In January 2011, just before the beginning of what would soon be called the “Arab Spring,” Rami Jarrah was a young businessman in Damascus, doing import and export and earning a good living. In his own words however, he was “unhappy” and found life “boring.” Although his father was an activist and an exile journalist Rami was never involved in politics and his youth was quite cosmopolitan — he was born in Cyprus, grew up in the UK and then moved to the UAE for studies.
The first time Rami came to Syria was in 2004. He was 20 years old at the time, and stayed in the country until he had to flee in October 2011, when the police discovered the alias he used for his political blogging and he became a wanted person. A well-known media activist, Rami now lives in Cairo where he manages, together with Syrian activist Deiaa Dugmoch, the new media organisation Activists News Association (ANA). In Syria he launched a first initiative called The Alexander Page project. Mashallah News met him in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he was invited to speak at a conference about the situation in Syria.
I am in the office 24/7 with other media activists. Most of the time, I sleep there.
Alexander Page was your alias, what was the purpose of the Alexander Page project?
The Alexander Page project was created in Syria with the idea that any citizen-journalist who had to conceal him — or herself — could use it to post his or her work. From the beginning, I added maybe 50 administrators to the Facebook page. Then, when the Syrian intelligence discovered who I was and I had to leave the country, the problem was that it became personal, like a fan page. I didn’t like it.
Then you created the Activists News Association in Cairo. How did you develop your activities further?
From my time in Damascus, when I didn’t have anyone’s help, I knew activists had a need for assistance. With ANA, we want to support people inside Syria with cameras, training and anything else that makes it easier to contact international media. In the beginning, it was very hard for me to get in contact with media. When there was a demonstration in support of the government and foreign journalists were there, I had to approach them and give them my number, while pretending that I wasn’t talking to them. It was very dangerous.
What was your first impression when you arrived in Syria in 2004?
I was shocked. What’s more, I was arrested upon my arrival. I was arrested at the airport and detained for two days, accused of being a foreign agent. This was because I had never been to Syria before and wasn’t registered in the country. After that I was banned from leaving Syria for three years. When I travelled across the country, I was shocked by the reluctance of people to speak out and their fear to discuss politics or the government. My impression was that people in Syria were very isolated. No one knew what was going on in the outside world.
For me it was a hopeless case, only an experiment. I actually decided to leave the country, because to some extent I hated Syria.
How did your involvement in the revolution start?
When the uprising started in Tunisia, bloggers began online activities. But for me it was a hopeless case, only an experiment. I actually decided to leave the country, because to some extent I hated Syria. Seeing what was happening in Tunisia gave me hope: if such a thing could happen in Syria, I would stay. So I continued to blog anonymously, posting things against the government, publishing stories of people being killed, sharing videos.
Then, on February 5, there was a demonstration for a Syrian “Day of Rage”. I went to the protests, but when I arrived, there were three or four secret police officers present. Many people showed up, but they weren’t talking, just walking around. In the end, me and my friends ended up buying vegetables at a nearby market instead, just to look inconspicuous.
Did you get involved in any of the local committees after that?
Yes, after taking part in the first mass demonstration in central Damascus on March 18. One week later, activists were constantly online following Facebook pages and going to demonstrations. I was filming and my videos were broadcast on TV. I was arrested and released, then I joined a committee called the Coalition of Free Damascenes for Peaceful Change, where I took care of foreign-language media relations.
What exactly happened on March 25 when you were arrested?
I was filming during a demonstration just before the police grabbed me, but I managed to push them away and ran towards the Umayyad Mosque to take part in the prayers. But right in the midst of praying, I was pulled out and then they started beating me, dragging me across the floor. They put me in prison, detaining me for three days. I didn’t know what was happening. Luckily, during interrogation they had no idea that I was filming. It was very messy: the person who arrested me wasn’t interrogating. The interrogation was six or seven minutes, the rest was torture. It was a punishment, to teach me a lesson. What they wanted me to do was to tell people what had happened so that they would stop dissent activities.
Why did you start filming and reporting?
When I came to Syria in 2004, I was studying journalism in Dubai. But I couldn’t finish because I was prevented from leaving Syria. I had no intention of living there, but I had no choice but to stay. I also had a professional camera and was interested in filming and technology.
How did you coordinate with other local reporters?
In our committee, we had a large contingent of journalists who were filming demonstrations. We would coordinate on Skype with a VPN [Virtual Private Network] connection so the government couldn’t track us. After I filmed a video, I would send it to a specific mailing list and then everyone could post it.
Then, because you speak English, you were being interviewed by international media, and your alias became more and more famous.
Right. My taken name — Alexander Page — was a problem because it was an English name. I chose it randomly when speaking on TV, because I thought I would be only once. Then, another network called me and they asked me to use the same name. This had the Syrian government first accusing me of being a Mossad agent, then of being with the CIA. Finally, when they figured out my accent was British, they said I was from the British intelligence. On Syrian TV, they showed the mask I used [the Guy Fawkes mask which is used by the Anonymous movement] and said that this was a dangerous man who tried to cause disruption in Syria.
They put me in prison, detaining me for three days. I didn’t know what was happening.
Currently, do you receive a lot of videos from other citizen journalists? How do you work?
With ANA, we always check facts in order to establish credibility — we base our information on some 350 citizen journalists living in Syria who we’re in touch with. Obviously, there are also outside sources: new people every day who are filming in different areas. The way we know whether videos sent to us are accurate or not is through recognising the places and accents in them. Since we’re all Syrians in the office, we know the situation.
If you would receive a video that would have negative effects on the opposition, would you publish it?
At this stage, yes. Before, there were some cases where we were worried that the government was behind it. Under those circumstances, we felt that sharing them was unnecessary since it put the revolution at risk. But if we’re sure it comes from the opposition, we post it.
How is your daily life in Cairo today?
I am in the office 24/7 with other media activists. Most of the time, I sleep there. I got some money from what I did in Syria so I’ve been able to support myself until now, but that’s not something I can do forever. I want to keep working in this field, with human rights and citizen journalism. Right now I’m trying to find a way to get funding for my organisation and to pay others and myself.
Edited by Christya Riedel and Angela Häkkilä.