Prominent Syrian activist and journalist Rami Jarrah and I were are having a conversation in the Cairo office of his most recent endeavour: Activists' News Agency (ANA), a news agency committed to unbiased coverage of the events happening within Syria.
"Have you seen this video?" Rami asks.
He shows me a video of the Azaz refugee camp.
Jarrah and one of his allies, Koert Debeuf, Belgian representative of the European Parliament, are standing beside an older man representing the camp. "We never have milk!" he shouts into the camera. "Never! Never! We give our children water and sugar."
Jarrah sits behind a massive desk. His office is just beside an impressive media room, where new computers with big flat screens stand back to back, and televisions mounted to cover the wall broadcast news from several networks. A sound studio is in the works. He is a young man, but the exaggerated rasp in his voice and a sardonic sense of humour make it clear that he has seen more than an average man of his years. Having spent part of his life living in England, he returned to Syria, and became a well-known activist and journalist who publicized the events happening in Syria through international media outlets under the pseudonym Alexander Page.
Modern-day activism is messy. For all of the worthwhile causes out there, there are organizations championing them, trying to make the world a better place, struggling for funding and influence. But funding is limited and attached to interests much more powerful than the organizations that vie for it. So the organizations use a specific language — one devoid of political entendre or partisanship — to plead their case.
"Non-hierarchical," "democratic," "civil society," "grass-roots," "society-building," "awareness": familiar words like these bleach the politics out of policy. They are code words for grant money, applied liberally to funding applications to emphasize the neutrality of their goals.
For an organization working here in Cairo, balancing neutrality with the reality of war remains a challenge, a matter of perspective and one not necessarily worth the headache.
Jarrah tries to strive for balance in his newsroom. For all of the pro-FSA videos that are published, he acknowledges that the videos documenting their abuses and their atrocities need to be published, too, to keep the coverage honest. He wants everyone to work for him: loyalists, leftists, Islamists, secularists, the opposition, Kurds, Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, and the Druze. But his office is filled with individuals escaping the war, who are willing to stand up against a dictator who continues to exercise violent force against his populace. It's not as broad of a mix as he would have liked. And then there's the question of arms dealing.
Rami Jarrah was involved in distributing arms throughout Syria.
"This is no secret. I was involved in arming only because we saw that it was going off track. It was going to [extremist] battalions and we were trying to get it to more secular areas, to people that were just defending themselves rather than minorities, or people [that] just had a grudge. There were actually areas where people really needed to defend themselves and just didn't have weapons."
But most of the time situations aren't neutral.
If a violent war is raised against the civilians of your country, is it more just to appear unbiased, or to acknowledge your background? While Jarrah has been honest about his relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), I ask him what neutrality means when you're dealing with anti-aircraft missiles.
"That's the problem."
Conversations about neutrality are doomed to be discursive and subjective and inevitably without a destination. In the case of Syria, the veneer of impartiality fell away a long time ago, and Syrians have come no closer to closing the curtain on this protracted war. From early on in Assad's violent offensive, public opinion skewed in favour of the opposition. As the conflict continued, earlier supporters of the regime backed off and collaborators fled, but the war drags on. However, it has set an interesting precedent for activists involved in conflict situations. Maybe the time of feigning neutrality has passed and Jarrah is the perfect embodiment of this new trend.
While an identity crisis of the magnitude that Jarrah expresses may have been a problem in the past, in the context of this particular conflict, it has given Jarrah and his associates the ability to act. Using the prestige he built through his reporting in Syria, he was then able to build ANA, finding funding from international NGOs like Hivos and SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency).
By connecting with over 400 citizen journalists living inside Syria, ANA offers translation and distribution for film footage shot in some of the most violent and war-torn parts of the country. ANA provides open-source footage for news agencies internationally, and it is only expanding. In the coming year, Jarrah hopes for ANA to transition away from open source to generate a viable source of revenue for their work. He knows that with continued training and opportunity for his local team of journalists, ANA footage will prove to be invaluable for news networks reporting on the conflict. The success of ANA is reflected Jarrah's growing influence as an activist, mediator, and representative for the opposition. This prestige has been parlayed into a direct channel to the European Parliament, debriefings of American government officials, and a position for Jarrah as organizer of local councils that will hopefully be responsible for distributing aid to refugees living in the liberated areas, with a cut going to the FSA (30%).
Jarrah the individual is playing both sides of the fence, simultaneously working the projected impartiality of international organizations and the partisanship of being a key player in the opposition's media front to bring down Assad. The reason why this isn't a problem is that public opinion is on his side. And he's not the only one. Other Syrian organizations like Zaytoon have been springing up all over Egypt, catering to the externally-displaced diaspora with services that are discreetly related to bigger objectives back home.
Jarrah continues: "We're very lucky. That's all we have. Politics doesn't really suit us. Israel, Iran, Russia. Geopolitics [don't] help."
So Jarrah utilizes what's available. Films of bombings, of snipers, of bodies found, of refugees suffering. This kind of activism is subtle, but direct. It doesn't need banners or slogans to get the message across. The simple recording of events proves to be a greater call-to-arms, and one that more effectively serves an oppositional force that, due to the violence and instability that combat brings, can fall at odds with the people it is claiming to liberate. And this is how ANA has found its niche. Choosing to focus on "liberated" areas, on sites of some of the most brutal attacks of the Assad regime, emphasizes the reality of the regime. It is not dishonest, or partisan, unless the FSA attacks are disregarded. It betrays only a certain focus, and this focus, in the opinion of ANA journalists and their supporters, is one that needs to be at the forefront of Syria media coverage to influence the course of this war.
In the past two years, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Egypt because it's the easiest place to go. Even the work that ANA is doing from Cairo by publicizing videos of the violence in Syria is allowed.
Jarrah says that as long as the organization isn't speaking critically about Egypt, they're free to publish what they wish. "Syria is too busy to be thinking about what's happening inside of its borders," Jarrah said.