Syria: Opposition reporters and clandestine networks

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A rebel fighter holding a camera walks in a street of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 10, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Wesam)

By: Laith al-Khatib

Published Thursday, March 20, 2014

Despite being banned from working inside Syria, the armed opposition's media remains active in Damascus and its countryside through a network of reporters, most of whom received training on clandestine reporting in centers located in neighboring countries.

In Damascus and its countryside, moving from one street to another means passing through one or more checkpoints set up by the military or security forces. In most cases, anyone who attempts to get some information by speaking to civilians and soldiers, or taking pictures in public places would risk getting classified by the media or intelligence services as a hostile agent. However, opposition reporters, whether from local or foreign media, continue to report the news and eyewitness information from the capital and its suburbs.

The reporters are spread around the neighborhoods of Damascus and the various fronts around the city. They belong to the opposition's media channels, websites, and social media pages that have proliferated in the past three years, such as Orient News, Syrian Revolution Facebook pages, Safa, Souria al-Shaab, Souria al-Ghad, and others. This is in addition to Arab and foreign media channels that lean towards the opposition, and were banned from working in Syria from the onset of the crisis, such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, France 24, and so on.

For the most part, reporters for those outlets work in secret, except for a minority of them who work openly in opposition-held areas. Their offices and news desks are spread around the cities and capitals of neighboring countries and the region, in Istanbul, Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Doha, Dubai, and others. This has been the case ever since the government prohibited them from working in Syria.

According to sources in the Syrian Ministry of Information, "they waged a media war against the Syrian government and the symbol of its sovereignty, represented by the army. No sane person would accept the media of its enemy to function on its own territory or believe the hypocrisy that they are fair and objective."

Due to the difficulty of sending foreign reporters to Syria, opposition media organizations would train a Syrian cadre in field journalism and modern communications. According to opposition sources, hundreds of young Syrians from the opposition participated in crash courses, mainly in Istanbul and Beirut. But the training was not limited to journalism.

"In addition to training on reporting, editing, and photography," which are skills taught to all the trainees, "some of them were linked to opposition media organizations and military networks inside Syria," Hassan al-Maydani (pseudonym), who was trained in Istanbul, told Al-Akhbar. This was "to facilitate communications and mobility and to solve the main problem of moving in and out of the liberated areas,” he explained.

Hassan described some of the techniques that were taught. For example, photographing some events merely to document them or authenticate a specific media story would require small cameras, such as the ones on mobile phones, or those in the shape of a pen in the reporter's pocket. "These methods had been used before to take pictures of demonstrations and military and security deployments in the streets and regions controlled by the government," Hassan explained.

Hassan indicated that "special tasks," which entail communicating with the fighters, are not given to all the trainees or mentioned directly in the technical lectures. "In some cases, it included some political motivation," Hassan added. "One of the teachers was Lebanese who had a lot of hatred towards the Syrian regime. He would spend three quarters of the time talking politics and give his lecture quickly in the remaining time."

Lately, Syrian state television broadcast the confessions of Shayar Khalil, who was reporting for Orient News from Damascus and its countryside. He was arrested at a coffee shop in Sarouja Market in central Damascus. He had with him all the equipment and data he acquired during his assignment. His appearance on state television, as a reporter for a "prejudiced" station, as he was described in the official media, garnered wide following from various segments of viewers.

The reason behind the interest was the element of credibility in what Khalil said. His confessions had been documented with video and audio. After training in Istanbul, he managed to enter eastern Ghouta to report on the events there and meet insurgent commanders. In one video broadcast on Syrian television, Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters seemed to be fabricating a clash, claiming it was against the regular Syrian army. This was in addition to personal videos showing Khalil and his friends working on preparing reports.

In the same appearance, Khalil mentioned that many young people are persuaded to do this dangerous work, mainly due to salaries considered high in Syria, around US$1,500, with the possibility of a raise. To smuggle equipment into opposition held areas, opposition media pays $1,000 on average for people who can move between the safe areas and the warzone. Cameras, for example, are hidden under the driver's seat, in a box that looks like it is coming out of the trunk.

At the onset of the events, opposition media started in a haphazard manner, according to observers, and depended on the phenomenon of "eyewitnesses." But it was possible for any person to contact a station and claim to be an "eyewitness" by giving their real name or a pseudonym.

One family related to Al-Akhbar the story of its 15 year-old-son. The parents were surprised to hear their son's name on Al-Jazeera describing one of the demonstrations. They started looking for him and found him in his room speaking to the station from his mobile phone. He had seen the channel's number on the screen, and given them his real name without considering the consequences of his actions.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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