the Free Syrian Army to smuggle them in.
Because of the highly dangerous situation on the ground, we are completely dependant on the rebels to drive us around, to protect us and to help us meet people. It’s impossible to go anywhere without the authorisation and support of the Free Syrian Army. When we interviewed civilians, there was always a rebel fighter by our side. Their presence made some people trust us more, but we can’t work independently, which I made a point of explaining in the reports I filmed there. I would have liked to film people who were pro-Assad, too, but this was impossible. The government refused to grant us visas.
In this context, journalists must try to go around these highly organised communication networks to find independent sources in Syria.