Who/What is Ahvaaz [Avaaz] and why did/do journalists trust them with their lives in Baba Amr

Who or What is Ahvaaz [Avaaz]?

And, why do veteran combat journalsts working for major news organizations trust Avaaz with their lives in getting into, and when inside, the Baba Amr quarter of Homs, Syria, which has been beseiged by the Syrian army on a mission to exterminate “Islamist terrorism”?

Ahvaaz [Avaaz]:
The name of an organization [a “global advocacy group”, The Telegraph coyly calls them] called Avaaz, has been mentioned as cooridinating closely with journalists covering the Syrian uprising, and in connection with their arrivals in besieged places like Baba Amr.

Their website is available in 14 or 15 languages at www.avaaz.org, here, they are on Twitter [@avaaz], and also Facebook — and they are interested in global matters — the oceans, the Amazon, the internet, and now Syria — identifying themselves as “a campaigning community” with 13 million members.

Their website says: “Avaaz—meaning ‘voice’ in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—launched in 2007 with a simple democratic mission: organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want … Where other global civil society groups are composed of issue-specific networks of national chapters, each with its own staff, budget, and decision-making structure, Avaaz has a single, global team with a mandate to work on any issue of public concern–allowing campaigns of extraordinary nimbleness, flexibility, focus, and scale. Avaaz’s online community can act like a megaphone to call attention to new issues; a lightning rod to channel broad public concern into a specific, targeted campaign; a fire truck to rush an effective response to a sudden, urgent emergency; and a stem cell that grows into whatever form of advocacy or work is best suited to meet an urgent need”…

UPDATE: Julian Borger reported here in The Guardian on Tuesday night [28 February] that Avaaz was founded in 2007.

Borger adds that Avaaz “emerged out of activist groups in the US and Australia, including ResPublica, GetUp! and MoveOn.org. Its founding president is Ricken Patel, a Canadian-British veteran of the International Crisis Group, a global thinktank, and MoveOn.org, a progressive American group. He runs a team of campaigners around the world, with offices in New York, Rio, Delhi, Madrid and Sydney”.

And, Borger added. Avaaz “has taken on a prominent and more physically risky role in the Arab spring, providing satellite phones and other communication equipment to pro-democracy groups in Libya, Egypt and Syria … Amid the bloodshed of Syria, the organisation’s commitment is less likely to be queried. The question its critics are raising now is whether a group that started out in the high-tech safety of the internet has found itself out of its depth in a brutal conflict in the real world”.

While the first time I recall hearing the name Ahvaaz was in connection with an “uprising” against the Islamic Republic regime installed in Tehran that the Iranian authorities strongly believe was coordinated with the American CIA + British secret services, they also seemed to have some kind of association with the MEK — or, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq = a supposedly “leftist’ movement that was part of the resistance to the Shah of Iran prior to the Iranian revolution, but was then persecuted, and took up arms against the Islamic Republic, when they found an ally in Saddam Hussein who offered them shelter and a base came which they are now evacuating for relocation as refugees around the world, under great pressure.

Ahvaaz, if I am not mistaken [will check] is the Persian version of the name of [CORR: the capital city of Khuzestan, the] Arabic-speaking province [Ahwaz] in south-western Iran, bordering Iraq, the Shatt al-Arab, and the north-western shore of Iran along the Persian Gulf.  It was in the Ahvaaz province that the first clashes in the terrible Iran-Iraq war [end 1979 to August 1989] took place, between the freshly-installed Islamic Republic and a Saddam Hussein backed by the U.S., by all Arab states [officially, at least] and by all the “civilized world”.

Ahvaaz came in big, internationally, in social media more recently at a late phase of the Tahrir Square protests — and though nobody knew who they were, exactly, many otherwise savvy people were enthusiastic to support, if not join, their calls for signing petitions, etc., in support of the Tahrir movement.

Like the MEK, Avaaz seems to be very media-savvy, and have expertise in modern technology.

But, Avaaz is functioning differently than the MEK at the height of its influence. Avaaz is concentrating on social media, and video postings on the internet, as well as their new role of helping “smuggle” journalists into battle zones in closed Syria via routes they have access to in neighboring countries [Lebanon, and possibly Turkey — the Israel government is surely aware of this, but keeping a judicious quiet].

The Avaaz website explains this under the heading, Breaking the Middle East Black-out:

    “Funded by donations from almost 30,000 Avaazers, an Avaaz team is working closely with the leadership of democracy movements in Syria, Yemen, Libya and more to get them high-tech phones and satellite internet modems, connect them to the world’s top media outlets, and provide communications advice. We’ve seen the power of this engagement — where our support to activists has created global media cycles with footage and eyewitness accounts that our team helps distribute to CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and others. The courage of these activists is unbelievable — a skype message read ‘state security searching the house, my laptop battery dying, if not online tomorrow I’m dead or arrested’. He’s ok, and together we’re helping to get his and many other voices out to the world”

But, in Syria, things are not ok.

[Due to the dire situation, presumably, there is no particular information about Syria, at the moment, on the Avaaz website… UPDATE Yet, Avaaz states, here, that it “has been working with activists on the Syrian Spring since it started, setting up a network of over 400 Citizen Journalists across the country, smuggling in medicines and international journalists to report on the unfolding story and campaigning to ensure that sanctions and political pressure are applied on the Assad regime. The organisation is entirely funded by small donations from its members”.

UPDATE: An article published on The Guardian website last July, here, reports that “Since 2009, Avaaz has not taken donations from foundations or corporations, nor has it accepted payments of more than $5,000. Instead, it relies simply on the generosity of individual members, who have now raised over $20m. Much of this money goes towards specific campaigns. This year, $1.5m was raised to supply cameras to citizen journalists throughout the Arab world; as a result, much of the footage currently coming out of Syria was filmed on equipment provided by Avaaz”. The BBC picked up and rewrote this today, reporting rather lazily, here, that “Avaaz says it is independent and accountable because since 2009 it has been wholly member-funded”.]

Why should journalists trust Avaaz with their lives, as Marie Colvin did?

And, why are French photographers and filmmakers working so closely with Avaaz? [Are French photographers just more passionate and curious about the world? Or, do they have some kind of official backing?…]

If Avaaz is behind the recent quantum leap in improvement in the filming and video streaming of protests throughout Syria — particularly the dancing protests highlighted in our previous post — they deserve a lot of credit for their skills.

By comparison, the MEK, before it was labelled by the US as “terrorist organization”, a label which they have been fighting, used to function less as “local fixers” who can boost a foreign correspondent’s impact and reach, and more as an effective pressure group which was in regular contact with members of Congress and other governments, as well as everyone’s editors — and if a journalist didn’t seem enthusiastic about publishing their news, they would threaten to go to one’s editors. They implied that they could promote journalists’ careers — or of having them black-listed, and fired … Like other powerful and effective lobbies, the MEK traded in influence, and was feared.

More to follow later…

Targetted killing of journalists Bab Amr possible [even probable] through their own Satellite phones – UPDATED

Marie Colvin said in November 2010:
“War reporting has changed greatly in just the last few years. Now we go to war with a satellite phone, laptop, video camera and a flak jacket. I point my satellite phone to south southwest in Afghanistan, press a button and I have filed”.

When she made that remark, she was speaking at St. Bride’s Church in London in November 2010, at a memorial service for journalists who have died in the line of duty. She said that, earlier: “I first went to war with a typewriter, and learned to tap out a telex tape. It could take days to get from the front to a telephone or telex machine”. The full text of Marie Colvin’s speech was eepublished the day of her death in The Guardian, here.

What she did not think of, and may not have known, at the time she spoke those words, was that when she used her satellite phone to file her material a year and a half later, from beseiged Baba Arm in the Syrian city of Homs, her coordinates were captured and used for targetting by military artillery.

The use of her satellite phone may have killed her. Electronics experts say [see below] that if journalists must use their satellite phones in battlefield conditions, they should keep a distance from the phone: “If you have to get the signal out – do so safely and move your ass”.

In the few minutes after the news broke — in the morning, February 22nd — of the killing by shelling of Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Baba Amr, Homs [and the wounding of at least three other journalists working in the same “Media Center”] the horrible possibility dawned that they had been tracked and targetted after using their satellite phones and other equipment to upload their news reports and photos.

Satellite phones and computers are apparently not allowed into Syria.

Neither, for the most part, are journalists.

But Marie Colvin and her colleagues managed to get in from Lebanon with the help of smugglers working with the Free Syria Army [FSA] which is trapped, with some 28,000 Syrian civilians, in the Baba Amr quarter of Homs, where they have been subjected to sharply increased shelling, this week, by the Syrian Army which claims to be fighting “Islamic terrorists”…

Syrian Army snipers are said to be stationed at the perimeter of the Baba Amr area, and shoot all those trying to leave, or enter. [But, the smuggler’s apparently have one route that is being used…]

The Syrian Army might not have the latest technical capability to track Satphone signals and “triangulate” targetteting based on this … But again, they might. Or, they might have friends and allies and mercenaries who are skilled in this, and who would also have the latest technology with which to do it…

The Telegraph [London] reported here that Colvin, Ochlik and their colleagues were “fired on as they tried to flee a makeshift press centre that had suffered a direct hit from a shell. Witnesses said they were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade as they emerged from the ruins of the press centre, which was next door to a hospital. Frederic Mitterrand, the French culture minister, said they had been ‘pursued as they tried to flee the bombardment’ … Reporters working in Homs, which has been under siege since Feb 4, had become concerned in recent days that Syrian forces had ‘locked on’ to their satellite phone signals and attacked the buildings from which they were coming”.

The Globe and Mail of Canada wrote that: “The press centre was apparently the only place in the city with a ‘live feed’ for broadcasters and satellite phones emitting a near-constant signal. Syrian government forces could triangulate the location of the satellite transmission. Intelligence agencies around the world track phone and satellite signals to target enemies. Syrian activists said they took specific measures to avoid being detected when using satellite phones, such as limiting the duration of their calls, and changing locations”. This is published here.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote, here that “There are a few different ways by which satellite phones can be tracked. The first—and easiest for a government actor—would be to simply ask or pressure a company to hand over user data … Satellite phones can also be tracked by technical means and there is ample technology already on the market for doing so … Authorities can find the position of a satellite phone using manual triangulation, but in order to track a phone in this manner, the individual would need to be relatively close by. Nowadays, however, most satellite phones utilize GPS, making them even easier to track using products widely available on the market such as those mentioned above. Some of these products allow not only for GPS tracking, but also for interception of voice and text communications and other information … Colvin has put a human face on a problem that has plagued citizens of the Middle East for years now: surveillance equipment being used by despotic governments to track down journalists and activists, like provided to them by Western technology companies. Now it’s possible this equipment directly led the murder of an American journalist”.

David Burgess wrote on his blog, The OpenBTS Chronicles, here, that the danger for a journalist to use a satellite phone in a combat zone is “about the fact that you are transmitting a distinctive radio signal”:
“Regardless of encryption, authentication, etc., the mere existence of one of these radio signals sends a message to an observing military force: There’s someone over there with fancy comms and it’s not us. That can be a very dangerous message”.

The SaferMobiles website subsequently published an article entitled: “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid of Satellite phones in Insecure Locations”, posted here which advises that:
“Nothing will prevent location discovery with a satellite phone, other than not using the device”, and “IF you must use one, keep your conversations as short as possible. Keep in mind that keeping a conversation short is only relevant if you change your location immediately following a call”.

Here is an international Twitter exchange between technically-proficient tweeters who say not only is it possible — they also warn, it is probable. “Keep a distance before using a Satphone”, one warns MSFnce-Fra [Medecins Sans Frontiers-France]. He also tweeted that extreme precision in targetting is not needed: “just a 100 meters precision is enough to wipe the place”.

Another person in the exchange warned: “If you have to get the signal out – do so safely and move your ass”.

He added: “No matter what – unless you *know* otherwise, your Satellite phone almost certainly discloses your exact GPS location in an insecure manner”.

And, he recommended [without any evident commercial motive] using this product, a GSMK Cryptophone, with the link he provided here.

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Here are some excerpts from this interesting exchange on Twitter [the top ones are the more recent]:

David Burgess ? @dburgess00
@Katrinskaya @safermobile @jilliancyork my $0.02: openbts.blogspot.com/2012/02/some-c…
[ http://openbts.blogspot.com/2012/02/some-comments-on-satellite-phones.html ]

Elasti Girl ? @Katrinskaya
Were journos in #Syria targeted by their sat phones? @safermobile explains how that’s possible: bit.ly/xQumFh cc @jilliancyork
[ https://safermobile.org/be-afraid-be-very-afraid-of-satellite-phones-in-insecure-locations/]

Jillian C. York ? @jilliancyork
Satphones, Syria, and Surveillance by @jilliancyork and @WLLegal for @EFF – goo.gl/oxbT9 (+1 to @ioerror)

Okhin @okhin
@MSF_france dites à vos agents de se mettre à l’écart avant d’utiliser un téléphone sat. Ils sont utilisés pour guider l’artillerie. [= “Tell your people/staff to stay a distance away before using a satellite phone. They are used to guide artillery” ]

Okhin @okhin
@asteris not sure there’s a need for tech help. I think it’s basic military transmission tactics to triangulate a signal.

Okhin @okhin
@asteris @Katrinskaya @csoghoian I think Assad does not need extreme precision, just a 100 meters precision is enough to wipe the place

Asteris Masouras @asteris
@okhin triangulating broadcasts is one thing, locking on to a specific signal & directing precision fire to it another

Okhin @okhin
@asteris arstechnica.com/business/news/… for the eavesdroppping part at least. I guess triangulating a satphone does not require to crack it.
2:27 PM – 23 Feb 12 via web • Details

Asteris Masouras @asteris
We need a serious investigation in the satphone targeting issue, at any rate, along w full registry of companies producing such tech #Homs

David Burgess @dburgess00
@Katrinskaya @ioerror Thuraya absolutely knows your location. Do you trust Thuraya’s employee screening procedures with your life?

Aaron Huslage @huslage
@ioerror they can still be sniffed over the air. How does Tor help with deniability in the case of a point-to-point link?

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
If you are using a Satellite phone for *data* in Syria or elsewhere – use Tor! Your communications are trivial to intercept.

Elasti Girl @Katrinskaya
@ioerror Privacy IS vital security often and in many places. Never understood the weird way in which we separate privacy and security.
Retweeted by Jacob Appelbaum

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
@matt_mcc @huslage Of course not. Different threats. If you have to get the signal out – do so safely and move your ass.

Matt McClellan @matt_mcc
@ioerror @huslage don’t need content for targeting
from Ellicott City, MD

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
No matter what – unless you *know* otherwise, your Satellite phone almost certainly discloses your exact GPS location in an insecure manner.

hi @BannedFromOz
@Voulnet supposedly the user would have to purposely lower the security settings thru a series of steps in order for an attack to happen.

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
If you are using a Satellite phone for voice calls – stop unless you’re using cryptophone: cryptophone.de/en/products/sa… = GSMK Cryptophone [http://www.cryptophone.de/en/products/satellite/cp-t3/]. The information on the product page linked says: “The CryptoPhone T3 Thuraya satellite option is the perfect solution for secure communications in areas without GSM coverage or if you do not wish to depend on local network infrastructure”.

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
If you are using a Satellite phone for *data* in Syria or elsewhere – use Tor! Your communications are trivial to intercept.

Christopher Soghoian @csoghoian
I wonder which surveillance vendor sold Syrian gov the gear it used to “lock-in” to sat phones of murdered journalists. telegraph.co.uk/news/9099325/M… Retweeted by Jacob Appelbaum
[ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9099325/Marie-Colvin-Syria-regime-accused-of-murder-in-besieged-Homs.html ]

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This last tweet links to an updated article published here by the British daily paper, The Telegraph, which mentions the possibility that tracking of Satellite/Satphone/Satellite computer signals may indeed have been used to deliberately target the journalists working in the FSA “Media Center” yesterday, which we cited in our previous post, yesterday.

The Telegraph also reported that “Hours before she died, Colvin had given interviews to several broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN in which she described the bloodshed as ‘absolutely sickening’. She also accused Mr Assad’s forces of ‘murder’ and said it was ‘a complete and utter lie that they are only
targeting terrorists…the Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians’. Sources in Damascus confirmed that Syrians, including Mr Assad, would have been able to watch Colvin’s broadcasts – a fact that could have sealed her fate”…

Marie Colvin: "Our Mission is to Speak the Truth"

Described with rough affection on Twitter this morning as one of “the most badass journalists of all time”, veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin, an American working for the Sunday Times, died in war this morning —
in a shelling on a “Media Center” or “safe house” in the Baba Amr district of Homs, where some 28,000 civilians are reportedly trapped while a sustained Syrian Army offensive against “rebels” has continued “without mercy”, as she said, for days.

Intensive shelling started some two weeks ago.  The Syrian Army is reportedly using large mortars on the civilians trapped with fighters from the Free Syria Army [said to be composed of Syrian military defectors].
Marie reported that Syrian Army snipers are posted all around the perimeter of the area now being shelled, so it is very difficult and dangerous to go in or out. Supplies of all kinds are dwindling in the siege.

Yesterday, Marie said in a Q+A aired on BBC: “I watched a baby die”.

Killed with Marie was 28-year-old French photographer Remi Ochlik, whose work is posted on his website here, and where he wrote about himself: “In 2011, Remi photographed the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the uprising and war in Libya”. Ochlik stayed behind in Homs when a staff photographer for a French publication was pulled out because of the dangerous conditions.

Yesterday, Syrian blogger/journalist Rami al-Sayed [“Syria Pioneer”] was killed in Baba Amr while working to report the fighting on the internet. “He was one of the first activists who risked their lives and braved sniper bullets to film the protests in Homs. Rami also set up a channel to live stream the anti-regime demonstrations and the army’s assaults on the city. Rami never admitted he was the one behind the channel but whenever his colleagues told me he was ‘out’ or ‘busy’, I was sure to find a live feed on his channel”, according to a post published here, which was picked up by the NYTimes blog, TheLede.

In all, as of today, some 13 journalists have lost their lives in the fighting in Syria.
Marie and Remi were killed today, and at least three other journalists were wounded in the same attack this morning, just after they had uploaded video and photos, and filed stories — leading to the growing suspicion that sophisticated electronic methods had been used to track and target the journalists.

The Telegraph reported in an updated article bylined by Gordon Rayner, Nabila Ramdani and Richard Spencer
that a group of journalists “were fired on as they tried to flee a makeshift press centre that had suffered a direct hit from a shell. Witnesses said they were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade as they emerged from the ruins of the press centre, which was next door to a hospital. Frederic Mitterrand, the French culture minister, said they had been ‘pursued as they tried to flee the bombardment’ … Before the building was attacked, Syrian army officers were allegedly intercepted by intelligence staff in neighbouring Lebanon discussing how they would claim journalists had been killed in crossfire with ‘terrorist groups’ … Hours before she died, Colvin had given interviews to several broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN in which she described the bloodshed as ‘absolutely sickening’. She also accused Mr Assad’s forces of ‘murder’ and said it was ‘a complete and utter lie that they are only targeting terrorists…the Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians’. Sources in Damascus confirmed that Syrians, including Mr Assad, would have been able to watch Colvin’s broadcasts – a fact that could have sealed her fate. Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based Liberation newspaper who was with Colvin in Homs last week, said they had been told the Syrian Army was deliberately going to shell their media centre, which had a limited electricity supply and internet access thanks to a generator. Mr Perrin said: ‘A few days ago we were advised to leave the city urgently and we were told “if they [the Syrian army] find you they will kill you”. I then left the city with [Colvin] but she wanted to go back when she saw that the major offensive had not yet taken place’.” This account is published here.

Earlier, makeshift clinics and medical personnel were reportedly targetted in Baba Amr.

Continue reading Marie Colvin: "Our Mission is to Speak the Truth"