June 21, 2011 | By Jillian York

Hoaxes Aside, Real Risks to Blogging in Syria

In the wake of "Amina" hoax, in which the popular blog of a Syrian woman turned out to be a fictional work by an American man named Tom MacMaster, it has been all too easy to gloss over the real tragedies on the ground in Syria.

For years, the Syrian regime has censored the Internet pervasively, with heavy focus on political content, as well as social media. In 2010, the relatively unfettered mobile networks became subject to filtering as well, what had been an alternative means of access to an uncensored Internet. Circumvention tools have long been used within the country, and are often made accessible by cybercafe owners. But most tools lack protection against technological surveillance, and Tor--which provides anonymity as well as circumvention--has been blocked on some Syrian ISPs in recent months.

In February of this year, Syria unblocked Facebook, Blogspot and YouTube for the first time since 2007, but as we’ve previously reported, that decision was less about placating citizens and more about making it easier for the regime to spy on and conduct attacks against them.

And while ‘Amina’ was fake, Syria has arrested or jailed scores of real bloggers and social media users over the years, including Tal Al-Mallouhi, thought to be one of the world’s youngest prisoners of conscience. More recently, Amjad Baiazy, a Syrian activist who worked with Doctors without Borders and other organizations and who is active on social media, including Twitter, was detained upon trying to leave Syria for his home in the UK.

While hoaxes such as that perpetuated by MacMaster should encourage us to investigate sources, they should not cause us to ignore the myriad Syrian bloggers who are taking real risks to inform the world of the situation on the ground. Nor should the concerns around the use of anonymous sources in stories about “Amina” stop us from safeguarding the right to anonymity for users who need it most.

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