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Syrian television channels have recently been showing images of president Bashar al-Assad visiting buildings damaged in last week’s earthquakes that have killed more than 40,000 people.
In the wake of a natural disaster, such demonstrations of concern and empathy with those affected are commonplace among politicians worldwide.
Yet some argue that the images on Syria’s screens are not what they seem and amount to disinformation.
Moufida Anker, a Syrian journalist and activist, said: “It is terrifying what is happening. The dictator appeared to be laughing. The most terrible thing is that he deceived the international organisations that came to support him and deluded them that the buildings in front of them were destroyed by the earthquake. Many of them were destroyed earlier by his own planes; we have proof of that with the photos archived earlier.”
Assad’s critics say he has found in this disaster an opportunity to break the international isolation that was imposed more than 10 years ago.
The earthquake has increased the oppression of Syrians in the northwest of the country that has been going on since 2011. The UN says that since the uprising, the Assad regime has killed more than 400,000 Syrian citizens for reasons related to freedom of opinion, expression, and demonstration, and hundreds of thousands are in prison for the same reason.
Syrians living in the northwest of the country, on the border with Turkey, and the hardest hit by the earthquake are being ignored and silenced.
From the first moment of the earthquake, and despite the horror of what it left behind, the Assad regime has practised a media blackout regarding news from the northwest of the country. Assad’s loyal channels do not talk about the number of victims there, which far exceeded the number of victims in the areas controlled by the Syrian government.
The media and social media in Assad-controlled areas are subject to great censorship by the Syrian government security forces, as civilians in these areas are afraid of showing any sympathy for the people in the northwest. We recently documented an arrest carried out by the regime’s security forces of a citizen from Homs who called his relatives in the north of the country to check on their health after the earthquake.
The aid donations that have flowed into the country from the UN, people in Arab nations and other countries have not been reaching those in the northwest, with many saying much of the aid has been diverted into areas controlled by the Syrian government as well as being illegally sold in Syria’s markets.
Dozens of photos have been circulated by activists in Damascus and Aleppo that appear to show influential members of the Assad regime to be involved. It is little wonder that Assad is now being called “the aid thief”.
The first earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, hit Syria at 4.17am on Monday 6 February. A second quake, measuring 7.5, hit nine hours later.
According to official statistics published by the volunteer Syrian Civil Defence organisation, or White Helmets as they are better known, 2,274 civilians died in north-western Syria as a result of the quakes.
In the week since the disaster, the United Nations has admitted that it has been unable to provide help to the Syrians in the northwest of the country.
The Idlib region and the area around Aleppo are home to more than five million Syrians, most of whom have been displaced after years of attacks from the Syrian army, whose mission is supposedly to protect Syrians.
Martin Griffiths, the UN’s under-secretary-general and the emergency relief coordinator, said: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
This prompted Syrian activist and journalist Muhammad Tata to set up a fund to collect donations from the afflicted to the United Nations, an ironic action intended to criticise the international body’s inability to meet the urgent calls for aid.
Many destroyed buildings have been adorned with the official flag of the United Nations, and signs placed on the rubble saying “We died…Thank you for letdown.”
After the quake, it took many days before the Syrian government approved the opening of crossings from Turkey to facilitate the entry of aid, and this at a time when the Assad regime did not even recognise the earthquake victims in Idlib and area around Aleppo – the official government death toll left out those in areas not controlled by the government. When al-Salam and al-Rahi crossings were finally opened, Assad was accused of doing so for political gain.
“They who died survived, and they who survived died” is a phrase now used by hundreds of Syrians on social media, amid wholesale grief and mourning for loved ones and friends and international impotence.
Rizik Al-Abi’s fee for this article will be given to those affected by the earthquake in Syria
Syria has become the latest country to implement new far-reaching cybercrime legislation that goes beyond what is necessary to keep the internet safe.
On 18 April, Syrian president Bashir al-Assad announced new laws that could result in harsh penalties criticising or otherwise embarrassing the Syrian government.
Anyone breaking the law can be jailed for up to 15 years and face penalties up to S£15 million (£23,000).
The highest fines and sentences are reserved for “crimes against the Constitution” and for undermining the prestige of the State including websites or content “aiming or calling for changing the constitution by illegal means, or excluding part of the Syrian land from the sovereignty of the state, or provoking armed rebellion against the existing authorities under the constitution or preventing them from exercising their functions derived from the constitution, or overthrowing or changing the system of government in the state”.
Publishing what the new law describes as “fake news…that undermines the prestige of the state or prejudices national unity” can lead to five-year jail sentences and S£10 million (£15,300) fines which seems to target bloggers and digital activists who publish criticism of the government online.
In a statement the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) said the law could be used to violate many of the basic digital rights of citizens, especially freedom of expression and freedom of digital privacy.
It said, “GCHR believes that the law should be reviewed and its definitions defined more clearly to ensure the existence of a strong and practical law that does not violate the basic rights of citizens, but rather contributes to creating a free and accessible internet in which diverse opinions are respected and human rights are protected and promoted.”
The new law also obliges internet service providers to save internet data for all users for a period of time to be determined by the competent authorities.
The GCHR calls this “a flagrant violation of the digital privacy of citizens and provides ease of access by security services to all information related to peaceful online activists”.
The Syrian cybercrime law is just the latest in a growing body of legislation around the world ostensibly used to target cybercrime but clearly intended to stifle legitimate criticism and restrict freedom of expression.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 81% of countries have now implemented cybercrime legislation with a further 7% with draft legislation.
Many argue that cybercrime legislation makes the internet a safer place but many countries with human rights are under attack, including Brazil, Myanmar and the UAE, are using such legislation to silence critics.
In January, the United Arab Emirates adopted new legislation that promised fines of up to AED100,000 and jail terms of up to a year for “anyone who uses the internet to publish, circulate or spread false news, rumours or misleading information, contrary to the news published by official sources”. These penalties are doubled when publication happens “during times of pandemic, crises or disasters”
Attempts to introduce such draconian legislation are being resisted by human rights and journalism associations.
In February this year, the Pakistani government passed an ordinance amending the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. Of particular concern was an expansion of the “offences against dignity” section of the legislation to cover the publication of “false” information about organisations, companies and institutions, including the government and military.
However, in April, the Islamabad High Court, following challenges by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, threw out the ordinance. The court noted: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right and it reinforces all other rights guaranteed under the Constitution … [and] free speech protected under Article 19 and the right to receive information under Article 19-A of the Constitution are essential for development, progress and prosperity of a society and suppression thereof is unconstitutional and contrary to the democratic values.”
His absolute independence is what saved him in all the years that he stayed in Raqqa, the Syrian city where photographer Aboud Hamam was born and raised and that he refused to leave, even during the years that Isis was in charge. Under the current rule, he finally let go of his pseudonym for years, Nur Firat. “I miss Nur Firat sometimes,” Hamam said during a recent interview in Raqqa. “He achieved a lot.”
The interview takes place at the banks of the river Euphrates, which streams through the city. There is a tea garden, if you can call it that: five broken plastic chairs under the trees and around a small water basin, where fresh tea is served in small glasses. In one of the trees, a garden hose is wrapped around a branch. Tiny holes are punctured in it, causing a fine, lukewarm rain to drizzle down on the tea drinkers. Aboud Hamam comes here daily to escape the summer heat. The rest of the day, he walks through Raqqa, both his professional camera and his smartphone always ready to shoot. Hamam said: “Most of my colleagues are in Europe or the US now; most of them I don’t even know exactly where. I will never leave. I want to share the real picture of the city.”
In the early days of the Syrian uprising and the subsequent Syrian war, Hamam worked for Sana, the Syrian state news agency. He worked mostly in Damascus and earned a good income. It is in those days that he first started to use the pseudonym Nur Firat – the last name is Arabic for Euphrates. Hamam explained: “I used it for photos that could get me in trouble with certain groups in the conflict. Sometimes, mostly when there were jihadists on the pictures, I wouldn’t use a name at all.”
In 2013 Hamam decided to quit working for the regime’s news agency. He returned to Raqqa, where the Free Syrian Army was trying to take control, and started working for Reuters. During much of 2013, several groups, among them jihadists, tried to take the upper hand, until, in the early days of 2014, Isis won. Soon, the group declared Raqqa the “capital” of its so-called caliphate. It is in these times that Abood Hamam made a crucial choice, he explained: “Photographers who were in favour of the FSA, left the city when Isis was getting stronger. Those who returned later were therefore suspected by Isis of FSA sympathies. I hadn’t left, so this suspicion didn’t apply to me. This is why Isis didn’t bother me.”
He continued photographing. “Isis allowed photographers to take photos of things they wanted the world to know,” Hamam said, “but I secretly took other pictures too, for example of their tortures and crimes. Those I shared under my pseudonym.”
He smiled when he added: “Sometimes I used the name Abu Nur Libiye, because I had made some foreign fighters believe that I was from Libya.”
He left Raqqa for five months to visit his family, which had taken refuge in Saudi Arabia. When he came back, permission to take pictures had ended because too many images came out that Isis didn’t approve of. “I confined to taking pictures of trees by the river,” Hamam remembered. “There were eyes on me all the time, at every checkpoint they would check the photos on my phone.”
Didn’t Isis try to coerce him to work for them? Hamam: “They did, but I diplomatically refused. The Isis members were not all foreigners and I knew fellow Raqqans at the police, and they knew me from before the war. They would tell their superiors that I was against the regime in Damascus and convinced them to leave me alone.”
Meanwhile, Isis was weakening in both Iraq and Syria. They started losing territory in Syria at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab alliance supported with airstrikes by the international coalition. When the final battle over Raqqa was about to commence in 2017, Aboud Hamam escaped to Idlib – still in opposition hands and currently under heavy Russian bombardment – because the battle would be fierce and civilians were supposed to leave the city. There, he could do his work again, although he had to use his synonym because of the opaque power balances in and around the city. When Isis was defeated in Raqqa, he immediately got ready to return. Two weeks after the SDF’s victory, he did.
“I saw our city, our memories, our childhoods, everything destroyed,” he recalled. “The first day I was in shock, the second day I cried.” Then he set up two Facebook pages, Abood without barriers and Raqqa pictures. “There, I share nice photos. I try to make even the destruction look nice, for example with a picture of a bridal shop next to a destroyed building or a meal with olives eaten in a dusty street. Daily life. It is good for my psychology because I am damaged. And good for the city. I know for some people my pictures were the tipping point in their decision to return to Raqqa.”
Soon after he returned, the SDF security forces detained Hamam. They didn’t know who he was and just saw a man wandering the streets with a camera and living in a half-destroyed house with satellite internet. “When they asked me who I was, I told them I knew the city better than they did. They held me for ten days. Then they concluded I was okay and let me go. They haven’t bothered me since. I can work freely.”
So he wanders the streets again.“I feel like the guardian of the city sometimes. I know every street, I notice every building being renovated or pulled down, I detect every citizen returning,” he says. And Raqqans know him. During lunch in a perfectly renovated restaurant with two destroyed floors on top of it, a group of men and women recognise him and request a selfie, which he agrees to.
He didn’t immediately let go of his pseudonym after the new rulers had come to the city. Nur Firat had become dear to him. But there is something else: “I believe that if you want to tell the real story as a journalist, you have to forget about personal fame. Do you know what’s important to me? That Raqqans trust me. They know I am independent. Some time ago, a sound bomb went off in the city. The SDF said it didn’t mean much. People can be suspicious about that, but if I don’t give it attention on Facebook, people know that it’s nothing to worry about. It makes them feel safer. Journalism doesn’t mean you have to share everything, it means you have to show the reality. Leaving unimportant things out can be part of that.”
Reuters, you could say, is Abood Hamam’s day job, while his heart is in his Facebook pages and with his fellow Raqqans. He smiled and said: “I do miss Nur Firat. He succeeded, he showed a lot. He may have been more successful than I will ever be.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”2″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1566207560032-07963279-6fe2-8″ taxonomies=”213″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Five long, shapeless tops; a pile of loose-fitting, dark-colored jeans; a knee-length coat; and a video camera. Those were the contents of my wardrobe for more than two years, when I lived in and reported on the rebel-held area of Aleppo, known as eastern Aleppo city. Few things changed between the seasons, as we had to dress conservatively year-round. Read the article in full.