Media activists are main news conduits in Syrian war
Northern Syria - The Syrian war has been widely covered by a host of online media outlets, YouTube channels, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages dedicated to monitoring the conflict around the clock.
However, behind the wide flow of information and visuals from Syria very few of those reporting are professional media operators. The coverage is mostly handled by young supporters of the revolution who have become media activists committed to communicating developments on the ground to the outside world.
The high risks of moving around in rebel-controlled territory and restrictions imposed on media in regime areas has left Arab and international media with little option but to rely on activists as sources of information since anti-regime demonstrations, which started in March 2011, degenerated into a devastating and complex civil war.
While some have a little media background, many seemingly fell into the work, said Mowaffak Khodr, a Syrian journalist working with opposition media in Turkey.
“The restrictions imposed [by the regime] prevented coverage by professional journalists. Activists at the demonstrations had to rely on themselves by filming the protests and arrests of demonstrators and sending their video shoots to satellite television.”
The lack of professionalism was obvious in the biased information transmitted by the activists. “But with time they learned from their mistakes, while some were coached and trained by satellite channels with which they collaborated, improving the quality of their reporting,” Khodr added.
Mostafa Jomaa, a singer in rural Hama, was hired by Al Aan TV channel as their stringer in the area. Alaa al-Youssef worked in the mosaics industry but reported for Al Jazeera. Hadi Abdallah, a former assistant teacher at a nursing school, turned into a full-fledged reporter embedded with opposition groups on the battle front.
Another professional journalist who operated in Raqqa province until he fled to Belgium when the Islamic State (ISIS) took over the northern city in 2014 underscored the manipulation of information by “media activists”.
“Media outlets opposed to the Syrian regime have sought the services of activists reporting from the field but in reality these were asked to broadcast information serving the policies of the channels they worked for,” said the journalist who asked to be identified as Mohamad Hamid in a Skype interview with The Arab Weekly.
The inaccuracy of reporting events on the ground was acknowledged by a media activist who worked for a news channel supporting the Syrian revolution. “Fifty percent of the war is a media war,” he said. “When the number of demonstrators was in the hundreds we would say thousands and if one civilian is killed, we say it is two,” he added on condition of anonymity.
Nonetheless, the work of media activists has been vital in helping the world understand events in Syria.
The job can mean media activists risking their lives. Both regime forces and rebel groups have been intentionally targeting journalists and media activists, killing 463, including several foreign journalists, since April 2011, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The regime is responsible for killing 399 and ISIS is believed to have detained more than 62, among them 13 foreign journalists, the UK-based organisation said.
On dealing with ISIS, a media activist who identified himself as Abu Quds said: “The work of reporters is closely monitored by the militant group, which allows licensed media to operate on condition that no ISIS leader is offended, no ISIS bases, members or vehicles and no women who were not wearing hijab are filmed.”
Baran Masko, a Kurdish media activist who covered the battle of Kobane between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and ISIS, said he was thrust into the world of reporting, which he had never contemplated. “It was imposed on me. I had to inform about the situation in Kobane, which I did not leave during the whole battle,” said Masko, a graduate in agricultural engineering.
As the conflict shows no signs of ending, many media activists are finding their work increasingly difficult. “All parties deal with us on the basis that ‘if you are not with me, you are against me’ in a seemingly endless conflict,” noted Abu Ammar, who reports from the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk.