Check out the coverage of the deadly protests in Syria at major news outlets like Reuters, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and you'll notice a couple things. First, perhaps because the foreign press is barred from much of Syria, the journalists are reporting from Lebanon or Jordan instead. Second, all the reports cite a human rights activist named Wissam Tarif when discussing the death toll and how the clashes between protesters and security forces transpired. Given media restrictions in Syria, activists like Tarif and human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh are becoming critical conduits of information for foreign journalists reporting on the increasingly bloody uprising in the country. Which makes us wonder, who exactly is Wissam Tarif?
The 36-year-old Tarif, who is actually Lebanese, not Syrian, is a graduate of the Universidad Del Norte in Argentina and the executive director of Insan, a Middle East human rights organization headquartered in Spain. On his Wikipedia page, Tarif is quoted as saying that growing up as he did in a small mountain town in southeast Lebanon, he came to know "the sounds, smells and tragedy of continuous conflict," which is why, he explains, his family sent him to South America when he was 13. The profile says Tarif eventually moved to Damascus, Syria after doing human rights work elsewhere.
Throughout the uprising in Syria, Tarif has allowed the many news outlets that have quoted him to use his name, despite the dangers he might face. During an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper in late March, Tarif explained why he wasn't afraid to use his name:
People–the Syrian people who are living in exile, Syrian people who are living abroad, who are calling Arab networks, TVs and hiding their names and disguising their voices should stop it now.
We have been living in this country for 50 years under emergency law. This element of fear has to be broken.
On Twitter, Tarif is a one-man wire service, issuing a frenetic stream of updates in English collected from what appears to be a vast network of contacts in Syria–brief snippets of on-the-ground information ("The number of Syrian Martyrs today exceeds 70 and names are still coming #Syria"), advocacy ("International community soft words MUST end. Al-Assad is not a reformer he is a Dictator and your silence makes it worst. #Syria"), and occasional complaints ("We are in middle of a revolution here can someone fix #Twitter dam it!") with no outbound links, punctuated with Syria-themed hashtags. You get an image of Tarif constantly on his phone. As he told Al Jazeera yesterday when discussing how cars transporting wounded protesters to a hospital in Homs were hijacked by security forces: "I was in contact by mobile phone with one of the drivers. When I last spoke to Raed Mehran he told me that they were approaching a checkpoint and he hung up."