Sunday, 10 April 2011

Tweeting the police state, dissidents learn how to go around the Syrian system, Tweeting levels remain a dead zone in Damascus.

Photo By Gail Orenstein for the web 3.0 lab/Clima, Halab. As hard as things may be, this Syrian woman has to carry water daily to her home in Aleppo.

Controlling the internet is nothing new in Syria. In previous government interference with the free movement of information Syria has blocked programs that allow people to chat on Facebook from their cell phones. As riots continued to escalate in Tunisia, control of the internet in Syria became more drastic, and then finally, as the violence spread to Egypt the internet was shut down completely.

In Egypt it is being reported that Facebook, which was used as an organizing tool for the successful demonstrators in Tunisia, as well as in Egypt, has been shut down for days. Since last night Egypt’s internet service has been curtailed entirely.

Syrian officials have denied that the internet is down, but it seems clear that there are at a minimum serious disruptions of service, if not total blocking of internet access.

The government denies that it is limiting or closing these channels, but tweeters and Bloggers are using other methods to get the message out. Tweeting level, zero in Damascus.

"He has got two Sim cards, two pseudonyms, a dangerous addiction to nicotine and when his laptop is open, which it always is, his fingers dance across the touch pad in a mad ballet of digital information sharing.

"That was AP calling," says the self-declared Syrian cyber activist, referring to the international news agency whose competitor Reuters was recently expelled from Damascus for reporting on the Syrian uprising. "They wanted us to confirm with video. Confirm with video? Not yet! I mean, come on!"

'Rami Nakhle' as he is known to the few people he meets in his safe house in Beirut - the pizza guy, a French photographer passing through and a steady stream of Syrian dissidents who fled before they could be arrested – is a hub of a growing and impressively organised network of activists using social media to break the bonds of one of the world's most tightly controlled police states and publish news and images of the unprecedented protest movement which has broken out against the regime in Syria.

Battle stations

It is Friday, just before one in the afternoon, the time worshippers spill out from the mosques to the streets and mass protests calling for freedom from oppression are expected across the country.

Rami's flat looks just like what it is: A bunker in wartime. Huge packs of Arabic flat bread lie half-eaten beside an oversized jar of Nescafe and enough drinking water for a fortnight. In the kitchen, pizza boxes stack up beside a sink full of used matte leaves, the fortifying Latin American tea beloved by Syrians.

Every 10 minutes or so Rami's laptop chirps with the sound of an incoming Skype call. The internet phone system allows for anonymous users and its encryption is complicated enough to make it almost impossible for authorities to listen in on.

"First to call is CNN, but their Iraqi researcher does not know Syria so Rami carefully explains where Qamishli is and why, as a centre for some of Syria's 1.5 million Kurds, many of whom live without citizenship and feel deep grievances against the state, it is important that the protests this Friday have started there.

For the next caller, from Morocco's Mediterranean International Radio, Rami breaks into classical Arabic as his Syrian dialect is not understood. There is just time to light another cigarette before the BBC are Skyping for an update, followed by AP and their confirmation request.

All the time Rami's 'Tweet Deck', a platform for advanced Twitter users that looks something like a pilot's navigation system, is humming and pulsing with messages from colleagues inside Syria.

The loose-knit team is divided into those who report and those who publish, the ground crew and the computer crew. Activists on the street in Syria's major cities – Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia and Daraa, where the protest movement began – gather testimony from eyewitnesses and feed it back to the computer crew who work to cross reference the information with other sources before sending out updates on Facebook or Twitter."

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