Interview with Syrian web activist Monis Bukhari: „Never save any data on your own hard drive“

revolutionMonis, you are a Syrian online activist. Tech-savvy as you are, you know how to protect yourself. Why did you still have to leave your country?

There was a spy in my activist group. I had reported some information to the Los Angeles Times and sent them photos and video footage about what happened in Damascus. That spy actually lived in the same house, an activist house in Damascus. He reported everything about me and my friends to the security forces. They wanted to catch me in order to kill me. (Photo: Khalid Albaih)

(in Arabic: Deutsche Welle, Middle East Blog →)

How did you get to know about it?

I got the information from some friends who had already been arrested. They sent me a message telling me to leave Damascus. So I did, first to Beirut, then to Amman.

In 2011, you founded the Syrian Charter Organization. What is that?

The SCO is a group of activists. All of us are Syrians living either inside or outside the country. Most of us knew each other from before the uprising. When it began we started to make subtitles for video clips that showed human rights violations. Now, the SCO has many different projects – for example a radio station called Baladna.

How do you broadcast?

Over the internet only. We use a streaming server to broadcast from our website, as well as Soundcloud, Youtube and Vimeo. The project started in September 2012 with a team whose members belong to all ethnic and religious groups in Syria. We want to give hope to the people. Syrians experience the war every day. So we decided not to mention that but instead talk about the future. We tell Syrians about democracy and freedom, and offer psychological support. We also try to build bridges between Assad supporters and rebels.

Would you consider Baladna an oppositional radio station?

No, its a dialogue project. We organize Skype conferences with people with different views for example and broadcast them. Sometimes we even bring Assad supporters and rebels together in the same place.

Still, you had to deal with hacker attacks on your websites from pro-Assad activists, the so-called Syrian Electronic Army.

The SCO website has been attacked many times. They managed to hack it once. They also closed our FB page twice. I moved the website three times to more secure servers, not just the SCO website, but the Baladna page and my own blog, too. I also had to change the Content-Management-System. I’m using WordPress instead of Joomla now. Its simpler and doesn’t have as many security gaps.

What do you know about the Syrian Electronic Army?

The SEA is an organized group in Syria. They are about 20.000 people. They receive a monthly paycheck from the government and are being helped by the Russians, Iranians and Italians. Italian internet companies for example sell soft- and hardwares to the SEA that make it easy for them to hack our connections.

How do you know about that?

Among our members in SCO there are two activists who used to work for the SEA, but then changed sides. They told us what’s happening there, also about the number of pro-Assad hackers and the paychecks.

SCO’s latest project is the website What is a journactivist?

It’s a mix between an activist and a professional journalist. The journalist lives from journalism as a profession. The activist doesn’t. With the project we try to establish institutes in the liberated areas in order to train the activists in journalism and its techniques. The problem is that we have many activist-journalists in Syria, but little experience as to how to use a camera and how to write reports. In the past 50 years, we didn’t have any free media in Syria and thus no good journalism training.

How many of these institutes have you established so far?

We have one in Idlib in the north and are currently working on two more in Aleppo and in the city of Maarat al-Numaan, south of Aleppo. We hope to be able to establish more in Damascus, Dar’a and Homs. But we lack sufficient funding to do so.

Even if you had the money, you could probably not establish an institute in Damascus.

Yes, we could, in the east of the city. The east is basically liberated. It can easily be bombed by the airforce, but the Syrian army can’t enter the eastern areas of Damascus.

The SCO has a very active Twitter account called „New Syria News“. You’ve sent more than 100.000 tweets. How does that work? One account, many reporters?

We have a team of women in Syria. One of them collects the news from reporters all over Syria, via Skype and Facebook. She passes them on to an editor who then passes it on to the publishers. The publishers are four women working in shifts. One of them works in the morning, the next from noon, etc. They all work from home, of course.

Recently, you sent a tweet about Shiite fighters from Iraq in Syria. How do you verify news like that?

It’s hard to verify the news. But if we have the same information from different sources, we think its correct. If someone for example tells us that 70 people were killed in Damascus, the news team asks other persons in the city „Did you see that?“, „Did you hear an explosion?“. I think it works in 80 percent of the cases.

Have you published any wrong information?

Yes, many times. Once we reported that Bashar al-Assad had been killed. It was not true, of course.

How dangerous is online activism for your team?

If I were inside Syria and wrote a status about something happening in the streets, I might get killed by the security forces immediately. Speaking the truth online is reason enough.

Speaking of information security, what would you recommend online activists do?

First, never use somebody else’s computer. Second, never ever save any data on your own hard drive, keep it safe online. Third, always use a VPN connection. And fourth, make sure that your friends and colleagues know how to protect themselves. If they don’t, you won’t be safe either.

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Monis Bukhari, 35, is a visual artist, photographer and filmmaker from Damasus. He fled Syria in 2011 to seek refuge in Amman, Jordan. He’s President of the Syrian Charter Organization (SCO).

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