Monday, December 06, 2010

The 'eye' of a cyclone

There are 5 billion mobile phones on the planet and most have a tiny camera embedded in it. As a result, any person can take a photo of an event and upload it, much faster than the traditional media, like TV and newspapers. This power of the individual is unnerving governments and corporations all over the world, says Nik Gowing, a long-standing anchor of the BBC.

By Shevlin Sebastian

On September 16, 2007, the guards of the Blackwater private security agency, who were escorting a convoy of US State Department officials, shot dead 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children in Nissour Square at Baghdad, Iraq. Unfortunately, for Blackwater, the shooting was captured on a mobile camera and posted on the Internet.

“This 20-second video dealt a savage blow to Blackwater,” says Nik Gowing, the distinguished BBC journalist, during a lecture, titled, ‘Skyful of lies,’ at the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram.

“This most secretive of companies was forced into accountability by the US Congress,” he says. The reclusive CEO, Erik Prince, had to explain how and why the incident took place. The next day, the US government revoked the company's license to operate in Iraq. Blackwater had no option, but to change its name. It is now Xe Services.

In 2007, when there was an extraordinary demonstration by Buddhist monks on the streets of Burma, much of it was captured on mobile phone cameras, and uploaded, at great personal risk on to You Tube. “The Burmese government rejected what was being reported, as a 'skyful of lies',” says Gowing. “They were in denial mode.”

Just after the July, 2005 bomb blasts in London, the police cordoned off a street in North Kensington, to nab a couple of suspects, Muktar Said Ibrahim, and Ramzi Mohammed. “This was less than three miles from the headquarters of the BBC where I work,” says Gowing. “But we could not get our cameras inside the lane.”

But a resident living in the house, opposite to the suspects, took photos of Muktar and Ramzi, unarmed and bare-chested, with their arms upraised in surrender, on his mobile phone. “He sold the images for 80,000 pounds,” says Gowing.

In fact, minutes after the bomb blasts, the BBC was inundated with e-mails, videos and photographs. The corporation was overwhelmed by the material. “Later, we had to create a User Generated Content department,” says Gowing.

But the BBC does not put everything on the air instantaneously. There are experts to authenticate and moderate the material. “Sometimes, they say, ‘That picture does not look right, or this video looks odd,’” says Gowing. “It is only after their clearance that the material is uploaded.”

The mobile phone with the tiny camera embedded in it is having a profound impact on power, particularly in times of crisis. “All of us can bear witness now,” says Gowing. “In the most remote and hostile locations, hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears are creating new demands for accountability. It is way beyond the power and influence of the traditional media. This global electronic reach is catching institutions unawares.”

It has unnerved chief executives, prime ministers, senior government officials, security organisations, the defence and the police. They are discovering that they have less and less time to respond to what is happening. “I see a new vulnerability, fragility and brittleness on their part,” says Gowing. “A few seconds or a few minutes after an event has taken place, it is being uploaded and broadcast. All you need is a laptop and a broadband connection. As a result, during a crisis the public know much more about what is taking place than those who are in power.”

Meanwhile, traditional media, like newspapers, is trying to adjust to the new realities. In 2008, the mass circulation German newspaper, Bild, had a tie-up with supermarket giant, Lidl, to sell a digital camera for 70 Euros. “They wanted to develop their volksjournalismus (people’s journalism) project,” says Gowing. “The result is a staff increase of 82 million!”

US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton says that there are more ways to spread more ideas than in any moment in history. “Information networks are helping people discover new facts and forcing governments to become more responsible and accountable,” she says.

But some governments refuse to be accountable. In March, 2009, towards the end of the battle against the Tamil Tigers, the BBC received a video taken from a mobile phone which showed that naked and blind-folded Tamil rebels were being summarily executed by the soldiers of the Sri Lankan army. This stunning video can be seen on You Tube.

“The government claimed that the video was doctored,” says Gowing. But the United Nations hired three American experts, Daniel Spitz, a forensic pathologist, Peter Diaczuk, a firearm evidence expert, and Jeff Spivack, a forensic video analyst to examine the video. They confirmed its authenticity. “But the Sri Lankan government refused to accept the findings,” says Gowing. “Their credibility was damaged.”

Realising the danger of these small digital and mobile cameras, people in authority, especially on the battlefield, are reacting with violence.

On April 17, 2008, Fadal Shana, a cameraman of the Reuters news agency, was killed by a tank shell, because he was filming Israeli tanks in Gaza. This, despite the fact that he was wearing a blue flak jacket with the word, ‘Press’ marked out in large letters, apart from large ‘Press’ and ‘TV” stickers on his vehicle.

After a four-month inquiry, the Israeli military’s advocate-general concluded that in the tank crew’s view, Shana held a hostile weapon in his hands. These findings were roundly condemned by Reuters and the Foreign Press Association.

At present, there are 5 billion mobile phone users on the planet. In India, there are 670 million users and 12 million new connections are being added every month. In China, the world’s most populous country, there are 800 million users. “Many millions of these users are members of the new media,” says Gowing. “They can upload material on their own within seconds on blogs, e-mails and social media sites like Facebook.”

The only way is for governments and other institutions of power to react quickly. Gowing recounts that the Chinese government invited him to Beijing to learn on how to respond to events that unfold on the Internet in seconds.

“As a result, when the massive Sichuan earthquake took place, on May 12, 2008, Premier Wen Jiabao was on a plane and reached the affected spot within five hours,” he says.

Wen was seen kneeling amongst the quake rubble in a hard hat using a bull horn to shout reassurances to victims trapped under collapsed buildings. He was caught on camera, shouting, “Every second lost could mean lives lost.”

Says Gowing: “The remarkable decision of China’s Prime Minister to fill and then dominate the information space immediately after the quake should be viewed as inspired and wise. Given the predominant official instincts of denial during moments of crisis, it was a sharp lesson to others in positions of high power and responsibility around the world.”

Gowing pauses, breaks out into a smile, and says, “The Indian government also needs to set up a quick response unit. Otherwise, in times of crisis, they will be caught flat-footed.”


The Saddam Hussein execution

By Nik Gowing

During interviews immediately after the execution of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on December 2006, the Iraq National Security Advisor Mowaffak Al-Rubai said the process of carrying out the death sentence had been ‘calm, orderly and respectful’. There had been ‘no taunting, no humiliation, no shouting match.’ He added that all respect was shown to the condemned man, and there had been ‘full respect’ for international standards.

But the official version stood for a few hours only. Its accuracy was challenged by a shaky mobile phone video which quickly appeared on website and DVDs in the Baghdad bazaar. It told a dramatically different story. It showed that the National Security Adviser’s version had to be both disinformation and probably a deceit. In reality, there had been taunting, humiliation and shouting.

It emerged that the government had allowed representatives of Saddam’s Shiite enemies to be part of the execution team. Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr taunted Saddam and hurled abuse. Guards shouted, “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada.”

Saddam was heard repeating the name sarcastically before shouting scathingly, “Do you call this bravery?” Some in the room reinforced the insults for Saddam, who was a Sunni. They recited the Shia version of an Islamic prayer. Then one yelled, “Go to hell.” A male voice said, “Please stop. This man is facing an execution.”

But to no avail. The video showed the trap door open. The crack of Saddam’s snapping spine could be heard and the former dictator was dead.

The issue is not the execution itself. It is the profound asymmetrical impact of what the unauthorized ‘one eye’ on someone’s mobile phone recorded during Saddam’s final moments, then what it revealed.

The European Union’s Foreign Policy Coordinator Javier Solana said, “That person who took that picture on the mobile phone and was transmitted to the Arab world, created an impact on the Arab world that he does not know. A picture can change the world much more than many images. It is a good lesson that we politicians have to draw.”

(Excerpted from ‘A Skyful of Lies and Black Swans’)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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