The following is an interview conducted by Clement Girardot of Mashallah News with Syrian activist, Rami Jarrah, about his transformation from businessman to activist, and efforts to support citizen journalism inside Syria.
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.
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.
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.