Candid Cameraphone: My first article for the New Statesman
I was approached last week by the New Statesman magazine to write a short piece about the role of YouTube in the Syrian Revolution. I couldn’t possibly turn them down.
Below is the text of the article as it appeared in the 13th February edition of the magazine:
In February 1982 a massacre was committed in the Syrian city of Hama. To put down a revolt, forces loyal to President Hafiz Al-Assad levelled whole districts to the ground and murdered an estimated 20,000 people. Those wishing to commemorate this sad anniversary will however be hard pressed to find any photographs or video footage documenting the massacre. The regime made sure to keep the media out.
Thirty years on, the story could not be more different. Thanks to the Internet and the mobile phone, incidents, however minor, can be recorded and shared with millions of people around the world. In Egypt they called it the “Facebook revolution.” In Syria, it is the revolution of YouTube. With the media banned from reporting inside the country, and the regime’s propaganda machine in over-drive, uploading a video on YouTube became the only reliable method by which Syrians could hope to spread news of the crimes perpetrated against them. Thousands of videos have appeared since the start of the uprising in March 2011, and the number keeps growing.
The Assad regime had long feared the subversive potential of the Internet. It banned Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, in addition to dozens of opposition websites. Activists hit back with use of proxy servers to circumvent online censorship, but in a country where only 17 per cent of the population have access to the Internet, satellite television remains the mass communication tool of choice. Visitors to Syria are struck by the number of satellite dishes on rooftops, and it is through these that Syrians watch uncensored news. The visual aspect of YouTube lent itself perfectly to satellite channels that hankered for footage of protests and crackdowns to accompany eyewitness accounts. YouTube not only became a way to “broadcast yourself”, but an effective method by which a video could reach the likes of Al-Jazeera or the BBC at a click of a button.
Professional journalists are often suspicious of “citizen journalism.” When it came to Syria however, even the largest news networks became wholly reliant on amateur cameramen to supply them with footage. Realising that videos needed to be authenticated, edited and contextualised in order for TV stations to broadcast them, activists living abroad began setting up YouTube channels to receive and process raw footage.
Making a stand
The Syrian uprising began in southern city of Dara but the way it spread to other cities owes a lot to this mode of communication. Grainy images of soldiers opening fire on protesters made a huge impression on Syrians across the country. Watching the bravery of Dara’s residents, and the brutality of the security forces, they felt compelled to make a stand. When 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib was arrested in April 2011 and returned to his family a lifeless corpse, they were instructed to remain quiet. What they did instead was to film his swollen and badly-bruised body and upload it to YouTube. The teenager instantly became a symbol of the uprising.
It is said that New Media empowers individuals. As the Syrian uprising enters its eleventh month, the only thing that stands between President Bashar Al-Assad and another Hama massacre is the camera phone and an Internet connection. The thesis is holding up – for now.
Malik Al-Abdeh is Chief Editor of Barada TV