Foreigners in Syria, al-Assad regime falsifies reality through “YouTubers”
Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa
The Syrian regime’s government has intensified its propaganda for tourism since its forces were able to regain control over large opposition-held areas in recent years. One propaganda method is the exploitation of foreign YouTubers’ tours for the purpose of revitalizing tourism on the one hand and spreading the regime’s narrative of what happened in Syria on the other.
In the past days, local media have reported images taken from the content of a British YouTuber called Simon Wilson, who travels between countries of the world and documents his travels through his social media.
Syrian media quoted him talking about the beauty of regime-controlled areas and the country’s “state of safety,” noting that Syria had become a destination for foreign content creators.
Foreign tourists are known for planning and organizing their trips, regardless of the destination. However, when it comes to Syria, foreign content creators arriving in Syria admit to having no tourist plan or even any knowledge of the places they would visit, relying entirely on the tour guide accompanying them from the moment they set foot in Syria until their departure.
The tourist guide, or the tour company to which the guide belongs, oversees the entire itinerary of the YouTuber’s journey and the accommodation arrangements in hotels, as well as the areas to be visited. Many moments of loss for not knowing where to go or where to stay are reflected in the YouTuber’s content, which allows the organizer of the content creator’s trip to control what areas he will visit.
Because of the large number of destroyed buildings in regime-held areas, including those close to archaeological or tourist areas or to destroyed villages on the travel route between the governorates, the YouTuber (Wilson) asks his companion (the guide) about what happened to those buildings, who in return would pass along the Syrian regime’s account of what happened and that the “safety” experienced by those Syrian regions is thanks to the efforts of regime forces.
Through the British’s content, Enab Baladi monitored the pursuit of a car suspected of belonging to the regime’s security elements, thereby supporting the hypothesis of the regime controlling the content published by foreign YouTubers.
Another YouTuber of Turkish origins visited Syria before 2011 and wanted to explore its current situation alone; he was arrested by regime soldiers while filming the Aleppo Citadel. After verifying that he was not filming any soldiers or military facilities and verifying his identity and reason for coming to Syria, he was released after undertaking to submit a daily report on the places he visited or in which he stayed, according to the content creator himself.
The image in the Turkish YouTuber’s clips looks closer to reality, with scenes of destroyed buildings, car-free streets, and pictures of Syrian regime President Bashar al-Assad scattered throughout. However, the content creator does not address the reasons or responsibility for the current situation in Syria in his videos, nor the population’s difficult economic or humanitarian situations.
Enab Baladi asked the director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice organization (STJ), Bassam al-Ahmad, what he thought of this phenomenon. He said that most content creators allow the regime to take advantage of their media appearances to promote the return of normal life and stability to the areas under its control out of “bad faith and terrible organization” and without any prior coordination with the regime to polish its image.
The human rights defender wondered whether the “safe Syria” visited by content creators and their YouTube video clips was also safe for Syrians or for those who criticized living conditions or the ruling regime. Is the “normal life” witnessed by YouTubers also normal for those who gathered under the President’s Bridge early this month, waiting for their detained relatives?
-YouTuber is an English term given to creators of visual content on YouTube who have an audience interested in their content and work, regardless of the type, theme, and presentation.
-Vlog is an English term for video blogging through motion pictures, often posted on YouTube.
Glamorous titles that fragment facts
Azerbaijani YouTuber Davud Akhundzada titled a clip of his trip to Syria on YouTube, “This is the cheapest city in the world.” The content creator is shown in the video as he walks around Damascus markets accompanied by his tour guide, who shows him the types of foodstuffs and spices in the market so that Akhundzada would purchase some of them and compare their price to the dollar while referring to the city’s cheap prices.
But according to UN organizations, Syria is experiencing a significant rise in food prices. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warned that Syria’s food crisis is worsening as food prices have risen by more than 800 percent over the past two years, bringing said prices to their highest level since 2013.
The Program’s executive director, David Beasley, said in a statement on 8 May that millions of Syrian families spend their days anxious about how they will get their next meal, pointing out the need for immediate action to save Syrians from a “catastrophic” future.
The titles of the videos presented by the content creator about Syria are varied, showing the safe country, cheap prices, social experiences, tours in tourist attractions, and Syrian cuisine.
Syrians’ comments on the British YouTuber Simon Wilson’s clip in Damascus posted on local media pages show some kind of ridicule and denunciation in return for promoting the beautiful image of Syria.
According to Bassam al-Ahmad, many YouTubers go to Syria as a kind of challenge and to establish a precedent among content creators, contrary to the global vision of insecurity in Syria, without showing all aspects surrounding the Syrian issue.
The Syrian regime tries to control YouTubers’ content, allowing only the depiction of normal life and safe areas, as well as tourist areas, while it is forbidden to show slums and destroyed neighborhoods and people suffering poverty, hunger, and insecurity, as it did by removing the clip of gatherings under the President’s Bridge from one of the local radio stations, according to al-Ahmad.
On 18 May, the Anti-Cybercrime Law came into force. According to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers’ website, the law aims to combat cybercrime “in line with the technical development and high prevalence in society.” It also aims to protect legal interests, regulate freedoms in the virtual world, and limit the misuse of technical means.
In early April, the Syrians for Truth and Justice human rights organization published a report that monitored violations resulting from circular No. 3 of 2022 linked to cybercrime in Syria, which was issued by the regime government’s Ministry of Justice.
According to the human rights organization, this circular will perpetuate the disruption of freedom of opinion and expression, which is already significantly diminished in Syria and almost non-existent, although it is theoretically protected by Article No. 42/2 of the 2012 Syrian Constitution.
According to the report, the regime’s government sends a clear message to Syrians that prosecution will affect all those who criticize the authority and its official figures, especially as people’s criticism recently escalated, affecting the government’s performance and its inability to secure essential materials, the wave of price boiling and poverty among Syrians, and the difficulty of securing electricity and heating materials for people in its areas of control.
Syria ranked 171st on Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 World Press Freedom Index, which included 180 countries worldwide, amid continued total restrictions on the work of journalists in all areas under the control of the parties to the conflict.
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