Shakeeb al-Jabri, 30, known as @LeShaque on Twitter, is a prominent Syrian blogger based in Beirut. He admittedly spends less than “two hours of his waking life away from social media,” as he works around the clock to fight the information war happening amidst the Syrian uprising to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
NOW Lebanon sat down with the blogger to find out more about his role in the revolution.
Several activists who have gone public have fled the country because even in Lebanon they don’t feel safe. You’re one of the few Syrian bloggers in Beirut who hasn’t gone in to hiding. Why?
Jabri: From the beginning, I decided that I have two choices: either bump up my profile or hide. I have some prominence as an outspoken blogger. You saw what happened with Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi [who was detained on December 5 at the Syrian-Jordanian border]. They detained her for two weeks. They didn’t torture her. It’s not exactly fun, but the regime is a lot more careful with people who have a high profile. Also, I don’t want in the future to be asked what I was doing during the revolution. I was there. I took the risk. I did what I needed to do. I am doing this because it’s my country, because I care about it and because I have an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to affect change that could influence the rest of my life.
What are some of the biggest problems you face as a Syrian blogger and activist?
Jabri: Mainly it’s getting the full news report and verifying it. We have the technology; but we don’t have the media savvy. In the beginning, people weren’t really prepared. Not everyone knows how to use Skype. Not everyone knows that Skype is encrypted. Not everyone knows that the government can see everything you post on the internet if you don’t encrypt yourself. And after the first couple of people were taken from their homes for posting stuff on the Internet, people freaked out. We had to come in and explain [how to use social media] and be active online. You have two conflicting realities: first, the reality that a lot of this [the revolution] is happening on the Internet. The second reality is that only 15 percent of Syria is online. A lot of the protesters have never seen a Microsoft Windows desktop in their lives... But social media is an important link. Without it, the Arab Spring would have died... I would say about 60 percent of revolutionary communication now happens over Skype or Thuraya satellite phones.
So how do you verify the information to ensure it’s credible?
Jabri: There are a number of different methods. I started out with a couple of friends I know who live in Syria. And then they would refer me to people they trusted, and so on... I always get my information verified from at least two sources inside Syria. Sometimes, it’s one source. But that’s only when it’s someone I completely trust.
We also have Facebook groups. There’s one open group called, “Akhbar Shabab Souriya” where people post news from different pages... You’re not allowed to debate, but you’re allowed to ask for details in order to confirm or deny what’s happening. There are certain people in this group, for instance, that we know are where they say they are. And so, it becomes very practical when you have ongoing developments, like the explosions in Damascus. You’ve got all these reports coming in. Someone posts a bit of information and then we try to get it confirmed through various accounts. Once we have it confirmed, we go back and say – ok, now where is it happening? Someone says, “I’m here and I heard it this loud,” and someone else says, “I’m there and I heard it this loud.” When you have a bit more information to go on, you know what area to make calls to and get eyewitness accounts from.
So how has social media affected the Syrian revolution?
Jabri: In Syria, we are unbelievably dependent on social media. For organizing, you create a Facebook group. For calling a protest, you create a Facebook page. For reporting news, you create a Twitter account. For communicating with other activists, you use Skype. For showing the protest to the world, you use YouTube. There are signs in Syria that say, “Thank you, YouTube.”
If this didn’t exist, the revolution would’ve been crushed immediately. There would’ve been another Hama massacre and the regime would have gotten away with it. Look at their behavior. Listen to the regime’s spokespersons. Listen to how much they complain about the media. They don’t complain about the protests as much as they complain about media.
Many analysts will tell you that a formidable weakness of the revolution is that the Syrian opposition remains divided.
Jabri: I wouldn’t characterize them as bitter enemies. Coordination is much better now. But you have different people with different opinions. I’ve held back from publicly attacking certain groups in the opposition. A big problem within certain opposition groups is that rather than thinking about Syria’s future, they’re thinking about their own future and the positions they could hold in a new government.
In spite of the fact that the opposition isn’t united and despite Assad’s violent crackdown, the revolution has persisted.
Jabri: It’s because nearly every family has lost a son, a father, a daughter, a cousin. But they’re afraid, and many of them don’t believe the revolution is going to succeed because they believe that brute force can overcome all. But I’ve seen many people switch, many people. So now they’re willing to talk, but they’re still not willing to do anything, which is a big problem.
What do you think of Lebanon’s response to the Syrian conflict?
Jabri: When it comes to the Lebanese government, its response is not surprising, but still disappointing. They are providing zero help for the refugees. We have to take care of them on our own, alongside Lebanese NGOs and support groups. But when it comes to the people, we are overwhelmed by their generosity and support. Whether it is housing the many thousands of refugees who have crossed over the border and caring for them and feeding them, or if it’s the support we’re getting from Lebanese activists, helping us move around and get the resources we need. The Lebanese have opened their homes, and their refrigerators. I know of one instance where the owners of the house [a Lebanese family] are sleeping in the living room and the refugees are sleeping in their bedroom.
What do you think about Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn’s statement that Al-Qaeda has set up a base in the Lebanese border town of Aarsal and is infiltrating Syria?
Jabri: That statement was troubling on two levels. First, it shows that Mr. Ghosn is an employee of the Syrian government. He has shown absolutely no evidence to back it up. He has been contradicted by the prime minister and interior minister. It’s also troubling because Aarsal is a Sunni town in a vehemently Shia area, and that’s likely to cause sectarian tension. I believe Lebanon has enough [sectarian tension] without the government adding to it. So it was a very irresponsible comment and there are some people in Syria calling for his head.
If the ordinary Lebanese wants to help with the Syrian uprising, what can they do?
Jabri: They can speak out; they can hold demonstrations in Lebanon. They can demand that their government be held accountable for the kidnappings and for the beatings of not only Syrians, but the Lebanese as well. They can send aid to the Syrian refugees in the Bekaa and in Wadi Khaled. They can refuse to stay silent.