Egyptian protests and the role of video journalism

The unrest in the Middle East over the last month is perhaps the best example to date of the internet’s power in organising and fuelling mass protest movements.

The most recent and most fervent of the protests has been in Egypt. So where did it all begin? And what role has online video played in shaping the protests?

A call to protest in Cairo

25th January marked the first day of marches, riots and rallies. But this was only made possible through the use of social networking sites in the run-up to the 25th. Several days before, online groups had formed, united in their goal to get people on to the street to protest.

Youth groups, such as the April 6 Youth Movement, have been credited with starting the protests. The vlog by Asma Mahfouz (below), filmed on 18th January, was one of the first to surface. Her message was spread virally throughout social networking sites, calling for the first day of protest to take place on 25th January – a national police holiday.

Mubarak’s clampdown

Once the protest movement had hit the streets, internet activity in Egypt increased exponentially as people in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez documented the protests. They used the internet to plan further protest and to upload pictures and videos to document what was going on in the streets.

Barack Obama even gave his response to the Egyptian protests via a live stream on the White House’s YouTube channel.

The Egyptian government eventually recognised the powerful role that the internet was playing in facilitating the protests. And they did try and put a stop to it. As the graph below shows, they succeeded in virtually shutting down the internet across Egypt on 28th January. But by then, it was too late. The wave of protest had already swept across the country’s largest cities and there was nothing that could be done to stem the flow.

Graph showing Egypt internet use 27/28 January 2010 (Courtesy of Arbor Networks)

“Today every protester is a journalist”

Mubarak’s attempts to quell the unrest and diminish the role of the Egyptian citizen journalists failed. Sherine Barakat, an experienced Egyptian journalist, proudly claimed on 28th January: “Today every protester is a journalist.”

Video has been one of the most powerful mediums of all for the Egyptian protester journalists. Despite the effective closure of the internet by the Mubarak regime, videos were still finding their way onto Facebook and Western media sites.

Mobile phone footage enabled protesters to capture the moments that professional camera crews had missed. The extent of the unrest was clear for all to see, but the most powerful videos were those that exposed the brutality of the Egyptian police.

Support for Mubarak’s regime was further eroded when the death of Mohamed Attef was captured on video. The 17 year-old was shot dead by police during a stand off with protesters. The footage was taken by a member of the public, who passed it to a local journalist, who subsequently passed it on to AP. From there, it found its way on to Facebook groups, boosting support for the protesters’ cause both in Egypt and abroad.

The role of international broadcasters

International broadcasters have played their part, too, in spreading the message of the protesters via online video. AP (as mentioned above) and other agencies have been posting a constant stream of user generated videos on their websites. The Guardian’s live update service has provided excellent snapshots of the mood in Cairo and other cities. Last night after Mubarak’s much-anticipated address to the Egyptian people, videos were quickly uploaded to the Guardian’s live feed showing the reaction amongst protesters gathered in Tahrin Square (see below).

Al Jazeera’s 24-hour coverage, although mainly viewed on television, is also streamed online. The English Al Jazeera channel was so popular that Livestation, a website that streams Al Jazeera, crashed because so many people were trying to access it.

Today, as the protests enter their ninth day, it has been reported that internet access has been restored to most of Egypt.  The Egyptian government has clearly realised that shutting down the internet was too little, too late. Whatever happens to Mubarak and the protest movement, it is clear that online video journalism has played a fundamental role in this mass protest movement.

Will Teddy

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