Personal videos take the lead in reporting Syrian crackdown
Damascus - Deutsche Welle
Personal videos take the lead in reporting Syrian crackdown
With foreign media barred from the country, the Syrian uprising provides the best example of how the concept of what was formerly called broadcasting has changed and of the transformative power of personal
In his 1971 spoken word classic "The Revolution will not be televised," US singer/songwriter Gil Scott-Heron presciently captured the struggle of African-Americans to find their place in a white majority society.
He weaved his critique around the mass medium which manifested America's dominant culture: television. For Scott-Heron, by constantly broadcasting and thus reaffirming life from the perspective of the white majority and neglecting the very different reality experienced by African-Americans, television, was a key part of what was wrong in the US.
Thirty years later there is probably no better real life proof of how much the nature of what used to be called television - i.e. a one-sided sender-recipient system - has changed than the Syrian revolution.
To be sure, the official Syrian media remains under state control and spouts the government's line. But scratch just below the surface and you'll notice that the Syrian revolution is indeed being televised - albeit in a very different way than many would have imagined just a few years ago.
With practically all international journalists being banned by the Assad regime from Syria, the way the world has learned what it knows so far from the events stem mostly from reports provided by Syrians still inside the country.
Of all the accounts coming out of Syria, video footage due to its immediacy has arguably played the lead role in highlighting the atrocities carried out by the regime and alerting ahesitant global public to the Syrian struggle.
On Youtube alone users can find some 100,000 videos related to the events in Syria. On more specific sites like the Syrian Revolution page on Facebook, an information hub on the conflict with nearly 400,000 supporters, there are dozens of videos from Syria and numerous links to other portals, almost all of them providing video content.
Måns Adler is one of the people who made this possible. The 30-year-old Swede is the founder of Bambuser, a start-up that enables users to broadcast live videos from their mobile phones to the Internet. The company which Adler launched in 2007 now boasts over one million active users who stream videos in real-time from their mobile phones to sites like Facebook, Twitter or the Bambuser homepage.
Since the violence escalated in Syria in recent months, Bambuser has noticed a massive uptick in the number of videos streamed via the site. Currently there are more than 1,000 Syria-related videos posted daily on Bambuser, estimates Adler. What's more, video footage provided by Bambuser is also used by major news outlets like the Associated Press, Press, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera reaching a global audience in the millions.
When Adler founded Bambuser five years ago, he never imagined that it would become a major tool for young Arabs in their struggle against their oppressors. Instead it was mainly seen as a nifty way for people to communicate directly with others. Still, the seed of how the platform could be used was already sown back then.
"It was a mission to democratize the technology of live broadcasting," says Adler.
He explains that when he conceptualized his plans for Bambuser during his university studies, one of the three possible scenarios he sketched out for its usage involved an Iraqi man named Mohamed who used the service to broadcast live footage of innocent civilians being shot by soldiers during the Iraq war.
"So there was that sort of scenario within the idea already from the beginning."
By enabling the average mobile phone user to stream videos live across the Internet free-of-charge, Adler and others tore down a major technical barrier that allowed autocratic regimes to monopolize and control the dissemination of video content.
However, the groundwork for the widespread use of videos to document human rights abuses was laid 20 years ago in New York when singer Peter Gabriel among others founded Witness, a non-profit dedicated to capturing human rights violations via video.
Chris Michael, Witness' video advocacy training manager, says the drastic change in video usage over the past 20 years can't be overemphasized. In its early days when so called handycams were just appearing on the consumer market, Witness - due to steep camera prices and the difficulty of transferring footage - was focused mainly on providing equipment and teaching people how to use it.
Fast forward 20 years and many of us not only carry some sort of video camera in our pocket everyday, but services like Bambuser make it easy for everyone to broadcast and share that content in real-time.
So instead of providing equipment and basic training, Witness today explains how to keep video material fresh and relevant for potential use in court and gives practical advice about how to avoid retribution for documenting human rights.
We are making people aware of the security risks if someone's worst enemy were to see that footage," says Chris Michael.
"We are also building new tools that help blur faces in real time through a new application called the Obscuracam which really is an innovative tool to not only blur faces and make sure that we can protect identities in real time, but also look at ways that we can encrypt content."
In addition, Witness shares a curated list of Syrian videos with its more than 325,000 followers via Twitter.
Confronted with dozens of videos documenting government brutalities going viral, the Assad regime finds it almost impossible to stop their citizens' coverage.
Måns Adler believes that the regime is trying to lower the Internet capacity in Syria in order to make it difficult for the opposition to use it, but he says autocrats have learned that they can never fully put the genie back in bottle again.
"When we were blocked in Egypt last year I think the countries learned a hard lesson whereas they understand that if they block specific Western companies there will be massive pressure from the international community on them."
Chris Michael of Witness notes that as the violence picked up dramatically in Syria over the past weeks, so did the amount of personal accounts of the events.
As one of the best examples of the power of a personal account Michael tells the story of a video showing a nine-year-old boy who is lying on a table in the middle of room with a bandage over his heart. Crying can be heard in the background and you can hear a man speaking and crying into the camera. The man relates what happened to his child and then suddenly pulls off the bandage and you can see a bullet hole straight through his heart. Then he makes a direct plea for the Russian government to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
"It's an unprecedented experience with regard to human rights work in video," says Michael. "And the Syrians are leading the charge."