These fact-checkers are working to bring truth back to war-torn Syria — but they need help

September 24, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

There are 6.6 million people displaced internally within Syria.

There are 5.6 million refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and beyond.

And there are only a handful of fact-checkers.

Those are the numbers the United Nations Refugee Agency estimate, and what journalists report as of 2016.

“Our message to the fact-checking community is that we need your help in fighting misinformation and disinformation about Syrians and Syria,” wrote Rami Magharbeh, the Grant & Project Manager of Verify-Sy, in an email to the IFCN. 

“Syrians have been facing national, regional and international actors violating their rights and distorting their struggle,” he added. “Suddenly, many people with little or no knowledge about Syria have become ‘experts’ on Syria, spreading mis/disinformation and propaganda.”

The lack of sources for reliable, politically neutral information within the country has resulted in a vacuum for trustworthy news produced locally, and that’s exactly the gap the team at Verify-Sy hopes to fill. 

The problem is that while the amount of misinformation regarding Syrians is impressive, the risk related to practicing journalism is also highly elevated. That’s why help is needed.

In March 2016, founder and general director Ahmad Primo launched the digital fact-checking platform Verify-Sy with a team of 12 experienced journalists working remotely from Turkey, Europe and a handful of Syrian cities. 

“In the first month of work, we published 10 articles. Now, we publish about 30 per month,” Magharbeh said. “Verify-Sy now has 200,000 social media followers and more than 500,000 website visits.“We believe that over the course of these three and a half years, (we’ve been able) to build trust with our audience.” 

The fact checks are published in Arabic, English and Turkish to reach a wider audience.

The media environment in Syria is a dangerous place for journalists. The international non-profit Reporters Without Borders (RSF) identifies it as an “unbearable environment,” where at least 10 journalists were killed in 2018 alone. 

“Journalists are the target of intimidation by all parties to the conflict — by the Syrian military and its allies as well as the various armed opposition groups including Turkish-backed forces, Kurdish forces and radical Islamist groups,” RSF reports.

The country has been embroiled in a complicated, multi-sided civil war since 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad responded violently to pro-democracy protests that erupted in the southern city of Deraa. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed or gone missing since. 

In spite of the challenges of working in such a context, Magharbeh said the team at Verify-Sy hopes its work will improve the informational environment for Syrians seeking news and information about the tumultuous events unraveling in their country. 

A fractured, dangerous media environment 

“Journalism in Syria has been under extreme censorship since Hafez al-Assad, dictator and father of Bashar al-Assad, took power in 1970,” Magharbeh said. “Journalism in Syria wasn’t transparent or credible, and it’s gotten worse… since the beginning of the revolution in 2011.”

“Since then, the Assad state has targeted Syrian and foreign journalists by imprisonment, forceful disappearance or assassination, like the case of the late Marie Colvin.” 

Colvin was an American war correspondent who died in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, when the building she was in was shelled in February 2012. A United States court later found al-Assad’s government responsible for the crime. 

RSF recently urged Turkey not to send Syrian refugee journalists back to their home country despite their legal status, as doing so is “tantamount to a death sentence.” The organization estimates that over 200 journalists have been killed since the conflict began. 

This environment has resulted in what Magharbeh calls “alternative media,” or sites that function entirely outside of the norms of standard journalism practices and instead seek to spread propaganda in favor of a political group or party. 

“(When you add) all the chaos and military occupations that have occurred in recent years, it’s created an atmosphere where rumors, misinformation and disinformation can spread very quickly.” 

By 2017, Syria had 5.5 million internet users, about 29% of the population at large. Messaging apps and social media platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook are popular, including within the government, opposition and jihadist groups to deliver propaganda. 

Many regional and Lebanese media websites were inexplicably unblocked in 2017, including Wikipedia, WordPress blogs, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Syrian news sites like The New Syrian. 

Nonetheless, censorship, continued political turmoil and poor infrastructure for online media have resulted in the booming of conspiracy theories, misinformation and uncertainty regarding current events. 

Verify-Sy gains its audience 

To provide Syrians with a source for unbiased and reliable information, Verify-Sy scans news that’s circulated on social media or reported on mainstream media, including politicians’ statements and reports of current events. 

“Verify-Sy mainly seeks to (improve) democracy and transparency in Syria by helping the public to (form their opinion) based on facts and true events,” Magharbeh explained. 

Among the organization’s goals is to make the public aware of false information and how it spreads, encouraging journalists and digital news consumers to verify news items before publicizing or sharing. 

In a survey the organization conducted with 650 of its readers, the majority said they agreed with the statement that Verify-Sy reports are “very relevant, unbiased, and accurate.” 

Verify-Sy relies on small grants for its funding, including one from the international nonprofit Internews as well as contributions from its own team members. Magharbeh said that limited financial resources are the platform’s greatest challenge.

“The team is working to avoid this problem by expanding the circle of potential supporters through communication and networking,” he said. 

Since fact-checking is still a small and relatively new import in Syria, the platform has also struggled to find journalists specialized enough in the kind of research and verification techniques the practice requires. 

It’s also been tricky to learn from more polished experts abroad, since travelling with a Syrian passport can require impossible-to-get visas. For this reason, the Verify-Sy team has had to miss opportunities for workshops and conferences around the world that could have boosted their professional growth. 

A call to action 

Politicians, activists and journalists have long commented on Western media’s tendency to distort the conflict in Syria, whether by over-dramatizing, not conducting thorough enough reporting or catering to the American political narrative of events.

“Bashar al-Assad, along with all war criminals, must be fact-checked and exposed. The narratives in which the Syrians and their struggle is being distorted must be fact-checked and exposed,” Magharbeh said.“The least we can do is to defend the truth. It is our mutual responsibility towards the current and future generations.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Rami Maghrabeh as the founder of Verify-Sy.