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Risky Business: Getting information out of Syria

GUEST BLOG: By a journalist who has just been inside Syria.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Amnesty International.

Faced with a growing anti-government protest movement, the Syrian authorities have stifled freedom of speech in Syria as a last-ditch attempt to curtail dissenting voices and tales of human rights violations from getting out of the country.

Using a growing army of plain-clothed intelligence officers, the Mukhabarat, and internet and phone hackers, the Syrian government has sought to monitor all who disseminate information that might be deemed anti-government.
“When I leave my house to go out, I never know if I’ll make it to where I’m going,” Noor, a Syrian journalist and human rights activist,told me at her cramped Damascene apartment in early June.

“You won’t know if the Mukhabarat knows you’re an activist until you’re in prison.”

Noor (not her real name) was my gateway into the underground world of Syrian protest organizers, a group so badly persecuted, that few will ever meet face-to-face or even know each other’s names as most communicate using pseudonyms over the internet.

According to Amnesty International, since the violent crackdown, which started in March, over 1,200 people have died, the majority as an apparent result of shooting by the security forces and the army, and thousands have been detained.

Unlike the uprising in Egypt, where hundreds of journalists and photographers flocked to Tahrir Square in central Cairo to report on the revolution in real time from hotel balconies and amongst the demonstrators, many foreign journalists have been barred from entering Syria.

International media coverage of the Syrian revolt has been based on a mixture of anecdotal reports from Syrian refugees who have fled the country, exiled human rights activists, and distressing amateur footage of Syrian security firing on demonstrations, filmed by protesters and posted on YouTube.

It is down to internet-savvy activists, like Noor, to get the story out. But it is risky business.

“I never use my mobile or a landline, both are tapped,” said Noor coolly. “I’ll use Skype to talk to other activists and journalists outside Syria. But I never use my own name,” she added, lightly tapping a weighty black laptop with her finger.

For the internet, Noor uses a web proxy, a programme that relays information she sends and receives over the internet via an anonymous server. This is the only way to upload YouTube videos, as the government has placed a block on the site.

Social media websites like Facebook and Twitter played a pivotal role in the recent revolution in Egypt to help organize and direct the protest movement via the Internet. But in Syria the opposite is true as everyone knows that governments monitor Facebook and Twitter closely.

The Syrian government has always had a reputation for spying on its own citizens and forcibly disappearing people. But the recent tumult has meant the mood is Damascus is tense and security forces are out in force.

Plain-clothed, the Syrian secret police work overtly — a constant reminder to Syrians that government spies are everywhere, listening in for any dissent. The Mukhabarat, wearing leather jackets and chain-smoking cigarettes, sit in alcoves in the Damascus souk and glare at passersby. Residents told me the number of secret police has doubled since the protests began.

Playing the same game of cat and mouse as the Syrian activists, I was constantly trying to get information out of the country without being caught by Syrian state security.

During my time there, another foreign journalist working under the radar disappeared in the capital, only to resurface three weeks later having suffered brutal beatings. Syrian journalists, Noor told me, don’t resurface.

When I bought a Syrian SIM card, my passport was digitally scanned four times and I had to submit a thumbprint, rendering my mobile hacked and useless for work calls.

I followed Noor’s example and asked other journalists in Damascus for their modus operandi. I filed stories from a separate email account, using a web proxy, and imposed strict rules (no names, no journalismspeak, no location names) on my editors when they contacted me.

In the early hours of the morning, and under a blanket to prevent neighbours from hearing my voice, I would speak to television and radio stations over Skype, which activists told me was unhackable.

I quickly found out that the inside story needed to be told. In the muggy back room of Noor’s apartment — windows and doors locked -  I met activists who had spent time in prison, soldiers who had witnessed terrible events and a doctor who said he had treated defecting soldiers who were shot in the back by there superiors for refusing to fire on protests.

This week, Amnesty International said Syrian security forces may have committed crimes against humanity during a deadly siege of the town of Tell Kalakh in May, citing witness accounts of deaths in custody, torture and arbitrary detention.

While Amnesty International continues to call for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, Syrian security forces have targeted people who document or write about human rights violations , putting journalists like Noor in an increasing precarious situation.

When I returned to the UK, Noor emailed me to say she had been fired from her job—a clear sign that her cover might have been blown.

Only in her early twenties, Noor is fearless but never reckless. She knows she has an important job to do, but with so many of her counterparts in prison, I worry she will be next.

"In the beginning I tried not to do anything," she told me on a balmy evening in Damascus, whilst smoking on a grape-flavoured water pipe.

"But now I know I have to speak out against what is happening here. It's too terrible to keep silent."