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Danny Thiemann: In Syria, “Holding a Camera is a Death Sentence”

March 14, 2012

syria.jpgPhotograph via FLICKR/WIKIMEDIA by ewixx


On their one-year anniversary, the founders of Syria’s Dier Press Network explain how a group of doctors became the vanguard of Eastern Syria’s free press and what to do now that the battle for Syria is heating up.

By Danny Thiemann

In the town of Dier ez-Zour on the road from Syria to Iraq, a doctor, who we’ll call Kareem, put down his medicine bottles. It was March 15, 2011. The media blackout in Syria had just begun. Kareem had no experience as a journalist. But when he turned on the TV and saw the blackout, he picked up the phone. On the other end is his cousin, who we’ll call Ahmed, a young law student in the UK.

When Syria’s crackdown on protests began to intensify, Ahmed and Kareem made a commitment to respond. On March 21, they formed a network of smugglers, cameramen, and tech support that has become known as the Dier Press Network (DPN.), Syria’s first citizen-journalist media company.

One year later, Ahmed and Kareem reflect on the small company that has grown into a satellite TV network, the colleagues they’ve lost, and the future of the Syrian free press. Their names have been changed to protect their families.

Guernica: How did you start?

Ahmed: Kareem gave me a call one day. The government started using live ammunition on protesters, beating them up, and if you were caught you risked torture. You could hear the metal clang of tanks outside the classroom windows, the drone of airplanes above the teacher’s voice, the plodding of artillery, like footsteps of a faraway giant. I had already left the country about a year ago. But he was seeing all these things with his own eyes and he wanted to show the world what he saw.

Kareem: Most news was on the Western side of Syria, but the East was rebelling and no one knew about it. I wanted to do something, but I was really starting from zero. It was a process of trial and error at the beginning.

Ahmed: Dier Press Network started with just two guys. There was Kareem, who was the smuggler, and a cameraman, who we’ll call Isaac. I was the tech support.

Guernica: Can you explain your roles?

Kareem: Ahmed’s role was to respond to the severed Internet connections and attacks on our website by the pro-government group, “The Syrian Electronic Army.” Ahmed has been our tech support. He finds ways for our volunteer cameramen to upload videos. And Isaac was our first cameraman.

Guernica: And what was your role?

Kareem: I was the smuggler. The reason for my job was the complete blackout over the province of Dier ez-Zour and the fact that the government would slow down the Internet, block YouTube, and Facebook. It was impossible to upload a video. But once we had enough footage, I drove from Dier ez-Zour to Damascus. I had to pass three checkpoints on each trip. The checkpoints were long, with many people waiting an hour and a half at each one. Tanks, machine guns, and other military gear and personnel were stationed at the checkpoints, so I had to find different ways to smuggle out the videos. Saving the data on small micro-chips, we had to be clever about where we hid the footage because anyone caught filming protests is sent to prison. Issac knew this. He was imprisoned.

Guernica: What happened to Isaac?

Kareem: Isaac went to jail. Recently, he was released. His family pressured him to flee the country immediately. He didn’t say goodbye to me. He didn’t say goodbye to anyone. The risks are that high. I’m not sure what happened to him. We lose touch with friends like that.

Guernica: As a smuggler, what tricks did you learn?

Kareem: Soldiers will search for modern smartphones. If you have some old Nokia from eons ago, it’s fine and they’ll let you go on your way. But if you have an iPhone, or a Droid, soldiers will look through all the photos and video you are carrying. We had to be very intentional about the way we presented ourselves and what era our phone came from.

Guernica: You learn to camouflage yourself in the past.

Ahmed: Yes.

Guernica: How did you build a citizen-journalist network? How would others do so?

Kareem: First thing was to start a Facebook page. The problem with this, we found out, was that Facebook was heavily monitored by the government. But still, we felt the most prominent way to spread the news during the media blackout was through Facebook.

Ahmed: We were a ragtag group with camera-phones. To go from there to a media company with a satellite TV station required a lot of risks. When our families found out about our work, they said “You’re risking your life doing this.” But we had to grow.

Kareem: So we took our next step. We had to figure out a way to brand ourselves so that YouTube watchers could associate our videos, which provided a reason for revolution, with a place to upload their own participation in the revolution. To do that, we came up with a logo that we posted on each video. We had protesters in the beginning of videos carry signs with our names and with websites where you could upload your videos anonymously. We had a Facebook forum where we could tell people about FTP sites where they could upload content. Ahmed, from abroad, was able to constantly re-route broken links or sites so that people could continue uploading content to DPN.

Guernica: How have your videos influenced global reporting on Syria?

Ahmed: One night I was watching ABC and saw footage from our network with our logo on the screen! It was funny. Our videos began surfacing everywhere.

Guernica: Did you ever get paid?

Ahmed: No.

Guernica: Why was it so important for you to see these videos across other media networks?

Kareem: If you have a video, but no audience, and no way or no idea about uploading, it’s like you have no video at all. That is where DPN steps in.

Guernica: What is DPN exactly?

Ahmed: It stands for Dier ez-Zour Press Network. Dier ez-Zour is our province in Syria. DPN. is a non-partisan, non-sectarian news group. We rely on a mix of volunteers within and without the company. It is a sort of crowd-sourced journalism that relies on ordinary citizens.

Guernica: What are the next steps in expanding this kind of media network?

Ahmed: You need a lot of public support. We had it. But after the media blackout worsened, we depended less and less on trusted friends and more and more on anonymous volunteers. Basically, we went from one cameraman and Kareem to hundreds cameramen and hundreds of Kareems [smugglers]. The problem was that when the army entered towns like Dier ez-Zour, filming any citizens getting killed was very dangerous, and yet DPN. was carrying all of these videos. Carrying a camera was a death sentence.

Guernica: But at this point, what kind of cameras were you using?

Ahmed: We were using mostly cameraphones. When we first began, the number of people we knew with smartphones could be counted on your two hands. But now, Androids have been smuggled across the border. You see, at the same time that the definition of a camera was changing, carrying a camera had become a death sentence. The regime has been able to block iPhone uploads. But with the Droid, we can use VPN to upload videos to a number of sites in a number of different ways. In Dier ez-Zour, for example, in every neighborhood there has to be one to two people with a Droid.

Kareem: The best phone to use for filming a rebellion is a Droid.

Guernica: What is the current status of your news network, and what do you envision for the future?

Ahmed: DPN. has branched out to live coverage, a radio station, and a satellite TV stations carried by Niles SAT. We’re also releasing an app for smartphones. I’ve got to hand it to Kareem, who was on the ground in Syria until just a couple months ago. It’s pretty brave to go from a small group with no real funding to a satellite channel.

Kareem: I will likely still be a doctor after this, but I want to be involved in DPN. after the regime falls. And it will.

Guernica: Thank you, both of you.

Kareem and Ahmed: Thank you.

The Dier Press Network is now on satellite TV, on the Nile Sat channel, available on-line here: rtsp://109.107.132.82:1941/liveDzoor/Dzoor.stream.

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