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Citizen-Journalism Network Takes On The Syrian Regime

A grab taken from a DPN video shows tanks on the street in Deir el-Zour.
A grab taken from a DPN video shows tanks on the street in Deir el-Zour.
If you want a good example of the power of citizen journalism, then look no further than the Deir Press Network (DPN).

Started one year ago in the eastern Syrian town of Deir el-Zour, DPN was the brainchild of a doctor and his cousin who lived in the United Kingdom. In a fascinating interview in "Guernica" magazine, the two founders, Kareem and Ahmed (not their real names), discuss how they smuggled out footage and fought off cyberattacks from the pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army:

Ahmed: Deir Press Network started with just two guys. There was Kareem, who was the smuggler, and a cameraman, who we’ll call Isaac. I was the tech support.

Guernica: Can you explain your roles?

Kareem: Ahmed’s role was to respond to the severed Internet connections and attacks on our website by the pro-government group, “The Syrian Electronic Army.” Ahmed has been our tech support. He finds ways for our volunteer cameramen to upload videos. And Isaac was our first cameraman.

Guernica: And what was your role?

Kareem: I was the smuggler. The reason for my job was the complete blackout over the province of Deir el-Zour and the fact that the government would slow down the Internet, block YouTube, and Facebook. It was impossible to upload a video. But once we had enough footage, I drove from Deir el-Zour to Damascus. I had to pass three checkpoints on each trip. The checkpoints were long, with many people waiting an hour and a half at each one. Tanks, machine guns, and other military gear and personnel were stationed at the checkpoints, so I had to find different ways to smuggle out the videos. Saving the data on small micro-chips, we had to be clever about where we hid the footage because anyone caught filming protests is sent to prison. Issac knew this. He was imprisoned.

WATCH: A DPN video purporting to show regime forces dumping the bodies of opposition fighters:

Braving roadblock after roadblock, the smugglers were wary about carrying smartphones, as they would prompt more scrupulous searches. But just as important as getting through roadblocks was the question of their branding:

Guernica: How did you build a citizen-journalist network? How would others do so?

Kareem: First thing was to start a Facebook page. The problem with this, we found out, was that Facebook was heavily monitored by the government. But still, we felt the most prominent way to spread the news during the media blackout was through Facebook.

Ahmed: We were a ragtag group with camera-phones. To go from there to a media company with a satellite TV station required a lot of risks. When our families found out about our work, they said, "You’re risking your life doing this." But we had to grow.

Kareem: So we took our next step. We had to figure out a way to brand ourselves so that YouTube watchers could associate our videos, which provided a reason for revolution, with a place to upload their own participation in the revolution. To do that, we came up with a logo that we posted on each video. We had protesters in the beginning of videos carry signs with our names and with websites where you could upload your videos anonymously. We had a Facebook forum where we could tell people about FTP sites where they could upload content. Ahmed, from abroad, was able to constantly re-route broken links or sites so that people could continue uploading content to DPN.

None of the videos can be verified and it is hard for news organizations without a presence on the ground to check that the scenes of dead bodies, for example, are what they purport to be.

DPN doesn't have any pretenses to be an independent, nonpartisan news organization. They are a group of activists allied with the opposition dedicated to recording atrocities by the regime. To that end, their videos have spread on social networks and are making it onto the major TV networks -- they have undoubtedly driven much of the international policy discussion on Syria.

Often filmed behind fences or twitching curtains, it's clear what huge personal risks were taken in gathering the footage. As Ahmed says, "The problem was that when the army entered towns like Dier el-Zour, filming any citizens getting killed was very dangerous, and yet DPN was carrying all of these videos. "

"Carrying a camera was a death sentence."

WATCH: A DPN video showing security forces in Deir el-Zour: