Yaser pushed the record button on his cellphone as the protest heated up in his hometown in central Syria. When pro-government forces attacked one of the demonstrators, he used his phone as a camera. Shots rang out. The phone, now on the ground, was quickly picked up by a friend. Yaser had just filmed his own death.
In watching Middle East revolutions on TV today, it’s common to see YouTube videos from activists who’ve become the new war reporters in countries sealed by media blackouts. Their weapon of choice? The cellphone.
This, of course, is a far cry from the traditional war reporting in, say, Vietnam, Serbia or Iraq. These new war reporters document events on cellphone cameras. They upload them on YouTube with some brief explanation of where, how and who. Their task isn’t easy: They have to manoeuvre through proxies or cross into neighbouring countries to use the Internet.
Other activists, operating as a news desk, add their information to the filmed material. They circulate tutorials on Facebook on how to avoid the side effects of tear gas or how to upload videos on YouTube. They open pages on social media websites to announce the locations of demonstrations, and they create pages on Facebook for key intellectuals who’ve been arrested. The activists use their “electronic army” to fight pro-government supporters who try to sabotage their work; the pro-government supporters, in turn, have set up their own “electronic army” with the same purpose.
The credibility of these YouTube videos are not certified. But with the limited resources and scarce information due to media blackouts in these countries, mainstream TV channels have been using the flow of information from this unconventional reporting – although they don’t vouch for their accuracy.
These cellphone activists hope that, by documenting the Arab governments’ brutal practices, they’ll eventually force an end to the killings. To some extent, they’re helping to bring about change, because they’re offering proof that there is, indeed, a pro-democracy movement that’s organizing demonstrations – and daring violent reprisals.
This technique has been used in several Arab countries, but the flashpoint has been Syria, where foreign media have had limited access in the past four months. Arab governments, of course, have always seen danger in the free flow of information, and they remain suspicious of social media, restricting access to the Internet in various ways and to different extents.
Last year, you’ll recall, some Persian Gulf governments threatened to cut off the BlackBerry’s instant messaging service if the Canadian firm Research In Motion didn’t give these governments access to information carried through this service on their lands. They claimed that the highly encrypted service would create social chaos in their conservative societies, where dating between young men and women is still taboo. Other countries in the region said such a measure was necessary for security reasons – to monitor possible terror activities or “suspicious gatherings.” And they ensured that access to the Internet was not only expensive but also monitored.
These regimes were right to be afraid, because the free flow of information and openness to the rest of the world have led a younger generation to realize how backward their systems and governments are. They have seen the Internet and they have seen what democratic change can do.
Kinda Jayoush is a former Reuters correspondent in the Middle East. Her work now appears on Dubai’s MBC TV network and in the newspaper Al-Hayat.