Caught on film
The plethora of videos purporting to record recent events increasingly conditions the public's response to news. But, argues Dena Rashed
, the camera is sometimes far from being a neutral witness
It starts with being there, in the centre of the action, be it a demonstration, a break-in or a beating. Armed with a mobile phone you capture what you see, upload and share.
Protesters have been successfully using their mobile phones, especially since 25 January, to record the violence perpetrated by the security forces. Last week, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) used the same technique, showing film during a press conference to show that some protesters also used violence.
In the early days of the revolution, a film of the police using water cannon against demonstrators who had stopped to pray on a bridge downtown sparked outrage. Footage containing images of youngsters killed on 28 January led many who might not have supported the revolutionaries to change their minds.
Videos and still images were the driving force for the cumulative anger that sparked the 25 January Revolution. But it is not the first time they have been used to expose oppressive practices. In 2007 a video was circulated showing the torture by police of a minibus driver, Emad El-Kebir. At the time it was rumoured that the film was made and broadcast by the police officers involved as a way to intimidate other minibus drivers in the same area. If that was the case, the plan backfired spectacularly. The footage was quickly picked up by rights activists.
The graphic images contained in the film, says Nasser Amin, the director of the Centre for Arab Judiciary who defended Emad El-Kebir, exposed the truth about torture in Egypt. After years of shrugging off accusations of torture with outright denials the Ministry of Interior was forced to act and two police officers received jail sentences of three years each. It was, Amin told Al-Ahram Weekly, the moment when the mobile phone came of age as a weapon against repression, when "images become the supporter of truth and, in many cases, the shaper of events".
In 2010 Khaled Said was beaten to death by two policemen in Alexandria. A year and half has passed since his death but mention his name and the image it will conjure for millions of Egyptians is of a face battered beyond recognition. Pictures of Said's broken features became a symbol of police brutality. In 2011 two policemen were each sentenced to seven years in prison for the brutal murder.
Such images carried great potency. From the earliest days of the revolution the spread of footage across the Internet documenting the violence meted out by the security forces persuaded many to join the protests that eventually led to the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak.
"The videos that captured events of 25 and 28 January rallied many Egyptians who had never been politically active to demonstrate," says Amin. Film of a police car running over protesters, he says, was one of the reasons people gathered in Tahrir Square for 18 days.
In the last 12 months the footage has come thick and fast. Just when you think you cannot absorb anymore images of cruelty another film comes along capturing one side of the story, another angle of the event.
The most controversial videos of the year were taken in front of the Maspero headquarters of state TV and radio in October. The clashes between the military and protesters left 27 dead and hundreds injured. Last month saw clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, five days of violence, documented on film, that left 45 dead and hundreds injured. The violence was triggered when police tried to forcibly disperse a small number of protesters in Tahrir Square. The heavy handed police tactics again backfired when they were captured and broadcast. Instead of clearing the square, the police action brought out thousands more demonstrators.
December saw yet another attempt to disperse protesters. It resulted in the disturbing image of a young woman being dragged across the ground, her torn clothes exposing her midriff as she was kicked and stomped on by soldiers. One result of the public outrage provoked by the video was thousands of women taking to the streets to protest against such violent treatment of protesters.
Images can be doctored, the video of the girl being dragged across the ground being a classic case. The whole video is evidence of brutality on the part of the military police, yet an edited version was soon circulating on the Internet showing a soldier attempting to cover the girl's exposed body, a clear attempt to place a positive spin on the event.
But the truth will come out, says Amin. "Denials don't convince anyone of anything anymore. It's no longer about selected details but what actually happened."
He recalls how in the El-Kebir case attempts were made to discredit the video, with the defence calling in so-called experts who denounced the footage as fake. The judge saw through the ploy.
In recent weeks Amin has found his own life changed through a video. A candidate in the first round of the parliamentary elections, he was standing in the Maadi, Tebin and Helwan constituency against, among others, Mustafa Bakri. As Bakri was announced the winner, someone uploaded a film showing the results as recorded on the official election website which posted a run-off between Nasser Amin and Ahmed El-Derwi, with Bakri trailing behind. The numbers of votes each candidate won are clearly displayed yet for some reason, says Nasser, "the presiding judge announced that Bakri was the winner."
"I accepted the announced result. I hadn't ever considered that there would be electoral fraud after the revolution. Then someone sent me a link to the video and I realised what had really happened."
Amin says that more than 200,000 votes were added to the total number of votes. He has appealed the result of the election and is now awaiting a court ruling.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine the authenticity of film footage, let alone whether or not it tells the whole truth or is a carefully edited version. Sharing videos on social networks is easy, involving a simple click, but the moral responsibility for any ramifications that ensue from dissemination falls on the uploader.
Even more controversial are the criteria used by TV producers in selecting footage for public broadcast. How do they choose?
Omar Shoeb, producer of ON TV's Baladna bel-Masry, insists experience is important in selecting videos. He says that "access became even easier, especially through Twitter since it is faster than Facebook and shorter".
ON TV, owned by businessman Naguib Sawiris, has become known as a platform for revolutionaries, especially the programmes Baladna bel-Masry, presented by Reem Maguid, and Akher Kalam, presented by Yousri Fouda.
It is the channel's social media department, says Shoeb, that both sorts through content provided by viewers and searches for content to display. The department also follows up on contacts and tracks feedback from episodes. With the video of the girl being dragged across Tahrir Square, says Shoeb, he did not air the edited version when first he saw it but chose to wait instead.
"It is important not to take hasty decisions in social media. Many people have fallen into the trap and accidentally disseminated false information."
If a video cannot be verified the channel will sometimes air it and ask the public to provide any information they can.
Sometimes an anonymous film casts new light on a story that is clearly being spun. Shoeb remembers videos captured by people when marching towards Abbasiya, trying to reach the Ministry of Defence. The official line was that disgruntled residents of Abbasiya had attacked the protesters. What those filming with their mobile cameras inadvertently captured, however, were groups of plainclothes men standing in line with the security forces, which led him to deduce that the so-called spontaneous attacks were in fact organised.
Sifting though the seemingly unstoppable flow of information to validate footage might seem impossible but online experts know how to trace what they call lagna electronia, an electronic ambush. Edited videos of events are circulated by those seeking to spread doubt about what really happened.
"You can identify such accounts on Twitter, for example, because they have zero followers yet are following thousands," says Shoeb.
Tweeting since 2006, and with a masters degree on the use of new media, Shoeb has contributed to 11 different programmes, always with an eye on online news.
But isn't there an ethical dilemma involved in deciding whether or not something is just too violent to be broadcast?
Shoeb admits that negotiating such dilemmas is part of the job. "When people die we are obliged to show that to the audience, editing the videos at times."
Competition is strong between channels. Everyone is seeking high viewing figures but viewing patterns, Shoeb argues, are in flux. "People now spend surfing channels to know what is happening, unless it is a historical interview, when they stick to one channel." The greatest challenge, now, he says, is maintaining neutrality.
For one tweep, who has many online followers, the amount of information is staggering. Bassem Sabry, media executive and producer and also the man behind anaarabcitizen.blogspot.com, says that after 25 January Twitter began attracting huge numbers of people which was both a healthy and an unhealthy development. He has developed his own approach to judging the ever growing number of video posts. "There is the content, of course, the editing and the ambience of the video, plus its title and who is sharing it," he told the Weekly.
People, says Sabry, increasingly filter the videos they choose to view, rejecting those that might disagree with their own take on events. "It all depends on what kind of conclusion they are willing to be left with. Many people are developing resistance to certain videos because of their abundance and shocking nature."
Sabry cites the video of the female protester being attacked by soldiers in Tahrir as a powerful example of how film can transform received ideas. "It showed that human beings are human beings, and it stripped any aura of sanctity from the actions of the military police."
Last week activists began displaying films showing security violence towards protesters, projecting them in parks and other public spaces. "It is an important initiative," says Sabry, "and if people are willing to watch then the move might work in dispelling growing public complacency."
One tweet, though, remarked that in Sheraton Heliopolis no shop owner wanted to provide an electricity outlet for the projectors. Yet Sabry still argues that events following the 25 January shattered political apathy, and the public's willingness to unquestioningly swallow the official version of events, for good.
Most recently, SCAF has started to use videos as an incriminatory, screening footage of protesters destroying public property and engaging in violence against security forces. It is, says Amin, an example of the way video has become a partisan form, used to propagate a particular view of what is happening.
Sabry concurs, pointing to censorship from all sides. "Some protesters don't point out the shortcomings of their protest, might tweet the reverse in fact in an attempt to protect their cause. There are lots of bad habits that have grown since the revolution."
The latest suspicious video circulated on Facebook, showed two men in plain clothes, on top of the Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square, handcuffing a man and beating him. There has been many speculations about the nature and the timing of the video but the truth about it is not yet on the surface.