Syrian Citizen Journalists Risk All to Bring Stories from the Frontlines

Since the uprising in Syria began last year, Syrian citizen journalists have risked their lives to fill a media void and bring the news of the oppressive government crackdown to a global audience. This has been done often with little recognition for the activists who have laid their lives on the line to report on the government's assault on an unarmed civilian population.

In March 2011, the arrest of 15 students who had written anti-government slogans on walls enraged the population of Deraa and sparked the first mass protests against the Assad regime. President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited Syria's harsh dictatorship from his father, launched a series of crackdowns on protestors across the country, sending tanks into cities and opening fire on demonstrators. The violence has only escalated. This week, the country saw the deadliest attack since the protests began -- at least 90 people were killed in the town of Houla. Video of rows of dead children lying in a mosque in their bloody shorts and T-shirts shocked the world. A local activist reached by Skype told the Associated Press that pro-regime fighters known as shabiha stormed the village, raiding homes and shooting civilians. The United Nations estimates that the conflict has left more than 9,000 dead and thousands more displaced.

With Western journalists banned from entering the country, Syrian citizen journalists are working hard to fill the void under extreme circumstances. Many are being targeted for arrest and assassination by government forces.

The Use of Social Media and New Technology

With few international reporters able to access towns under attack -- such as Homs, Baba Amru and Allepo -- documentation of the oppressive crackdown has been left to citizen journalists, described by one source as a "well-informed and well-equipped group of activists who use mobile phones to live-stream, video record, Skype, and take photos in very strategic ways to provide witness and testimony to the events in Syria."

Media-savvy citizen journalists, dubbed "vee-jays," deploy a number of strategies for getting the word out. According to Idea Lab, "The media-savvy activists use a number of astute dissemination strategies: Photos and videos are shared across multiple platforms alongside additional text context or transcripts, and often have metadata such as time, date, and location stamps." They upload content hourly and often live on various social media sites such as blogs, live streaming, and video services like Bambuser. Even old-fashioned "sneaker net" is used to get valuable footage out of the country when internet or mobile network is jammed, reported PBS.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) is an umbrella organization that works to coordinate and synchronize activities of its members in Syria. The LCC's media team consists of activists on the ground in Syria that capture and upload content and send it off to a network of people around the world who assist in translation. Sites like Idea Lab, which is produced by MediaShift and hosted by the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), have also played a critical role.

Citizen Journalists Operate with Little Recognition

Citizen journalists and human rights activists, who endanger their lives getting news out about human rights atrocities, go without credit, reported Jack Hougy of the English version of the Israeli business daily news outlet Globes. "It was hard to miss the huge headlines reporting the death of US journalist Marie Colvin ... [and] French photojournalist Rami Ochlik, [who] were in a makeshift press center in the Baba Amru neighborhood in Homs, when artillery shells fired by the Syrian Army hit their building," said Hougy.

However, in contrast, according to Globes, "Just a few hours before Ochlik and Colvin's death, Rami Sayyid, who was the unofficial documenter of the horrors in Homs, was killed in similar circumstances." While tributes to the first pair of journalists have poured into international media outlets, Sayyid's death passed with little mention.

Sayyid's coverage of the fierce military assault in the city of Homs was broadcast around the world. He chronicled the uprising in Baba Amr and hosted streams of live video from his camera, as noted in the New York Times.

The channel Syriapioneer was one of the first to broadcast Sayyid's stories of horror, which he and his comrades filmed during the heavy shelling of Homs. Later, many channels, including Al Jazeera, Sky News, and BBC World, showed the same footage.

Citizen Journalists Targeted for Assassination

Abdul Ghani Kaaheh is another citizen journalist killed this year, says Reporters Without Borders. Kaahe, just 19, was shot in the neck while he was documenting the Aleppo demonstration. He was targeted intentionally by the Syrian forces after being warned to avoid filming the protest, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Spokesman for the opposition LCC, Rafif Jouejati, told CNN that citizen journalists, who try to document the brutalities of Assad's forces, are put to death by snipers.

Since the beginning of 2011, the protesters behind the Syrian uprising have taken a very daring position in exposing the atrocities of Syrian government. Omar Telawi, Danny Abdul Dayem, and Abu al-Zayn, citizen journalists who have escaped many attempts of assassination, have become hate figures for the Assad's regime, according to reporting from Channel 4 in London. Homs, which is known as not only the capital of the Syrian uprising, but also the capital of Syrian citizen journalism, has been sealed off for months by Assad's forces. During this time, illegal detention of activists has increased.

Ali Mahmoud Othman, who was involved in the evacuation of the wounded French journalists Edith Bouvier and William Daniels and Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, was arrested on March 28. "We believe Ali is being subjected to severe torture. The lives of our activists and citizen journalists across the whole country are now at risk," an activist told CNN.

"Citizen Journalists whose only crimes are to have witnessed, filmed and photographed acts of violence by a regime that persists in its deadly folly are being hunted down, arrested, tortured and murdered ... We hold the Syrian authorities responsible for whatever may happen to them. The regime is more determined than ever to suppress all information about its crackdown. Syria has become a hell for both professional and citizen journalists," writes Reporters Without Borders.

For more information on Syrian citizen journalists documenting the uprising, see Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.



Update: On May 29, close to a dozen countries announced they would withdraw their diplomats from Syria in response to the massacre in the town of Houla where more than 100 people were killed.

The Center for Media and Democracy pays tribute to 28-year-old filmmaker Bassel Al Shadade who died on May 28 in the embattled city of Homs, while documenting the ongoing violence. Shadade was a Fulbright Scholar pursuing a masters of fine arts in film at Syracuse University.