1 Feb 2012

Video journalists leading a Syrian media revolution

A band of brand new, out-of-nowhere, self-styled TV news reporters has sprung up in besieged Syrian cities. Their sudden emergence is a startling new phenomenon of the 11-month-long Syrian revolt. It is nothing short of a media revolution.

A band of brand new, out-of-nowhere, self-styled TV news reporters has sprung up in besieged Syrian cities. Their sudden emergence is a startling new phenomenon of the 11-month-long Syrian revolt.  It is nothing short of a media revolution.

These young men (so far, it’s only men who’ve done this) deliver news with attitude.  They are untrained in the journalistic arts of impartiality and balance, their Arabic is unpolished and coloquial.  Sometimes, witnessing a dramatic firefight, they find it hard to contain themselves and an “Allah-hu Akhbar” (God is Great) slips out.

But their output is compelling and some have become overnight media stars.

This You Tube Syrian news revolution is happening across the country. There’s a fantastic gallery of pictures by Italian photographer Alessio Romenzi, showing amateur video journalists – known in the trade as VJs – at work in the small town of Al Qsair, near the besieged city of Homs.

But it’s Homs itself, a city known as the Capital of the Syrian Revolution, which is now the undisputed Capital of Syrian Revolutionary Video Journalism too.

There, entire neighbourhoods have been sealed off from each other for months by Bashar al-Assad’s tanks.  Most Homs city districts now boast teams of revolutionary newsgatherers, fronted by reporters.

The most famous is Khaled Abou Salah, from Bab Amer, an opposition activist who’s now a rising star on Al Jazeera Arabic, where he goes live on satellite TV, and is introduced as a member of Homs Revolutionary Council.

Khaled Abou Salah began his reporting career on Facebook and You Tube, where this report first appeared, before being re-run on Al Jaz.

This is an impressive humanitarian report by another Homs VJ, Omar Telawi, from the Baba al-Sebaa area of Homs.

He has reported on the living conditions of Homs residence – and he’s also done an embed with the embryonic Free Syrian Army. That’s him holding the revolutionary flag and dodging bullets towards the end.

Abo Jaafer, a VJ from al-Bayada, Homs, has ventured into nearby al-Rastan to document siege conditions there.

Here he reports from a house hit by government shells.  He’s appeared on Al Jaz Arabic as well.  Don’t be fooled by the number of views, by the way; these videos are posted by every Syrian oppostion network.

Last night on Channel 4 News we featured Danny Abdul Dayeem, a British-Syrian activist, who, with a friend who wields a handycam, reports on bad things happening – unusually, and helpfully for western audiences, in fluent English.

We see Danny making a terrifying dash through sniper-fire to bring us pictures of an oil-pipeline just targeted, he tells us, by government mortars. He pops up in what he describes as a “field hospital” where he shows us those killed and injured in what he says is government shelling on Monday morning.

Each report is datelined; exact location and the date.  This doesn’t in itself necessarily authenticate the report, but combined with other reports from other districts of the same attack filmed from a different location, the reports have the effect of corroborating each other.

For example, Danny Abdul Dayeem’s report on Tuesday of the oil pipeline explosion was also filmed and reported from another nearby district by another amateur VJ.  Some, like him, prefer to use pseudonyms. He called himself “Aljaad” – or Grandfather.

The Syrian regime has long contested the authenticity of some of the tens of thousands of videos on YouTube, claiming they were either entirely fabricated or shot somewhere else at some other time.

The audience for these online TV stars is not just the news programmes of the outside world – like ours – who are unable to obtain official visas to enter Syria. The videos are known to be watched inside Syria as well. Although the government blocks internet access to YouTube and social networking sites, Syrians use networks of proxy servers to watch what many there consider “the real news”.

This is not surprising, given what’s served up by Syrian state TV.  If anyone’s in any doubt why young Homsi VJs are risking their necks to tell the world their version of events, you only need to listen to the account of Younes el-Yousef, a former state TV cameraman who (like all his colleagues, he insists) doubled as a secret policeman.

“Our role was to fabricate,” he told Channel 4 News in Cairo, where he recently fled, having been sickened by the deceptions his job required.

He described turning up at opposition protests, which had been reported by satellite TV stations, where his role was to “lie about them happening”.

“We would arrive after protests ended,” Younes el-Youssef said. “They would fire tear gas, the crowds would disperse and after that, we would turn up. Then we would ask locals:  ‘Was there a protest here?’ They would say ‘No, there was no protest.’ The people were afraid.”

“We would film under orders of the army,” he said. “Our filming was always for the benefit of the regime, army and nation.” He claims he fled into exile after a disagreement with a correspondent, who informed the security forces he was working for the revolution. He added that agents for the regime had twice tried to kidnap him in Cairo.

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