Friday, March 2, 2012

Campaign group Avaaz plays key Syria role

Known mostly for its international Internet campaigns and online petitions, global activist group Avaaz has taken on a more direct -- and riskier -- role with its support for the uprising in Syria.

In the spotlight for its involvement in the evacuation of foreign journalists from Syria, Avaaz is emerging as a key player in the uprising by smuggling reporting equipment, correspondents and medical supplies into the country.

Activists working with the group have assisted efforts to evacuate Western journalists trapped in Syria, including wounded French reporter Edith Bouvier and photographer William Daniels who arrived in Lebanon late Thursday.

The group earlier helped British photographer Paul Conroy and Spanish reporter Javier Espinosa escape the besieged area of Baba Amr in the city of Homs to Lebanon, in an operation that saw 13 Syrians killed.

Founded in 2007 to bring grassroots campaigning into the Internet age, Avaaz -- which means "voice" in Farsi and several other languages -- has seen its role in Syria, almost by accident, expand beyond online activism.

"In scope and in scale the Syria operation is larger than any similar activity we have done," Avaaz's 35-year-old Canadian co-founder, Ricken Patel, told AFP by telephone from New York.

In its most high-profile previous campaigns, the group's activists -- dubbed "clicktivists" by some -- have organised online petitions gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures opposing US resistance to action on climate change, and supporting pro-democracy activists in Tibet, Myanmar and elsewhere.

But it is the group's efforts to support "citizen journalists" in the Arab Spring uprisings -- initially funded by about $1.2 million in member donations -- that have brought it to the heart of the conflict in Syria.

As popular uprisings spread through the Arab world last year, Avaaz launched a programme to provide high-tech kits containing satellite phones, cameras and other equipment that activists could use to post online videos of protests and government crackdowns.

Ricken Patel is the Canadian co-founder and executive director of Avaaz

With journalists often prevented from covering the uprisings, the activists provided a vital flow of information to the outside world, Patel said.

"International attention is part of the oxygen that sustains these movements," he said.

In Syria, Avaaz developed a network of about 200 activists who provided video footage that was regularly used by international broadcasters and updates on the number of people killed in the unrest.

A system was set up to bring the media kits into Syria and "as the conflict evolved the smuggling network that the activists had built became extremely valuable for other things," Patel said.

First it was used to start bringing foreign journalists into the country, with Avaaz coordinating the smuggling in of 34 reporters.

And as the humanitarian crisis in Syria deepened, Avaaz and the local activists began using the network to bring in desperately needed medical aid, including blood supplies and hospital equipment.

Patel said around $2 million worth of medical aid, mainly supplied from international aid groups that have asked not to be named, has been brought in, mainly to Homs.

Following the attack on the makeshift media centre in Homs that killed US reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, Avaaz worked to evacuate other Western journalists from the city.

The escape operation was difficult, with the journalists getting separated after coming under shell fire from Syrian forces, Avaaz said.

Conroy and Espinosa left Baba Amr together but were separated after being fired on, and Espinosa took another day to escape.

Bouvier and Daniels were forced to return to Baba Amr after they were shelled. Avaaz said in a statement Thursday that activists working with its networks were able to smuggle Bouvier and Daniels into a safer neighbourhood of Homs on Tuesday.

It said Avaaz had lost contact with the rescue party in the 24 hours before the two arrived in Lebanon, but that it was "overjoyed to hear that they had made it to safety."

Patel said at least 13 activists working with Avaaz were killed during the escape attempts and seven killed while trying to bring medical aid to the media centre after the initial attack.

"They were doing that to get witnesses to a crime out of the country so they could tell their story, and that's what's really inspiring," said Patel, who worked with organisations including the International Crisis Group before helping to found Avaaz.

Avaaz, which is funded solely through contributions from its more than 13 million members, has raised another $1.5 million for its campaign in Syria and will continue smuggling equipment and aid into the country, Patel said.

"It's about trying to sustain the network of citizen journalists that are telling the world the story of the horror show that is going on in Syria, trying to get humanitarian aid in and trying mobilise the right kind of international action," he said.

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