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On the Ground With Syria's News Smugglers

They go where professional journalists won't

Photograph by Bradley Secker

From Antakya, the seat of the Turkish province of Hatay, it is a 40-minute drive to the town of Reyhanli, the last ten minutes of which follow the jagged line of the Syrian border. The border is protected by high watchtowers and barbed wire, but the towers are frequently unmanned, and making your way east on Route D420, you can see Syrian refugees—men, children, and women with babies strapped to their chests—slipping easily between the gaps in the fence.

Reyhanli was, until recently, a sleepy backwater. Even the natives complained of feeling bored there. The area is shaped like a sunburst—a tightly-coiled town square and a series of progressively diffuse lines wandering out into the patchwork farmland. In summer, the temperature regularly soars to 90 degrees, and a terrible, parched stillness takes hold over everything.

But as the Syrian civil war approaches its third bloody year and the refugee count soars, Reyhanli has been transformed. On the outskirts of town, dozens of new apartment complexes are being built. There are Arabic grammar schools for Syrian children and airless storefront “hospitals” funded by donors in the Gulf states. In the afternoons, long lines of amputees wait outside in the heat for treatment. And due to its proximity to the border, Reyhanli has also become the de facto base of operations for hundreds of Syrian citizen journalists.

Photographs by Bradley Secker
Wassim, a journalist with the Syrian Media Center.

On a mild morning in August, one of those journalists, a 26-year-old named Wassim, was dozing on the couch of the Syrian Media Center (SMC), an amateur operation headquartered above the local barbershop. Wassim—he asked that only his first name be used—grew up in Homs and has amber eyes and the lacquered hair of a pop singer.

For the past six months, Wassim had been sleeping in SMC’s offices, alongside Lulu, a long-haired white kitten. He typically awoke at noon, ate flatbread and cheese, smoked cigarettes, and waited for videos and photographs to come in from the SMC’s 100-odd informants scattered across Syria. Most of the clips, sent by an unpaid coalition of young male activists, depicted destruction: the bloody aftermath of regime artillery attacks on schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings. Occasionally, there were shaky Handycam shots of running battles between opposition and regime forces.

From evening to dawn, Wassim edited the videos down to two or three minutes and posted them to the SMC page or its Arabic-language Twitter and Facebook feeds. If he was lucky, the BBC, Al Arabiya (a Saudi-based network), or Al Jazeera picked up the footage. But he was content to reach the many ordinary Syrians who visited the SMC page every day.

Photographs by Bradley Secker
A press conference, Syrian style, between rebel soldiers and citizen journalists.

August had been a bloody month, and when Wassim picked up his Galaxy Note that morning, he was expecting news of a fresh shelling. Instead, he heard panicked, garbled reports of some kind of chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Several of SMC’s most trustworthy informants were based in the area, and over the next two hours, as shells rained down on the city, they used a satellite Internet connection to upload several video clips.

Wassim was no stranger to war: He had witnessed firsthand the spray of viscera from a sniper’s bullet. But these videos weren’t like anything he’d ever seen. There was little blood. Rows of children lay still in a makeshift morgue. Milky foam rolled out of the mouths of the adult victims.

By early afternoon, the first clips—including many shots of dead children—appeared on the SMC website. They joined a flood of similar images from the other citizen-media organizations clustered along the Turkish border or inside Syria itself: the Aleppo Media Centre, the Free Syrian News Agency, the Center for Documentations of Violations in Syria, the Shaam News Network, Nashet. Most of these organizations, including the SMC, identified the regime of President Bashar Al Assad as the culprit.


In September, the United Nations released a report confirming that surface-to-surface rockets carrying sarin gas had indeed struck Ghouta. But it was the shaky, fuzzy videos—carried by almost every Western news channel—that captured the world’s attention. Never before have we been so dependent on courageous citizens, rather than professional journalists, for what we know about a war. The motives of these amateur reporters, though, are varied and complex and often difficult to discern.

Syria is now the most dangerous country in the worldfor reporters: According to the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, at least 114 journalists have died there since the spring of 2011. Among the dead are seasoned correspondents like the American Marie Colvin, who was killed in Homs in 2012, and freelancers like the Frenchman Olivier Voisin, who was wounded in February near Idlib and later died in Turkey. Meanwhile, 16 foreign journalists are officially missing, along with an untold number of fixers and translators. Because of voluntary media blackouts—enforced to avoid encouraging would-be kidnappers—the real number is almost certainly higher.

As the conflict continues, Syria is becoming more dangerous still. By one estimate, there are now more than 1,000 rebel groups operating in the country, some secular and some—such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS—decidedly jihadist. Regime forces have pushed back the rebels in key areas, and the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, is often unable to protect reporters as it once did, or ensure safe passage through rebel-held areas. These days, most foreign journalists do only short stints inside Syria—“get in under the radar, get what you need, and get the fuck out before you get kidnapped” is how one photographer put it.

There are exceptions: The veteran BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen traveled through Syria for weeks. (He has since left.) And the Turkish border area has no shortage of optimistic freelancers hoping to establish their names. But we are far short of the sustained coverage that informed our understanding of the uprisings in Egypt or Libya.

In the absence of professionals on the ground, many outlets have been forced to lean heavily on the reports of untrained citizen journalists. The BBC regularly runs photos from activists, as do the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, and CNN. These outlets attempt to evaluate the accuracy of the reports—in Antakya, for instance, Al Jazeera correspondent Anita McNaught assesses amateur video recordings with two Arabic-speaking researchers—or else hedge their veracity.

Not everyone believes such meticulousness is warranted. Kamal Kaddourah, a researcher for England’s Channel 4 News, told me: “I never read anything official. I keep myself pure for the YouTube videos and the Facebook messages.” His voice rose: “I don’t approve of this policy of skepticism—it gets me upset when people try to verify a video of an air strike or a dead child. These are people filming their own tragedies. They didn’t make it for fun. They’re not making it up.”

Ali, a former electrician, uploads video from his roof.

Still, real videos of real tragedies can be edited, redubbed, and repurposed. A few months ago, a video depicting the chainsaw decapitation of two men began making the rounds online. An Arabic voice-over identified the men as rebels and the executioner as a regime soldier. It later emerged that the video was of the gangland slaying of two Mexican drug cartel members. And in one of the most blatant muck-ups, last year the BBC posted a photograph on its homepage showing hundreds of corpses wrapped in white sheets. The BBC obtained the photograph from unnamed “activists,” who claimed it had been taken in the village of Houla. Although U.N. inspectors later found 92 bodies in Houla, the image had actually been taken in 2003, near Baghdad. “Somebody,” the original photographer, Marco Di Lauro, wrote on his Facebook page, “is using my images for anti-Syrian propaganda.”

The Syrian media landscape has become a proxy battle for forces throughout the Middle East, just like the conflict itself. In the Turkish border area, there are independent organizations like the one Wassim works for, there are FSA-aligned outlets, and there are deep-pocketed operations backed by foreign interests—all flooding YouTube and Facebook with competing versions of the uprising. “I learned very early on not to immediately trust everything I heard,” said McNaught. “For me, it’s about getting a feel for who is reliable—sussing out who the real bullshitters are. And it’s about constantly cross-referencing. OK, this person tells you this. Well, let’s talk to five other people, and see what facts they have in common, and when you’ve got an overlap, maybe you’ve got something.”

Before the revolution, Wassim made leather purses, which he sold at a stall in a Homs souk. Like many young Syrians, he was not political; being political only brought imprisonment, torture, or death. Then came the popular uprisings in Libya, Yemen, and Syria itself. Wassim and his friends spent many evenings tracking the latest developments on the radio.

On March 25, after afternoon prayers, Wassim joined a protest. Swept up in the moment, he held up his Nokia cell phone and took a picture. Later, he was arrested and thrown into jail. “It was useful for me,” Wassim told me. “I started to meet other activists, other journalists.” Upon his release—he served a month—he was introduced to the brother of the leader of the Syrian Media Center, a start-up operation with a presence in Homs; the SMC provided him with a Canon camera. He took to roaming the city, filming crumpled buildings, annihilated schools, and shattered hospitals. Last year, Wassim was one of several Syrian citizen journalists to receive training from a U.S.-based nonprofit. (For security reasons, the nonprofit requested that it not be identified by name.) He was taught how to use time stamps and how to frame photographs with prominent landmarks so they could be verified.

Images by Ziad Homsi.

Wassim couldn’t stay in one place for long—packing a few changes of clothes and his camera, he moved from apartment to apartment. At one point, masked men stormed his family’s house and, failing to find him, carted his little brother off to jail for a month instead.

In February, an employee of the nonprofit that trained Wassim received a video from him showing a rocket shrieking up toward the lens, followed by darkness. She thought Wassim was dead. But two months later, he resurfaced, having bribed regime troops to allow him passage out of Homs and paying a second bribe to enter Turkey.

The SMC survives on the donations of businessmen inside Syria and in the diaspora—enough to fund its activities and stock the pantry, but not enough to pay Wassim. For the foreseeable future, he plans to shack up at the office.

Journalism, it seems, has afforded him a certain prestige. Most of the citizen journalists I met were of a very specific type: early to late twenties, with carefully coiffed or tousled manes, glumly charismatic. Like the rebel fighters who are revered in many parts of Syria and the Turkish border areas, the citizen journalists, too, are viewed as heroes of the revolution.

Shada, an opposition news channel.

In May, a pair of car bombs were detonated in Reyhanli’s main square, which is filled with food stands, banks, and small markets. Fifty-one people were killed, and hundreds more injured. Officially, the Turkish government blamed the attacks on twelve Turks sympathetic to Assad, but most Syrians believe it was a regime operation to warn Turkey against involvement in the war. Reyhanli has little protection against future threats: In five days, I saw only two police officers.

But the recent chaos in Reyhanli also partly explains its appeal to citizen journalists. They blend in with the deluge of refugees and can cross the border without a passport with relative ease. All the while, they’re able to take advantage of the reliable Internet connection and cheap rent.

One day, I paid a visit to the four full-time members of the Consolidated Media Centre of the Free Syrian Army (CMCFSA), who live in unmolested squalor on the ground floor of a dingy apartment complex. I was greeted by Fadi, the pompadoured leader of the organization, and shown to a smoky bedroom. This was where Fadi slept and also where most of the organization’s editing was done. On a cluttered desk, alongside a pack of Gauloises-Legeres and a silver Zippo, sat three battered Toshiba laptops; a Nikon hung from the shutters of the only window. A rebel fighter was curled up on the floor, wrapped in a red blanket and snoring loudly.

Fadi has 30 reporters in Syria, and I asked how he knew he could trust them. He explained that reporters rarely come to him—usually, he receives recommendations from other activists. These informants are unpaid, which presumably increases their susceptibility to bribes, but Fadi insisted he had never been duped.

The CMCFSA  journalists travel with the soldiers, usually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, or in camouflage like the fighters. They upload their footage at night, assuming they can find a decent Internet connection. Then Fadi and his colleagues edit the videos and post them to the cmcfsa Facebook page or YouTube channel.

Most of the videos center on the exploits of the FSA. Rebel fighters weave through the dense Idlib brush, Kalashnikovs hanging from their necks. Fadi told me that the media had come to rely on the CMCFSA to help track the rebels’ movements. “I want to show the world what’s happening in my country,” he said. However, CMCFSA's main Facebook page is in Arabic, and since it cannot afford a translator, its audience is necessarily limited.

A photojournalist's work space.

Taking a hard drag on his Gauloises, Fadi told me that the CMCFSA ad recently received a donation of 40,000 Turkish liras, or $20,000. But instead of upgrading his media equipment, he had channeled the money to the FSA, which had used it to buy new gear.

He added that, when he accompanied the rebels, the high-zoom lens on his camera had been used to pick out snipers at a regime checkpoint. “We guide the rebels on how to fight,” he said, “or how to make an operation. If they want to storm a regime checkpoint, we give them the video of another successful operation, so they can imitate it.” Fadi described himself as a journalist, but what his organization was doing appeared, in many cases, closer to military intelligence gathering.

I asked if he had been armed during his time with the rebels. He brought his pointer fingers together. “Only with a pistol,” he said.

The next day, I hopped a southbound bus from the city center. At one point, the man to my right embarked on a long tirade in Arabic, punctuated by the English word “America,” which he spat out like an olive pit. My fixer, a Syrian I’ll call Sami, translated: “America has destroyed the entire world, and now it won’t intervene in Syria, so that will be destroyed, too.” I heard this complaint often in Reyhanli: The United States meddles too much, but in Syria it was not meddling enough. (Sami took these encounters in stride: Once, in a shared taxi to the border, when a man interrogated me about Israel’s influence on U.S. politics, Sami interjected: “What, did you confuse Matt with John Kerry?”)

Sami was himself a former citizen journalist. A year ago, he took two sniper bullets, one in the shoulder and one in the eye. He’d traveled to Turkey for surgery, which left his eye intact, but unseeing. Among rebel media groups, the injury was a badge of honor, helping to earn us access to organizations that otherwise might have shut their doors in my face.

That day, we had arranged to visit the offices of Nashet, one of the best-funded citizen-media organizations. The scene could not have been more different from the one in Fadi’s bedroom—there were flatscreen televisions on the wall, SLR cameras on the desks, and enough Sony camcorders to supply the newsroom of an American daily. Ten young men sat in a white-walled suite, simultaneously monitoring their laptops and the televisions.

Nashet—“active,” roughly, in Arabic—is housed in the same building as the Syrian group Ahl Al Athar, a well-known Syrian charity that comprises both religious education and military wings and is a prominent player in the opposition. According to Thomas Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and the author of a book on Syria, Ahl Al Athar is funded by a private Kuwaiti association called Renaissance of the Islamic Heritage.

A Syrian woman recounts a state army raid on her village.

Nashet’s spokesman, Bilal Mohammed, told me that Nashet operated separately from Ahl Al Athar. But the separation did not appear to be total. Next door to the media center was a room full of grim-faced, bearded religious educators in white jellabiyas; down the hall, camouflaged revolutionaries were drinking coffee. While I watched, educators and soldiers ducked into the media center to chat with the editors, and vice versa.

Mohammed (a pseudonym) forbade the use of a recorder, but he answered my questions in a straightforward manner. He told me that Nashet has 300 reporters in cities across Syria. Nashet often highlights the good deeds of the opposition. Its videos show the distribution of food and milk to starving families, a flour-making factory in Aleppo, rebel-led crews fixing downed electricity wires.

One of the reporters changed the channel on a nearby television to CNN. “Every Western media organization had an agenda,” said Mohammed. “CNN is always talking about ISIS, Al Nusra, Islamists, Al Qaeda. But they never talk about humanitarian aid.”

Earlier, when I had asked Mohammed what he wished to see in Syria, he had answered quickly: “A modern Islamic state.” But when I pointed out that Nashet also had an agenda, the room grew hushed and tense. “CIA,” a reporter sitting behind me whispered accusingly. Sami motioned me to leave. Outside, he remarked, “You can’t have that kind of place if you don’t have a backer with a big agenda.”

Mohammed declined to tell me where Nashet’s money comes from, but it seems likely, given the quality of the equipment and the large staff, that it comes from the same place as the money for Ahl Al Athar: Kuwait, a majority Sunni country, which has an interest in seeing Assad toppled and replaced by a Sunni government.

Which is why it may be so important to Nashet to highlight the benevolence of the Sunni-led opposition, while playing down its less savory aspects. The same goes for an operation like the Jordan-based Al Hurria, which recently opened a large outpost in Reyhanli.

One experienced Western journalist told me that because of such influences, she had ceased to rely on citizen journalist reports altogether. “The danger here is that we might start thinking we can trust these videos, though we don’t understand the context in which they’ve been produced.”

Of all the citizen reporters I met, Jameel Salou was the closest to a traditional journalist. He was also the only one to encourage me to use his real name. “I have nothing to hide,” he told me.

Salou, who is 33, had served several stints in jail. In 2000, he and some friends were arrested for running a popular news website, Eye on Syria. They spent five years in Sednaya Prison, where Salou was beaten so badly by the guards that he lost sight in his left eye. Later, he was falsely accused of planting a bomb in a Damascus square and held captive by a branch of the military security services for 40 days. “Before we went to jail, we hated the regime and we hated its corruption,” Salou, who is slouchy and round with thinning black hair, told me. “After being in jail, we wanted to try hard to topple it.”

Jameel Salou, editor of the Free Syrian News Agency.

In 2010, Salou reopened Eye on Syria, recruiting activists he had met in Sednaya. But in 2011, the office was shelled and all of the equipment was destroyed, so Salou set up a new operation called the Free Syrian News Agency.

He has since built a large network of unpaid informants. Using cheap Sony Cyber-shot cameras, they have documented the spread of the fighting from Damascus toward Aleppo and Homs. He is perhaps best known for his precise documentation of the Ghouta chemical attack, where he and 13 colleagues were able to identify many of the victims long before the United Nations arrived on the scene.

Although many of his colleagues cover the revolution only from the rebel side, Salou insists on broadcasting rebel misdeeds as well those perpetrated by the regime. When a rebel unit was accused of summarily executing Syrian army soldiers, the Free Syrian News Agency carried a report on the alleged crime.

Last year, Salou held a conference for female revolutionaries in the city of Rakka. The site of the conference was controlled by the opposition, but the fact that women were included rankled members of ISIS, who later grew angry with Salou for his efforts to tally the number of regime soldiers killed by rebels. Salou was arrested for the third time in his life, although “kidnapped” may be a more accurate term, since ISIS has no authority to arrest anyone. He was released only when an FSA commander intervened on his behalf.

In July, Salou fled Syria for the Turkish city of Antakya with his wife and children. He has received death threats, and in Reyhanli, where he travels regularly for work, he said that he has been trailed by ISIS sympathizers. “I’m sentenced to death from both sides,” he said. “By the regime and by ISIS. If either finds me, they will kill me.”

Unlike foreign journalists, who have the option of covering the civil war, many Syrian citizen journalists told me that they felt the war had been thrust upon them—that if they don’t publicize its atrocities, no one will. “Other people might forget, but we can never forget,” Salou told me. “Our duty is to be witnesses.”

On one of my last afternoons in Hatay, I took the bus back to Reyhanli. The sun had set, and Wassim was beginning his day—sprawled out on his leather couch, smoking his cigarillos and sifting through a glut of incoming videos. Lulu was sitting on his shins.

I asked Wassim if he felt like he was making a difference. He frowned. “In the beginning, I thought that, if I showed people what was happening in Syria, that they’d have no choice but to look,” he said. “And they did. Now there are many videos, every day, of shelling and fighting and sieges and gunfire. It’s too many videos, I think.”

Wassim did not exempt himself from blame—after all, he had done his part to flood the market. But he argued that citizen journalists would have to get better at choosing which photographs and videos to run. It was possible, he thought. At the beginning, they had known nothing of journalism—only to point a camera and press upload. “The sad part,” he added, “is that the revolution is so big, and so long, that it is making experts of us all.”

Matthew Shaer is the author of The Sinking of The Bounty.