Saturday, April 9, 2011
Syrian cyber dissidents describe how they get around the regime's attempts to silence them.
Hugh Macleod and a reporter in Syria
"....Drawing inspiration Syria's online activists are a varied bunch, including all the nation's major communities from Sunnis and Christians to Druze and Alawites. Those directly involved in the activist network are generally young, in their 20s and 30s, tech-savvy, highly motivated and adept in English. Some are journalists with training in international standards of reporting. Some are professionals: Lawyers, doctors, engineers. Some are either banned or fear arrest in Syria and so continue their work in Beirut, Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere. Many are in Syrian prisons, but others have yet to be caught so use their time on the street to gather the images and reports which the regime does its best to make sure no-one ever sees. Some, like Rami - hoping one day to complete the third year of a political science course at Damascus University - once supported their government, before the police state impacted their life directly.....
Yet for all their motivation, Syrian activists agree on one thing: The protest movement in Syria would be nowhere without the revolutions in Tunis and Cairo. "I didn't know the meaning of freedom of speech until I saw the cyber activists in Egypt and Tunisia," says a 26-year-old Syrian activist based in Damascus who uploads to YouTube footage shot on mobile phones or hidden cameras during each protest. While their government learned lessons on censoring and spying on the internet from Tunisian authorities, say activists, their counterparts in Tunis and Cairo taught the youth how to get around the cyber police. "We use a proxy server and change it almost every day," explains the activist. "Today most young Syrians have mobile phones with high quality cameras so each one has become like a journalist. I upload videos and statements from internet cafes. I leave after 10 minutes and don't come back to the same one for a long time." In some cases, she explains, films are sent to neighbouring countries on memory sticks where it is easier to publish them online.
Policing the web
Reporters Without Borders lists Syria as one of 10 countries that are active Internet Enemies. At least 150 websites remain blocked - the majority are sites run by political movements perceived to be opposed to the regime in Damascus. And Syrian bloggers live in constant fear of arrest. Karim Arbaji was imprisoned for three years for moderating a popular online youth forum, akhawia.net, that contained criticisms of the government. According to friends, Arbaji's father bankrupted himself bribing Syrian officials to release his son. But Arbaji served his full sentence and a month after his release his father died. Last month the 33-year-old blogger had a heart attack and died in Beirut. The youngest female blogger imprisoned anywhere in the world, 19-year-old student Tal al-Mallouhi, remains behind bars in Syria. Yet for all the ongoing repression, activists say Syria's notoriously effective Soviet-era secret police are coming unstuck in their effort to censor cyber space......
Living with the fear
Razan Zeitouna is a lawyer and human rights researcher who for years has documented and published reports on human rights abuses in Syria. Since the uprising began three weeks ago Zeitouna has played a key role in connecting the network of reporters and activists inside the country with the media outside Syria. "Many of my friends were arrested in the last few days including protesters, lawyers, doctors, students and especially the activists behind the computers," she explains. Zeitouna has grown accustomed to the ever-present threat of arrest. "I am used to having someone on my doorstep watching me, that's nothing new. It's when they follow me openly and they don't even hide – that's how they paralyse me. Then I cannot meet anyone or do anything." Zeitouna says she has been interrogated and threatened by security officers several times. "Each time they tell me, 'This is the last time you get out. Next time you'll never see the sun again.'"....."