Citizen journalists’ coverage of Syria’s war via YouTube, Twitter ‘unexplored territory’

Tens of thousands of videos posted by amateur videographers have sparked concern over alleged atrocities attributed to both sides.
BEIRUT // Amid all the bloodshed, confusion and deadlock of Syria's civil war, one fact is emerging: no conflict ever has been covered this way.

Amateur videographers — anyone with a smartphone, internet access and an eagerness to get a message out to the world — have driven the world's outlook on the war through YouTube, Twitter and other social media.

The tens of thousands of videos have at times raised outrage over the crackdown by the regime of president Bashar Al Assad and also have sparked concern over alleged atrocities attributed to both sides.

The videos have also made more difficult the task of navigating between truth and propaganda — with all sides using them to promote their cause. Opponents of Mr Al Assad post the majority of videos, and nearly every rebel-held area or brigade has a media office that produces and disseminates them. To a lesser degree, regime supporters produce some videos — but they also pick apart opposition videos, trying to show they are fake.

In the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War and the second Gulf War in 2003, foreign media directly covered the conflicts, often with reporters embedded with or accompanying the US military.

Media organisations have sent teams to Syria to cover events directly, often at great risk. But they are for temporary stints and are limited both by government regulations and by war-zone dangers, ranging from random bombardment to kidnappings. At least 28 journalists were killed in Syria in 2012.

That has forced international media to cover the war to a large extent from the outside.

Citizen videos have undeniably ensured that details of a conflict that has killed more than 110,000 people and ravaged the country do not go unnoticed, providing a look at the horrors of war: villagers digging through destroyed buildings with their bare hands for survivors; massacre victims in pools of blood; children with grave wounds from heavy bombardment.

Magda Abu-Fadil, veteran journalist and director of the Beirut-based Media Unlimited, said that while some professionals in the field have covered the war, it has mostly been “citizen journalists, activists, warriors and anybody with a mobile device, internet connection or functioning telephone line”.

“We're being bombarded with messages from every direction at breakneck speed, the likes of which we've never seen before,” she said.

The world's response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria was driven in part by opposition activists documenting a suspected sarin attack outside Damascus on August 21, with images of choking, convulsing victims, as well as the bodies of victims, including children. The Syrian government denied it was behind the attack, blaming it on extremists among the rebels.

The US and its allies used those videos to build a case against Damascus, at first threatening to bomb Al Assad regime targets in retaliation, then agreeing to a compromise by which Syria would join the international treaty banning chemical weapons and give up a toxic arsenal it long kept secret.

The White House assessment on the attack cited more than 100 videos and “thousands of social-media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area”, along with other US intelligence information.

Jamal Flitani, a 24-year-old video activist, was among those who rushed to Damascus suburbs of Zamalka and Ein Tarma to record the aftermath of the attack.

“I honestly never thought our videos would be adopted by the US administration and Western governments ... We were simply doing our duty,” he said.

Mr Flitani is an engineering student who now heads an opposition media office in Douma.

Almost every opposition-held neighbourhood now has a media centre complete with high-definition cameras, satellite connections and software for secure uploading, many of them funded by Gulf Arab supporters. Syrian video activists regularly receive training from NGOs, with funds from abroad.

The government and its supporters regularly post images and videos of rebel bombings inside regime-held territory. State media even airs rebel video claiming to show regime massacres, bringing in analysts to dissect the videos and suggest forgery.

Government supporters challenged the video of the August 21 attack. Mother Agnes Mariam Al Salib, a Catholic nun who has lived in Syria for decades, produced a detailed study after pouring over dozens of the videos, citing alleged discrepancies she said showed they were staged. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov cited her report to back up claims rebels carried out the gassing.

Mr Al Assad, who maintains a modern media machine that includes Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram accounts, ridiculed the US reliance on such videos.

“We're not like the American administration. We're not social media administration or government. We are the government that deals with reality,” he said in an interview with CBS News last month.

Several videos on social media sites turned out to be hoaxes, including one that purported to show soldiers burying a rebel alive, and another that alleged to show Assad supporters pouring fuel on prisoners, striking a match and burning them.

The news media's use of YouTube video as a primary source “is really unexplored territory”, said Philip Seib, professor of journalism and diplomacy at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“One of the biggest issues involves verifying the content because sometimes you don't know where these YouTube videos are coming from,” Mr Seib said. “There is a higher responsibility for the news organisations that decide to disseminate YouTube videos to verify before they disseminate it.”

* Associated Press

Published: October 21, 2013 04:00 AM

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