Activist Media from the Frontlines

Mobile, Strategic, and Much More Than Just “Being in the Right Place at the Right Time”

In Syria, activists and citizen journalists fill a media void and strategically inform the global conversation on the uprising by capturing and sharing their own footage. They are organized, trained, smart, strategic, and promote media – much of it produced on mobile phones – with a purpose.

Mass demonstrations and continued state violence continue in Syria. Authorities have banned and killed foreign reporters and have arrested Syrian journalists and bloggers. Outside of the country, news outlets report on the major events, often citing “Syrian activists” as the source of information.  Day-to-day events in cities around the country come to our attention largely because of these activists and citizen journalists who are systematically providing information to news outlets worldwide.

Perhaps the way the term citizen journalism is a misnomer in the context of recent events in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. Activists on the ground and online do not ‘just happen’ to capture and record media because they are in the right place at the right time but instead, systematically gather and strategically disseminate media. It may be time for a new term – ‘activist media” reporting from the frontlines –  that describes the organized media campaigns waged by these activists in a place where traditional media is largely absent.

Riyaad Minty, head of social media for Al Jazeera Network, in a discussion on lessons learned in covering the Arab Spring, noted the importance of citizen content in Al Jazeera’s coverage of events, calling it “incredibly important.” He notes that citizen media is, in fact, not new media; it is simply media, for them now.

A report from Channel 4 News notes rightly that a “a band of brand new, out-of-nowhere, self-styled TV news reporters has sprung up in besieged Syrian cities,” contributing to a media revolution. The article highlights the video, below, in which a video journalist from the Baba al-Sebaa area of Homs reports,  all the while dodging bullets toward the end of the video.

But videos like these are more than just valuable content. They are part of a cogent global narrative from a well-informed and well-equipped group of activists who use mobile live-streaming, video, Skype, and photos in very strategic ways to provide witness and testimony to the events in Syria. They inform a public outside of the country, as well as reinforce activism in many areas within the country, conveying the story of an opposition movement.

Most of the reporting is, of course, coming from the front lines, from people often risking their lives. They work with and are supported by organizations in and outside of the country that aggregate and disseminate content to mainstream media outlets publishing and pushing citizen content to a larger global audience to help reinforce the narrative of the rebellion.

The Vee-Jay Strategy

The media-savvy video journalists, dubbed vee-jays deploy a number of astute dissemination strategies: Photos and videos are shared across multiple platforms alongside additional text context or transcripts, and often have metadata such as time, date, and location stamps. Content is being uploaded hourly, and often live, on any number of social media sites, blogs and live-streaming video services like Bambuser and with the help of satellite connections. And where Internet or mobile network access are shut down or disrupted, footage is collected and distributed via agile alternatives such as runners – the old-fashioned ‘sneaker net.’

During the past year of the uprising, activists have refined the use of multiple technologies and platforms to capture and spread news, with copious videos and reports every day distribited to key Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts.  They are shared across dedicated channels and via support organizations.

The sheer volume of content is notable. Outside of the country, Telecomix has gathered one year of revolution in Syria, collecting videos and news from the ground, and checking, dating, and ordering the content by place — about 900 videos have been posted so far, and this is not a complete collection of content.

In an interview with Guernica magazine, the founders of Syria’s Dier Press Network explain how they formed the country’s first citizen-journalist media company a year ago — a group of runners, camera staff, and people proviing tech support. The Press Network uses multiple channels to spread media content in Syria and abroad, using tactics such as handheld signs in YouTube videos, clearly-branded Facebook pages, and by providing FTP sites for media uploads.

In the interview, Kareem and Ahmed, the founders of the Dier Press Network, note:

Guernica: How did you build a citizen-journalist network? How would others do so?

Kareem: First thing was to start a Facebook page. The problem with this, we found out, was that Facebook was heavily monitored by the government. But still, we felt the most prominent way to spread the news during the media blackout was through Facebook.

Ahmed: We were a ragtag group with camera-phones. To go from there to a media company with a satellite TV station required a lot of risks. When our families found out about our work, they said “You’re risking your life doing this.” But we had to grow.

Kareem: So we took our next step. We had to figure out a way to brand ourselves so that YouTube watchers could associate our videos, which provided a reason for revolution, with a place to upload their own participation in the revolution. To do that, we came up with a logo that we posted on each video. We had protesters in the beginning of videos carry signs with our names and with websites where you could upload your videos anonymously. We had a Facebook forum where we could tell people about FTP sites where they could upload content. Ahmed, from abroad, was able to constantly re-route broken links or sites so that people could continue uploading content to DPN.

This multi-platform approach — leveraging a mix of online and social media sites, live-streaming platforms, and aggregation on dedicated channels, as well as diaspora support —  is not specific to events just in Syria.  The same tactics were used by activists covering events across the Arab Spring. Here is video from near Tahrir Square in Egypt, from February 3, 2012, between the hours of 03:30am – 04:45am.  We first heard of the video on Twitter.

Aggregation

Alix Dunn of the engine room and SaferMobile.org observes that there are two “tiers” of citizen journalists.  In one, citizens are capturing first-hand footage and choosing to upload it to Twitter, Youtube, or Facebook or to established, outside media outlets, such as Al Jazeera’s Your Media/Sharek.

The second tier is going beyond the mere citizen bystander who happens to capture video. Here, citizen and activist journalists become a clearly-identified hub or point person for footage, to then conduct strategic outreach and promotion.  These activists aggregate and push content from others, often by establishing clearly-identified channels for other media organization and the general public. Examples include a Facebook page for the Activists News Association@RamyYaacoub’s Twitter feed; ThawraMedia, an open platform in Egypt that empowers free and individual journalism through sharing of videos and photos, online; theAlexander Page Project and the Reporting from Damascus blog (RFDblog), an aggregation of reports and media from Damascus; and the “Voice of Homs” Danny Dayem, highlighted in these reports by CNN report and BBC; and a YouTube channel from Freedom 4566, to name just a few of these citizen media hubs.

Here, for example, is recent footage shared by the Activists News Association, on a series of YouTube videos showing the shelling on residential areas in the Bab Amr area of Homs in Syria.

Agility Under Changing Conditions

The media activists have learned to be agile in reaction to specific challenges. When the Syrian regime blocked iPhone uploads in late 2011 in an attempt to control information, activists and journalists smuggled Android mobile devices across the border, using VPNs to upload videos. Again, the Dier Press Network founders:

Guernica: But at this point, what kind of cameras were you using?

Ahmed: We were using mostly cameraphones. When we first began, the number of people we knew with smartphones could be counted on your two hands. But now, Androids have been smuggled across the border. You see, at the same time that the definition of a camera was changing, carrying a camera had become a death sentence. The regime has been able to block iPhone uploads. But with the Droid, we can use VPN to upload videos to a number of sites in a number of different ways. In Dier ez-Zour, for example, in every neighborhood there has to be one to two people with a Droid.

Kareem: The best phone to use for filming a rebellion is a Droid.

Guernica: What is the current status of your news network, and what do you envision for the future?

Ahmed: DPN. has branched out to live coverage, a radio station, and a satellite TV stations carried by Niles SAT. We’re also releasing an app for smartphones. I’ve got to hand it to Kareem, who was on the ground in Syria until just a couple months ago. It’s pretty brave to go from a small group with no real funding to a satellite channel.

Strategic Data Collection and Distribution

Activists are savvy about generating and sharing content even with a frequent lack of Internet and mobile network coverage. Dunn notes the systematic data collection and information distribution during Internet shutdowns in Cairo, along the Turkish border of Syria, and in Benghazi, Libya.

When the Egyptian government shut down the Internet and mobile services, and encampments began in Tahrir Square in Egypt in January and February of 2011, a small group of activists set up a media tent in a corner of the square.  Activists and citizens captured video or audio on their mobiles phones and came to the media tent to upload media onto hard drives there. The drives were then physically transported to places that still had Internet access. In this way, “a small group of people were committed to disseminating information,  curating information and strategically sharing it with international media outlets,” Dunn said.

Crafting and Controlling a Message (and Sometimes Embellishing the Facts)

This curation at media tents allows activists to also better control their message, to reduce ‘noise’, and take a more strategic approach to posting content to YouTube or sharing with mainstream media outlets.

There is a similar approach in Syria. Content is strategically gathered, uploaded, and shared. “By naming these points media houses or tents early during conflict, they can become ad-hoc, mini-institutions,” Dunn says. “Media tents,” whether physical or virtual, are also plugged into local activist networks, and are thus more informed and aware as to what to filter for in order to transmit a clear and consistent message.  Lastly, these distribution hubs become a clearly-identifiable contact point for outside media.

In a recent documentary on Channel 4, the vee-jays of Syria are protrayed in vivid detail. Filmed by an activist from France identified only as “Mani’, the video follows the vee-jays and their strategies and their brazen reporting.  Unfortunately, as the The Daily Beast writes, in their effort to convey their message, some have been shown to embellish their reporting:

The report also spotlights how activists, in one instance, stage a video. In one scene, Mani catches Tellawi complaining to his colleagues that the section of Homs they’re reporting from is too far from the action. “We’ll need to set a tire on fire,” Tellawi says, in order to mimic smoke from battle. Then, Tellawi remembers that he’s being filmed and turns to Mani’s camera with a sheepish grin. Later in the day, Tellawi stands on a rooftop to record a video dispatch as smoke billows behind him. It’s a visually harrowing scene. Mani pans past Tellawi and traces the smoke to an alley below, where a tire is engulfed in flames. 

The report rightly points out that the activists are not journalists and have an agenda – something that news organizations relying on footage from Syria struggly with.  The selective showing of footage, rightly noted as a greater issue than the staging of a fire, and ommission of other footage certainly serves the narrative of the media activists. But, the Daily Beast rightly points out:

While the brutality of Assad’s crackdown is clear—and few, if any, seasoned observers buy into the regime’s anti-activist smear campaigns—Tellawi’s burning tire spotlights an issue journalists who rely on footage from video activists have struggled with from the start: How much can they trust footage they’re getting from sources who are clearly partial to the opposition’s cause? Anderson Cooper recently dedicated a long CNN segment to debunking allegations that Dayem was embellishing his reports. As Mabro, the deputy foreign editor at Channel 4 News, puts it: “News organizations have been relying on these guys for footage for the last six months, but they’re not journalists. They have a message they want out.”

 

Collaboration In and Out of the Country

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC), which recently won a 2012 Netizen award, is an umbrella organization which works to coordinate and synchronize activities, movement, and political positions of members in cities and towns across Syria.

The LCC’s media team consists of activists on the ground in Syria who capture and upload content, and a network of people around the world who help translate, verify, and disseminate media via the LCC site, Facebook pagephoto blog, or on Twitter.

LCC does not conduct on-the-ground trainings in Syria, and LCC spokesperson Rafif Jouejati suspects that most media training that is happening right now is being carried out remotely. The LCC, for example, uses social collaboration tools and closed chat rooms to teach aspects of documentation. Many lessons get at the issue of authenticity: when filming, make sure to capture a known landmark in the city or town, include a shot from a local dated paper or an event that is widely known to be happening.

Focusing on authentic, verifiable data is strategic itself, and LCC takes it seriously. “We do not disseminate information unless it has been corroborated by multiple other sources,” she said. “At one point, the regime accused content of being filmed at a studio in Qatar,” Jouejati said. “So we’ve taken great pains to make sure footage and reports are are authenticated so we can counter the regime.”

Reporters Without Borders highlights strategic ways that activists, netizens, and hacktivists combat censorship. Telecomix, a distributed groups of technologists, conducted #OpSyria, helping Syrians avert government censorship. On September 4, 2011, the network conducted a campaign that,

…succeeded in diverting all Syrian Internet traffic to a special page with advice on circumventing censorship, including how to install the Tor software and use a secured https connection. More and more people have since then connected to the Telecomix channel using the protected instant messaging system IRC and have been given help with circulating videos, photos and eye-witness accounts.

Live-streaming service Bambuser has a dedicated “Middle East” section with broadcasts going up every day from Egypt and Syria. This may serve to not only inform those outside the region, but also to motivate those putting themselves at risk to capture the footage.

Deir Press has extensive footage on Bambuser – hours and hours of events unfolding from demonstrations and chants, to documenting attacks on specific neighborhoods.  Here is footage from March 23, 2012:

http://static.bambuser.com/r/player.swf?vid=2495690

Telecomix has gathered one year of revolution in Syria, collecting and posting about 900 videos so far.Syrian Stories adds context and categories to these videos with an interactive timeline.

Support for Safer, Better Citizen Content

Organizations like Mosireen are a result of the growth of citizen media in Egypt, in which, “armed with mobile phones and cameras, thousands upon thousands of citizens kept the balance of truth in their country by recording events as they happened in front of them, wrong-footing censorship and empowering the voice of a street-level perspective.”

Mosireen provides a workspace for activists and the public as well as training, technical support, and equipment. It’s also a platform to share videos with a larger audience. In an email invitation for a gathering in early March, Mosireen highlights its growth:

We have very quickly become the most viewed non-profit YouTube channel in Egypt of all time, have accumulated hundreds of hours of crucial footage and trained over one hundred people with skills ranging from the basics to the advanced.

This more strategic and skilled networked group of activists does not, however, go unnoticed. In Syria,the government has blocked mobile services, including 3G, and blocked live-streaming service Bambuser.  Previously, Bambuser has been blocked in Bahrain for much of the last 6 months and before that in Egypt in 2011.

(Some) Newsrooms and Publishers Get It

Media-savvy activists know that a powerful video is one that is seen. In sharing content across multiple platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, live blogs, dedicated channels like Mosireen, and by direct upload to news outlets — events are seen within and outside the borders of Syria, Egypt, and Bahrain. This helps to reinforce a narrative within the country and ultimately reinforces the sentiment, to the world, that there is an opposition movement.

According to this article, the number of Bambuser videos from Syria has increased notably this year, and mainstream media outlets are publishing the content:

Yesterday an oil pipeline in Homs was bombed by the Syrian military. A local citizen in Homs, who’s been filming the fighting over several days, used Bambuser to live-stream an entire day of footage showing the black smoke rising from the explosion, with gunfire and shelling heard in the background. The archived footage can be watched here. That footage was also broadcast live by many major TV news outlets including CNN, BBC, AlJazeera, SkyNews and others with credentials to access live feeds from Bambuser.

Demotix, a company which brokers its feed of citizen journalism to mainstream media and pays citizen journalists a small percentage of the sale, also sees an increase in the use of citizen content amongst established news outlets. CEO Turi Munthe says that Demotix media clients have seen over the course of a few years an increase in content, not just in terms of breadth and where it comes from but also in terms of coverage and quality of content.

By and large, though, mainstream media outlets still call the targeted, intentional, and organized media campaigns simply ‘citizen media,’ all the while extensively using the footage in their reporting.  We think it’s time to understand that citizen media from the frontlines in Syria and across the Middle East is, thanks to savvy and organized activists, now much more than just citizens ‘being at the right place at the right time.’

Image courtesy of Flickr user Syria-Frames-of-Freedom, licensed under Creative Commons. The photo was taken using a Nokia N8.

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