Virtual (Counter-)Revolution

Online activists in Syria have been involved in the anti-Assad rebellion from the outset. And although the regime is now playing them at their own game, their online presence shows one thing above all else: That in this nation at war, civil resistance continues to exist. By Jannis Hagmann

By Jannis Hagmann

Monis Bukhari's website is a tree. There are no leaves growing on its branches, but symbols: the Facebook "F", the "T" of the Twitter logo, but also links to Fotolog, Flickr and his own blog. The tree is a virtual interface to 'netizen' Bukhari, one of numerous online activists operating as part of the Syrian revolution.

The 35-year-old is in actual fact a photographer and filmmaker. Anyone following the links at the end of the branches is directed to galleries of artistic shots of Damascus mosques or downtown Beirut.

But here too, are shots of mass demonstrations, a short film about a rebel brutally beaten up, and video clips showing explosions and faces covered with blood.

When Syrians began their uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime in 2011, Bukhari transformed himself from artist to Internet activist. He and a group of like-minded individuals formed the "Syrian Charter Organization" (SCO). One of the SCO's projects is "Baladna" ("Our Nation"), a radio channel run by activists. The programmes are of course broadcast online.

"Baladna", says Bukhari, is not an opposition initiative, but a "dialogue project". "Syrians experience the rockets and the war each and every day, so that's why we decided not to mention any of that," he continues. The programmes discuss issues such as Syria's future, democracy and freedom.

"For example, we broadcast Skype conferences with participants who hold opposing views," he says. "Sometimes we bring supporters of Assad and rebels together in the same place."

A thorn in the eye of the Assad regime: Monis Bukhari is one Syrian Internet activist who had to leave the country. A spy loyal to the regime had informed security forces that Bukhari had passed information and images from Syria to international media

​​Bukhari says that as far as religious questions are concerned, even the "Radio Baladna" team represents a broad range of standpoints. In a conflict that has long been a militarized and confessional one, the activists are putting up civil, pan-confessional resistance.

A tweet every minute

Alongside the Internet radio station, the SCO is also responsible for the project "New Syria News", a Twitter news agency fed by numerous reporters working within Syria. The activists have posted more than 100,000 tweets in one-and-a-half years, more than 70 a day.

"We have a team of women in Syria," explains Bukhari. "One of them collates information from the reporters via Skype and Facebook. She passes the reports on to an editor, who then passes them to the publishers. The publishers are four women working in shift. They all work at home, of course."

Bukhari also works from home, from his temporary home in Jordan to be exact. He is one of the members of SCO who had to leave the country. A spy loyal to the regime had informed the security forces that Bukhari had passed information and images from Syria to international media. Since 2011, the father-of-one has been living and working in Amman. As chairman of the SCO, he coordinates the organisation's activities from there.

Online support

Luckily friends warned him and he was able to escape from Damascus. Bassel Khartabil was not able to leave the country in time. According to reports by the human rights organization Amnesty International, security agents arrested the activist and software developer in March 2012, handing him over later to a military court. Information on his whereabouts has come to light – via other detainees, for example – but his family has been denied any contact.

Bassel, who is in his early 30s, says if it wasn't for his online supporters, he would have slipped into anonymity. On the first anniversary of his arrest on 15 March, online activists around the world declared "Free Bassel Day". They had already launched an online campaign under the same motto. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are also aware of the Khartabil case and are calling for his release.

The "Gulf Center for Human Rights" writes: "The arrest of Bassel Khartabil and his continuing detention are directly connected with his campaign for freedom of speech and information." Khartabil had been specializing in the development of free software. He is alleged to have been involved in developing programmes such as Mozilla Firefox; the Free Bassel campaign website also claims he worked on the online lexicon Wikipedia.

"Internet activists in Syria," explains Hisham Almiraat, Advocacy Director of the international blogger network "Global Voices", "have played an important role primarily at the start of the rebellion, when it was all about getting information out of the country. Not only were they reporters, they were also outstanding technical experts. They knew how to get around the censors, how to suppress IP-addresses and recognise whether their own computers were being monitored."

The long arm of the Assad regime

But the regime has in the meantime learned its lesson, says Almiraat. Bukhari the radio activist also has experience of this. "Our website," he says "was frequently attacked. They also hacked our Facebook pages." Bukhari is convinced that these cyber attacks were carried out by online activists working for what is known as the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of hackers loyal to Assad. After all, for a long while now Internet activism in Syria has not been solely associated with the opposition.

Just last April, Twitter accounts run by the British newspaper The Guardian became the target of a hacker attack from Syria. The SEA claimed responsibility, accusing the paper of spreading "lies and slurs about Syria". The group has also reportedly carried out attacks on accounts run by the BBC, France 24 and other international news channels. It is also alleged to have paralysed an Al-Jazeera website last year.

Syria's cyber hackers in action: The "Syrian Electronic Army" has attacked numerous media outlets in recent months, including the news agencies AFP and AP and the British BBC. The attack on AP in late April was particularly spectacular, when hackers published erroneous information on the AP Twitter account: "Two explosions at the White House, Obama injured"

​​It is not clear just how close the connections are between these hackers and the Assad regime. In a speech made in the summer of 2011, Bashar al-Assad personally referred to the SEA when he said: "There is the electronic army, which is a real army in a virtual reality."

Bukhari is certain that the SEA is an organisation financed and run by the regime. "Members receive a monthly salary from the government," he says, attributing this information to two defectors from the SEA now working for Bukhari's SCO. Other sources report that members are only paid for successful hacking attacks.

For Hisham Almiraat from "Global Voices Advocacy", the SEA symbolises a paradigm shift. "At the start of the current century," he says, "authoritarian regimes thought the Internet was risible, a playground for teenagers. Today, we've got online armies." He is also convinced that the SEA is not a loose grouping of computer nerds loyal to the regime, but "the long arm of the Assad regime on the Internet".

Even though the net-active opposition is just one of several Internet actors, Bukhari remains optimistic: "In the last two years citizens have learned about how to use this media. The Internet has given us the tools to be able to communicate."

Now SCO activists aim to establish institutes in rebel-controlled areas to train "journactivists" – or in other words activists familiar with journalistic working practices. "In Syria we don't have much experience when it comes to things like how to use cameras or write reports," explains Bukhari.

"For 50 years we didn't have free media, and consequently no good journalism training opportunities," he says. Already and despite all odds, he and his SCO colleagues managed to establish two media schools in the north of the country. So with their latest project, the online activists of the SCO are leaving the virtual world.

Jannis Hagmann

© 2013

Translated from the German by Nina Coon