Live from Idlib, an American broadcasts from Syria’s last rebel zone

Bilal Abdul Kareem. (Photo credit: twipu)
Updated 24 September 2018
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Live from Idlib, an American broadcasts from Syria’s last rebel zone

  • Around 3 million people live in Idlib and surrounding rebel territory, including foreigners who have joined the war against the Assad regime

BEIRUT: Pointing to a green screen as if presenting a weather forecast, Bilal Abdul Kareem analyzes the Turkish-Russian deal over Syria’s Idlib, broadcasting in his native English from inside the war-torn country’s last opposition stronghold.
The 47-year-old American is a long way from where he grew up near the Bronx, watching reruns of “Rocky” and eating at Italian restaurants.
Dressed in a charcoal suit jacket, the broad-shouldered and bearded Abdul Kareem stares into the camera and insists: “In this deal, this specific deal, nobody can say the rebels were not winners.”
For the past six years, he has reported from shrinking opposition territory in Syria’s north, filming the aftermath of airstrikes, interviewing hard-line fighters, even meeting Al-Qaeda members.
His contacts, including in Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), have granted him extensive access at a time when the risk of abduction makes much of Syria too dangerous for journalists from mainstream news outlets.
But it has also prompted allegations that Abdul Kareem is an extremist “propagandist” and would not have survived in the area had he been an impartial journalist — particularly given HTS’ history of harsh crackdowns against perceived foes.
Speaking to AFP from Idlib over Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook, Abdul Kareem denied the claims and directed accusations of his own: He is suing the US government for allegedly trying to kill him in Syria.
As the case drags through US courts, the self-described “bald-headed black guy in the middle of Syria” has remained in Idlib despite fears of a looming regime offensive, continuing to file dispatches for his media upstart, On the Ground News.
Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, Abdul Kareem embraced Islam before moving to the Middle East in 2002. He married and had children in Egypt, but declined to disclose their location for security reasons.
He arrived in Syria in 2012 from Libya, curious about the fighters battling President Bashar Assad’s forces in a conflict which at that point was just a year old.
Working first with major broadcasters including CNN, he founded OGN in 2015 as editors started to express “doubts” about his political stances, he said.
The channel now publishes on YouTube, Twitter, and a Facebook page with more than 86,000 followers.
“I have a good working relationship with every group, which doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with everything they do or they agree with everything I do,” he said.
A normal day begins with dawn prayers at 4:30 a.m., followed by a routine search of his car for bombs. The rest is up to the news cycle.
He could find himself on a motorcycle zipping toward a frontline, lapel mic in hand but without protective gear, or sipping tea with hardcore fighters most Americans would consider unsavory.
“I remember I had these very, very in-depth conversations with different Al-Qaeda members about America, Americans and the democratic system,” Abdul Kareem said.
He offered unsuccessfully to facilitate a dialogue between Western powers and Idlib’s militants, whom he insisted don’t have “blood dripping from their fangs and want to eat American children.”
The US has designated Al-Qaeda and HTS “terrorist organizations.” Around 3 million people live in Idlib and surrounding rebel territory, including foreigners who have joined the war against the Assad regime. “There are quite a few Americans here. All fighters,” Abdul Kareem said. Asked about his future, he recalled escaping second city Aleppo as it fell to the regime in 2016. If the same fate awaits Idlib, he said, “I would be one of the last people to leave.” Abdul Kareem’s 16-year absence from the US has made him miss simple things: speaking English, sugary cereals. But he fears the 2016 election of President Donald Trump has changed the country too much.
“It sounds like America is not the same America that I grew up in,” he said. His remaining links are with his sister, and a lawsuit he filed last year against Trump and a coterie of US officials, accusing the government of attempting to kill him five times. Once was on a reporting trip. “My car was hit with a drone strike. The car flipped up into the air and landed on its side facing the opposite direction,” he said. Abdul Kareem is demanding the government stop targeting him, remove him from any so-called “kill list” and disclose the names of other citizens who may be on it. In the meantime, OGN’s cameras keep rolling.
“I’m not in America because being here in Syria doing the work that I’m doing and covering the things I’m covering, in my estimation, is the right thing to do,” Abdul Kareem said.
“People are dying by the droves, and if I can do something to help people see what the real realities are, then what business do I have going back to America right now?“


WhatsApp dirty tricks alleged in Brazil presidential race

Updated 19 October 2018
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WhatsApp dirty tricks alleged in Brazil presidential race

  • Leftist candidate Fernando Haddad accused frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro of using WhatsApp to unleash fake news messages
  • here are 120 million WhatsApp user accounts in Brazil, whose population is 210 million
SAO PAULO, Brazil: Allegations of a dirty tricks campaign on WhatsApp dominated Brazil’s presidential election race on Thursday, turning attention to social media manipulation following abuses uncovered in the last US election and Britain’s Brexit referendum.
Trailing leftist candidate Fernando Haddad accused the far-right frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, of “illegal” electoral tactics after a report that companies were poised to unleash a flood of WhatsApp messages attacking him and his Workers Party.
Bolsonaro denied the allegation, tweeting that the Haddad’s Workers Party “isn’t being hurt by fake news, but by the TRUTH.”
The exchange happened 10 days before a run-off election that polls predict Bolsonaro — a bluff, Internet-savvy, pro-gun polemicist often compared to US President Donald Trump — will likely win comfortably.
Ordinary Brazilians told AFP they got much of their election information through WhatsApp. They said some in their families or entourage swallowed some misinformation, but denied they themselves were being influenced.
“We get a lot of news, even false news, but some true, about politics but I don’t think it changes very much in terms of making decisions,” said Ana Clara Valle, a 27-year-old engineer in Rio.
She said she was voting for Bolsonaro because of his Catholic, pro-family stance, not because of any “extreme right” sensibility.
Andre de Souza, a 35-year-old lawyer leaning toward voting for Bolsonaro, said he receives around 500 WhatsApp messages a day for and against both candidates.
The rumors and false information “don’t make a difference to me,” he said, but added: “My mother received a WhatsApp message saying Bolsonaro was doing away with (mandatory) end-of-year salary payments, and she believed it!“

Support by companies
Haddad made his accusation after Brazil’s widest circulation newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, reported it had discovered contracts worth up to $3.2 million each for companies to send out bulk WhatsApp messages attacking the Workers Party.
“We have identified a campaign of slander and defamation via WhatsApp and, given the mass of messages, we know that there was dirty money behind it, because it wasn’t registered with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal,” Haddad told a media conference in Sao Paulo.
Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Tiago Ayres, told the financial daily Valor there was no evidence of any connection between the companies mentioned by Folha de Sao Paulo and Bolsonaro’s campaign.
The row shone a light on an issue that has become a pressing one in democracies: the organized abuse of social media to sway public opinion in countries.
Facebook — which owns WhatsApp, as well as popular image-based network Instagram — is the most prominent company that has come under scrutiny, though Twitter has also come in for criticism.
The platforms have made an effort to clean up who uses their services after evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 US election that saw Trump triumph, and accusations Facebook allowed user data to be harvested to bolster the campaign the same year for Britain to leave the European Union.
Facebook has also shut down disinformation pages traced to campaigns believed to have ties to Iran’s state-owned media and to Russian military intelligence services.

No foreign interference
There is no evidence of foreign interference online in Brazil’s election.
The director of major polling firm Datafolha, Mauro Paulinho, said on Twitter that his company had detected “some shifts” in public opinion just before the first round of the election on October 7, which Bolsonaro won handily.
“Technical and factual observations” were made, he said, without drawing any conclusions.
There are 120 million WhatsApp user accounts in Brazil, whose population is 210 million. The app works as a popular social network for friends, families and work colleagues.
Both Haddad and Bolsonaro are the subject of memes, cartoons and slogans circulating online in Brazil.
Haddad, a former education minister and ex-mayor of Sao Paulo, has repeatedly tried to draw Bolsonaro into televised debates on policies.
The leftist candidate has an academic background he believes would give him an advantage if the exchanges moved away from the one-line quips and insults that characterize most social media communications.
But Bolsonaro, who skipped early debates because he was recovering from a knife stab wound after being attacked by a lone assailant while campaigning last month, has thus far shown little inclination to go head-to-head with Haddad.