Why is it so hard to get word out of Syria?

Talking with a Palestinian journalist yesterday about the challenges for foreigners in reporting on Syria — which I wrote about recently regarding Mani’s extraordinary video footage of fighting in Homs — she remarked on how, compared to Tunisia and Egypt, there was relatively little local citizen journalism in Arabic, either, and what exists is often low-quality video that is difficult to contextualize.  We speculated on why this might be.  One cause, clearly, is the substantially greater sums of violence that the Syrian regime is prepared to inflict on its citizens, which is designed to discourage even non-violent forms of participation in the revolt such as blogging and video recording.  Another reason, I suggested, was that even in peacetime Syria maintained a much tighter grip on internet access, both through aggressive filtering and control of infrastructure, which retarded the growth of a local online community that could be leveraged during the revolution.  There are significant numbers of Syrians online, of course, and some large part of what little we see on the ground there owes to the risks they take.  But reading the Arabist today I saw a map, originally from the Guardian, of undersea internet cable routes and was struck by the fact that Syria has only one access point (the port of Tartous) to three international internet cables, two of which are part owned by the state-run Syrian Telecom and one is only 134km long and connects exclusively to neighboring Lebanon which at various times Damascus treats like a province of Syria.  Egypt, by comparison, has many more choke points and still (famously) managed to shut down the entire domestic network at one point during the revolution.

But infrastructure is both cause and effect of Syria’s lower internet usage, where the internet penetration rate is under 20%.  In Egypt the rate is 26.4%, but with its much larger population that makes for nearly 22 million internet users.  Tunisia — where, when I visited under Ben Ali, an internet cafe owner spoke wistfully about the relative online ‘freedom’ in neighboring Libya — has an even higher internet penetration rate of over 36%.  So, Syria combines relatively low internet usage rates with painfully high penalties for engaging in online activism, while the regime makes it practically impossible for foreign journalists to operate legally.  No wonder so much of what is happening on the ground is shrouded in silence.

When it comes out, it will likely be even worse than we imagine.  I remember, twenty years ago, striking up a conversation with a Syrian teacher in a small town in Yemen.  He was from Aleppo, in the north of Syria, and because he seemed unsure of whether I knew anything about the Middle East I tried to establish my bona fides with him by mentioning, in a casual way, what had happened in Hama — where in 1982 Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, killed some untold tens of thousands of Syrians to put down a revolt.  In fact, this massacre is pretty well known: Tom Friedman, in his management-speak way, turned ‘Hama rules’ into a shorthand so that even people who know nothing about the region will have heard of it.  But I was young and I thought the reference would help.  When I looked up, this man who had been so genial moments before was sobbing, the tears made worse by how hard he was struggling not to shed them in public.  “Not only Hama,” he said, “Aleppo too.”  I had not heard of a massacre in Aleppo: only the one in Hama was famous.  So, today, we hear about Homs and it is bad enough.  But what is happening right now in Aleppo, in Suweida, in Deir ez-Zur?

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Click here to read about the CIA involvement in Syria’s coups in the 1960s.  Or here to see the remarkable video footage of a firefight in Homs.  Or here to read the rest of my posts on the Middle East or North Africa.

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