Candid cameraphone

In February 1982, a massacre was committed in the Syrian city of Hama. To put down a revolt, forces loyal to Hafez al-Assad levelled whole districts to the ground and murdered an estimated 20,000 people. Those wishing to commemorate this sad anniversary will, however, be hard-pressed to find any photos or video footage documenting the massacre. The regime made sure to keep the media out.

Thirty years on, the story could not be more different. Thanks to the internet and the mobile phone, incidents, however minor, can be recorded and shared with millions of people around the world. In Egypt, they called it the "Facebook Revolution". In Syria, it is the revolution of YouTube. With the media banned from reporting inside the country and the regime's propaganda machine in overdrive, uploading a video on YouTube became the only reliable method by which Syrians could hope to spread news of the crimes perpetrated against them. Thousands of videos have appeared since the start of the uprising in March 2011 and the number keeps growing.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad had long feared the subversive potential of the internet. It banned Facebook and YouTube, in addition to dozens of opposition websites. Activists hit back, using proxy servers to circumvent online censorship, but in a country where only 17 per cent of the population has access to the internet, satellite television remains the mass communication tool of choice. Visitors to Syria are struck by the number of satellite dishes on rooftops and it is through these that Syrians watch uncensored news. The visual aspect of YouTube lent itself perfectly to satellite channels hungry for footage of protests and crackdowns to accompany eyewitness accounts. YouTube not only became a way to "broadcast yourself" but an effective method by which a video could reach the likes of al-Jazeera or the BBC at a click of a button.

Professional journalists are often suspicious of "citizen journalism". When it came to Syria, however, even the largest news networks became wholly reliant on amateur cameramen to supply them with footage. Realising that videos needed to be authenticated, edited and contextualised in order for TV stations to broadcast them, activists living abroad began setting up YouTube channels to receive and process raw footage.

Making a stand

The Syrian uprising began in the southern city of Deraa but the way it spread to other cities owes a lot to this mode of communication. Grainy images of soldiers opening fire on protesters made a huge impression on Syrians across the country. Watching the bravery of Deraa's residents and the brutality of the security forces, they felt compelled to make a stand. When a 13-year-old, Hamza al-Khateeb, was arrested in April 2011 and returned to his family a lifeless corpse, they were instructed to remain quiet. What they did instead was to film his swollen and bruised body and upload it to YouTube. The teenager instantly became a symbol of the uprising.

It is said that new media empowers individuals. As the Syrian uprising enters its eleventh month, the only thing that stands between President al-Assad and another Hama massacre is the cameraphone and an internet connection. The thesis is holding up - for now.

Malik al-Abdeh is chief editor of Barada TV