Rami al-Jarrah, a Syrian activist, prominent blogger and media trainer shares his thoughts on media freedom and describes why going back to his home country would be ‘like committing suicide’ at the moment. Late last year, he encountered life-threatening situations after the regime discovered his identity, uncovering his pseudonym ‘Alexander Page’.
How would you describe the current state of the media in Syria, in terms of press freedom?
The Syrian regime depends much of its strategy on the media and a big part of that is not allowing foreign or Arab journalists into the country. Of course over the past months some media outlets have applied for visas and been granted them, but only to be accompanied by governmental minders. This makes their job almost impossible as activists who meet with them are in grave danger of being caught. In fact, this was one way the regime would compromise effective activists. Even state media crew are not given full access to the country, a clear sign the government has no respect for press freedom whatsoever.
You’ve recently been in the spotlight for your work in activism, but it’s actually been a much longer journey for you. When did it begin?
Given that my family were always active in voicing their concerns of the Assad regime and their past atrocities, I had a clear idea of what the regime was capable of. I first arrived to Syria for a visit in 2004. At the airport I was accused of forging my passport and interrogated for days on end. During the next three years, I was called in for endless questioning about my parent’s background and what they were up to. I was not allowed to leave the country which led me to settle down, unwillingly.
By the time I was granted a passport and allowed to leave the country, I was working as an import/export consultant for a large firm in central Damascus.
In January 2011 I became active online, in an attempt to promote a possible uprising in Damascus, obviously inspired by events that took place in Tunisia. We attempted a number of demonstrations in February but things finally picked up in Mid March. I took part in the first mass demonstration in Central Damascus at the Ommayad mosque in the old city and managed to film it and the secret police who went on to beat the protesters and detain them for their taking part.
On the 25th of March I was detained and held for three days in a political security branch in Damascus. After my release I went on to a deeper level of activism such as organising, filming, documenting and interviews with western media.
During the past few years you must have built a list of contacts in the media across the spectrum, then. Do you think anyone working with the opposition has a good media strategy for the future?
I’m quite sure that much of the fallback that we are seeing in the solidness of the Syrian opposition is due to the absence of an effective media strategy. I actually took part in forming one and presenting it to one of the parties but this was not taken advantage of. We are now undergoing a media project that seeks to strengthen citizen journalism and how it is bridged to Arab and western media, I can’t speak on exact details at this moment but I can say that this will surely be the largest contribution to media in Syria yet.
That sounds interesting and should help increase access to information for Syrians in the future. For now, it seems to be a propaganda war between the activists and pro-government channels. If one was to switch on the television or pick up a paper, what’s the main message out there and how is it related to the audience?
Access to state media is a piece of cake. Syria does not block international satellite channels but rather chooses to use propaganda and tactics like that used in the “Zainab al Hosni” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/world/middleeast/woman-believed-killed-by-syrian-forces-turns-up-on-tv.html story to discredit media. This was when a young lady’s body was mutilated and beheaded. Activists reported on it and then attention was raised to the fact that this was not even Zainab who was killed. Again the Syrian regime have depended much of their strategy on the media and the main message that filters is “conspiracy, armed terrorist groups and killing the Arab resistance to Israel. This is obviously playing with the audience’s senses on exactly what is going on in the country.
When do you predict media freedom will be enjoyed in Syria? In Libya, for example, there is definitely more of it after the fall of Gadaffi. Are there lots of upcoming bloggers, reporters and photographers in Syria now?
We don’t expect to see free media in Syria before the regime has been toppled. The number of bloggers, citizen journalists and videographers is outstanding. Comparing Syria to other countries gives it far superior statistics; I think this is mainly due to the fact that activists have had to depend on themselves to raise international awareness on exactly what is going on in Syria due to the governments set limitations on free media.
Before the uprising, was there more or less media freedom than what we are witnessing now?
Before the uprising, living in Syria really gave people the impression they were isolated from the outside world. We would only see what was happening there but not really allowed to show “there” what was happening here. Once the uprising did begin, although the Syrian regime blamed it on foreign powers and terrorist elements, they still worked very hard on trying to convince the general public that there was a reform programme in the works.
One example would be a new morning show that brought people on to talk about what was happening in the country. Of course those presented on the show were no more than citizens who had complaints on their living standards, rather than those talking about what was really on showcase. Basically, the regime used these surface changes to steer citizens back they way they wanted. Effectiveness is another issue.
After the regime discovered you were using a pseudonym, ‘Alexander Page’, you fled almost immediately. Do you plan to go back to Syria?
I definitely plan on going back to Syria, although as long as the current regime is still in power I would be committing suicide by attempting to do so. I think the earliest phase that I would be able to step in would be once at least one city had been totally liberated like what we saw in Benghazi in Libya for example.
For outsiders, it’s difficult to know exactly what is going on in Syria because of the restrictions on foreign media inside the country. What is the western media getting wrong when covering Syria?
One major problem with western journalists in Syria is basically understanding exactly what is going on, given that they are depending their newsfeed on a number of different sources without actually seeing any of this for themselves. This sort of leads to lifeless reports that don’t bridge the exact state of the situation. Unless the source is well able to explain the atmosphere of the uprising I think the real picture is never really portrayed. Following the political side of things for media outlets, it does sort of effect the stories they are looking to cover. For example the ongoing empathy of a possible civil war in Syria has led many journalists to search for signs of related events which in Syria’s case area not extreme but made to look that way once reported. This is definitely another way the media is losing grip of the real picture. Again, the main problem seems to remain that journalists have not been allowed to freely seek, research and report the uprising themselves.
Recent news suggests foreign media will be allowed back in to Syria. Do you think this will be practiced by the regime?
If the regime comes to any agreement of letting journalists in, it will be to steer them by monitoring and limiting their every move, thus having some sort of control on the stories going out. It’s likely to choose journalists that they know, and then allowing them in to compromise those essential activists…the Assad regime will at no point grant full access to the country. Proof of the current phony attempt to convince the general public that they are allowing media in is that many journalists are choosing not to apply for visas, but instead are smuggled in and therefore more able to really cover what’s going on.
Published on the Doha Centre for Media Freedom website on 16th January, 2012.