- Shall We Dance?
I live in Beirut, and in the last days of the uprising in Tunisia, I was increasingly drawn to watching the news obsessively, but by January 26, and for the remaining seventeen days, my life was pretty much on hold as the uprising in Egypt unseated Hosni Mubarak. I was glued to the television set and my computer screen simultaneously, zapping, following bloggers, Facebook, and Twitter postings. History with a capital H was unfolding in front of my eyes; I was a spectator and witness. Very quickly, the Mubarak regime prohibited international and regional journalists from filming and dispatching reports, so news editors began to broadcast videos recorded by insurgents who used mobile phones and lightweight video cameras. The broadcast of the audiovisual chronicles of the insurgency have radically transformed the rules of journalism as well as the rules of watching news or being at the receiving end. Within days of the eruption of the insurgency in Syria (March 15, 2011), the government, taking a cue from the Mubarak regime, began to expel journalists working for international and regional media. A month into the insurgency, the broadcast of news and footage was entirely fed by amateur video from insurgents, recorded by mobile phones and, to a much lesser extent, lightweight video cameras. [End Page 166]
For almost a decade now, with the emergence of bloggers, relatively affordable and user-friendly video technology, software, and websites enabling the swift upload of videos and worldwide access that systematically eludes censorship or prohibition, citizen journalism has come to be regarded as a solid counter to the ruthless and politically circumscribed hegemony of mainstream global media networks. The invasion of citizen-journalism videos into mainstream media during and because of Arab insurgencies in particular will certainly mark a new chapter in the history of the paradigms, practices, and regulations of broadcast news.
Spectators' expectations of mainstream media have also radically changed. As everyday folk become everyday actors—heroes—of the insurgency, testifying live from the heart of the action, a lived experience unmediated by a "professional," the act of watching extends into witnessing, often inching toward "experiencing vicariously." Rarely has watching a political event of such stature live been so empowering as to impel spectators into engaging with their own political reality in ways unimagined previously.1 Egyptian insurgents testify widely that watching the unrelenting protests in Tunisia showed them that they too could depose their despot. In spite of tangible differences in the local specifics of each country, there is vast evidence of how insurgents in Syria, for instance, have emulated and borrowed strategies, tactics, and idioms from their brothers in Egypt, and vice versa. In other words, insurgents were and remain observers of one another's insurgencies, and there is notable evidence of a dialogue and an almost immediate, seamless cross-fertilization. Insurgents in Syria carry placards that speak in Egyptian slang or reiterate slogans from Tahrir.
In countries where the inaugural chapter of the insurgency seems to be concluded, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, initiatives (sponsored by public institutions and civil society organizations) that aim to compile and organize audiovisual material abound. The archival challenge is daunting. How can this body of audiovisual production be categorized? As citizen or alternative journalism, eyewitness reporting, amateur video, personal chronicles, propaganda, and/or resistance videos? What paradigms should guide the indexing of this catalog: the event filmed, the intention motivating the person behind the camera, the position of the camera, the visual language used, the staging (if any)? Journalism "mediates" a live event, but to what extent are these videos an unmediated record that transmits the live experience raw? Do these videos break new ground in the way people ("average folk") record themselves in the public domain and write themselves into history? To what extent do these videos require translation, linguistic and cultural, to "speak" to a worldwide audience without acceding to the universalism that has conventionally been provided by the mediation of journalism?
Further complicating things is the fact that insurgents have not been the only media producers. Regimes and their various security apparatuses have created a noteworthy body of their own amateur personal chronicles...