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Syria Crisis: In Neighboring Beirut, A Daily Struggle For Credible Information

Syria Crisis Homs Bashar

Posted: 01/03/12 09:28 AM ET

BEIRUT -- Shortly after midnight one night last week, two 20-something Syrians huddled over a computer, trying to sort out exactly what had happened that day at Damascus University.

Online reports suggested that three students had been shot at the school. Syrian State TV, meanwhile, put the number at five and implied that the shooter was a disaffected member of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

This seemed suspiciously convenient, in the opinion of the two Syrians, who had friends attending the university and who asked not to be identified by name. Currently living in Beirut, both are refugees of a sort: One had come to the city to escape compulsory military service, the other had fled his hometown in Syria after receiving threatening phone calls.

As they sat in a small basement studio in East Beirut, scouring the few accounts of the shooting in secure online chat rooms and speaking with friends on Skype, useful information was proving difficult to find.

"We don't know anything," the young man who had fled threats in Damascus said in frustration. "Maybe tomorrow we will know something about what happened today."

Every day in Beirut, there is a struggle to find reliable information about Lebanon's troubled neighbor next door, where a deadly anti-government uprising is now in its tenth month.

The United Nations recently estimated that at least 5,000 protesters have been killed since March, and the Assad regime has all but banned foreign journalists from visiting the country.

Throughout the crisis, dozens of journalists, activists and Syrian dissidents have used Beirut as an observation post of sorts, hoping to snare glimpses and the occasional firsthand account of what most outside observers judge to be a brutal and unrelenting crackdown by the military forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Assad regime, for its part, claims that it is engaged in a struggle for survival against Islamist militants conducting a proxy war on behalf of Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia. The state maintains that it is responding to "terrorist armed groups" that have killed more than 1,000 of its security forces.

Independently verifying any of this -- the death tolls, accounts of individual incidents, even fundamental questions about how Syrian society at large views the uprising -- has proven virtually impossible, or exceedingly dangerous.

Only a handful of independent journalists have seen the situation firsthand, having braved Syrian border patrols and overnight motorcycle rides to have themselves illegally smuggled into the country. Their accounts of besieged towns like Homs and Idlib are consistently dire, describing protesters being attacked by the government, dwindling medical supplies and food, and a growing armed insurgency that threatens to reshape the uprising, if not completely overwhelm it.

The few reporters who have been let into the country officially have found themselves closely chaperoned by government minders.

This leaves those in Beirut, and the rest of the world, to siphon whatever information they can get second- and thirdhand.

"It's very frustrating," says Shakeeb al-Jabri, a Syrian activist in Beirut who has taken on a role as a media coordinator for the revolution. "For me, as someone who is supposed to always be in the know, it's frustrating to not have good information. So I can only imagine what it's like for the journalists."

Al-Jabri, 30 years old, is one of a handful of individuals who are central to the dissemination of information about Syria within Beirut. He and a few others work to confirm reports of clashes and body counts, for distribution to reporters and activist groups.

He spends almost his entire day online, chatting with activists and residents he trusts in hotbed Syrian cities like Homs and Hama and relaying their accounts on his Twitter page.

Like many others who funnel information out of Syria, al-Jabri insists that he will not pass along news about any incidents unless he finds video or has multiple dependable sources. Some reports can never be confirmed. (A week after the incident at Damascus University, al-Jabri told The Huffington Post that the shooting itself "has been confirmed, but the details are still sketchy.")

Reporters in Beirut, even if they draw information from people like al-Jabri, emphasize that they seek out their own contacts inside Syria as well.

"You do it like you do anything in journalism: You get two sources, then you get a third source," said Rima Marrouch, a half-Syrian journalist who works for the Los Angeles Times in Beirut. "I don't use something unless the person telling me says he saw it himself. If he didn't, I ask him to put me in touch -- by Skype, or by Thuraya [satellite phone] -- with someone who did."

Still, opposition sources have been guilty of significant errors and exaggeration -- about how many people were killed, or how brutal the tactics were -- as well as omissions: Few of the organized opposition groups, for instance, keep careful tallies of protester attacks on Syrian security forces, and they avoid discussing the role of hardline Islamists in the uprising.

"There is a tendency to downplay protesters' attacks [on security forces], but it's because people on the ground usually don't want to talk about it," said al-Jabri. "But we know we have to put those stories out, because if we don't, they will get out from someone else, and we're going to lose our credibility."

"We have made a lot of mistakes, of course, because the guys in Syria have been learning by doing," said another Beirut-based Syrian information specialist and activist who goes by the name Kinan.

"We now say that without a YouTube video showing what's going on, the demonstration didn't happen, the crackdown didn't happen, and the killings didn't happen," Kinan explained -- that is, they know that without video evidence, the outside world may not be able to trust the reports they hear. "The YouTube video has become as important as the demonstration itself."

As a result, Kinan said, activists on the ground have developed sophisticated techniques for capturing and uploading video, including ensuring that different people manage each step of the process, and in some cases positioning a cameraman at a good vantage point two days before a planned protest.

"We used to have just one person responsible for everything -- organizing the rally, filming it, uploading the video -- but that turned out to be a bad idea," he said.

Many amateur videographers have been killed, including one well-known 24-year-old who was reportedly shot by security forces while filming last week.

"It's too much pressure," Kinan said, acknowledging the temptation to elaborate on the story when relaying it later. "You can imagine that a guy at the end of the day might come home, and he knows that the video he risked his life for doesn't capture everything he experienced, so he tries to complete the picture in other ways."

Indeed, the proliferation of amateur eyewitnesses has not always increased reliability. Several news professionals in Beirut said last week that some of the major satellite TV channels have been freely distributing satellite phones across Syria, and that their quality control has been less than ideal.

Last Monday, Al Arabiya, the Arabic satellite channel, carried a live interview with a person who identified himself as a member of the Arab League's recent monitoring mission in Syria and who claimed to have been shot by government forces.

The news ricocheted around the Internet for several hours, until Arab League officials finally confirmed that it was a hoax.

"The media, they have sometimes been irresponsible," said a Lebanese activist with one of the major pro-opposition groups in Beirut, who asked to remain anonymous. "It was much easier early on to identify good information because it was all coming from experienced activists and citizen journalists. Now, everyone is an 'activist' and a 'citizen journalist.'"

But the major journalists and activists in Beirut insist they are comfortable with the news they put out, including the daily body counts, which include the names and hometowns of each of the dead, but which can never be confirmed by a reporter's visit to the morgue.

And if the output is skewed against the Syrian government, activists simply shrug and point to the regime's own media blackout.

"The funny thing," al-Jabri said, "is that because of them, we're completely in control of the narrative."

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