While Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria has not been engaging in violence on a Qadaffi-like scale, snipers have reportedly fired on peaceful protesters and civilian casualties were reported in several cities recently. Military, police, and secret police are all reportedly confiscating cameras and mobile phones in an attempt to keep details of what's happening in Syria from the outside world. But local activists have found a solution: They've switched to the use of hard-to-detect pen cameras and even started an impromptu news network.
Pen cameras have been on the market for several years. Most take still photographs and video footage; they are primarily used for surveillance purposes in the United States and Western Europe. However, they've also become one of the preferred methods of video gathering for Syrian activists.
According to the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones, Syrian protesters have switched en masse to using camera pens to document current events:
Despite the government attempts to close down local communication networks, pictures showing dreadful violence by security personnel have been posted on the internet—sometimes with more than one angle of the same incident. [...] The cameras, some of them disguised as pens so people could film without being noticed, had to be purchased and distributed, and the same goes for the means to upload the images: satellite phones, foreign SIMD cards and even, I am told, small portable sat dishes.
While camera pens may be extremely hard to spot, they are not ideal recorders. Camera pens generally shoot low-resolution footage, have a short battery life, and are relatively expensive. It is not known who is paying for the camera pens, satellite phones, and portable satellite dishes that the BBC claims are being smuggled into Syria.
Tens of thousands of videos appearing to document violent action by Syrian forces against civilians have been posted to YouTube since protests began. Some of them are extremely graphic. YouTube has even began taking steps to curate content uploaded from Syria—in collaboration with news site Storyful, YouTube's CitizenTube project is now creating guides to Syrian crowdsourced footage online.
Syrian protesters, however, aren't waiting for YouTube to construct a narrative out of the varied footage. Activists in Syria created their own news network, the Shaam News Network (here's the English-language Facebook page), to disseminate content online via Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in both Arabic and English. The network's content includes a mix of protest footage, shots of reportedly injured civilians, and video of what appears to be government attacks on civilians in multiple cities.
One of the network's most viewed clips shows footage of a gigantic picture of Bashar al-Assad being torn from a building in Hama, Syria. Hama was the site of the massacre of at least 10,000 Islamists by government forces over several weeks in 1982.
Video content from local activists such as the Shaam News Network and unconnected individuals on YouTube will likely play an even more important role in bringing news to the rest of the world in the coming weeks. The official government Syrian Arab News Agency takes an unceasing pro-Assad party line, which labels protesters as "extremist terrorists" and foreign reporters inside Syria are at ever-increasing risk: An American reporter for Al Jazeera English, Dorothy Parvez, disappeared after disembarking from her flight into Damascus on Friday and is widely believed to be in government custody.
[Image via Flickr user Syriana2011]