Camera phone footage a new factor in Lebanon fighting

Footage from camera phones is playing an increasingly important role in reporting events in Lebanon. But if some of the footage qualifies as citizen journalism, other videos merely help to exacerbate sectarian strife.
halba youtube.jpg

BEIRUT, May 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) – A group of men are lying on the ground – dirty and bleeding. The video footage is of very bad quality so it is not always clear whether the victims are alive and being tortured, or they are already dead and their bodies are being mutilated. What is clear is the religious slurs and the laughter coming from the invisible mob.

This disturbing footage, probably shot with a camera phone, is currently available on the video-sharing site YouTube and has been broadcast by some Lebanese TV channels including Hezbollah's Al-Manar. It allegedly shows members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) being brutalized by pro-government militia in the northern town of Halba during last week's sectarian violence.

The exact nature and background of the clip have yet to be determined, but it has been said that the victims were working in the SSNP office in Halba and were dragged into the street by a mob of armed government supporters who then executed them [source: FPM opposition party]  and torched the SSNP offices. At least fourteen people were killed in the clashes in the North.

The Halba video is new evidence that camera phones have become vital tools in conflicts around the world – for good and for bad.

In Egypt, for example, a leaked video showing two police officers abusing and sodomizing a micro-bus driver with a metal stick resulted in landmark prison sentences for the two men last year.

During last year’s fighting between the Lebanese army and the Sunni Islamist group Fatah Al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared in Northern Lebanon, which was notoriously off-limits to journalists, most of the existing images were from soldiers' camera phones.

Afterwards, camera phone footage of Fatah al-Islam prisoners being mistreated by Lebanese soldiers also made their way to YouTube.

During last week's fighting in Beirut, many TV stations relied on camera phone footage provided by residents in neighborhoods too dangerous for camera crews to enter. 

But if some of this camera phone footage qualifies as "citizen journalism," the  Halba video is more akin to "mob journalism."

On Sunday, New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the Halba video in a press release which asked the Lebanese government to investigate "serious violations of international law" during the recent fighting.

HRW's Lebanon researcher Nadim Houry visited Halba on Monday. He told MENASSAT that the clip is aggravating the ongoing tensions in the region.

"On the one hand these videos provide valuable information, but they also fuel rumors and stir sectarian feelings," said Houry.

Since the outbreak of the violent clashes between pro-government and opposition supporters in Lebanon on May 7, numerous clips showing abuses and destroyed neighborhoods, recorded by regular citizens, have been featured in Lebanese mass media. 

Nicholas Blanford, Beirut correspondent for Christian Science Monitor, also spoke of the importance of camera phone footage in an audio report on his paper's website today.

"One aspect of the fighting last week was the profusion of combat footage taken by individuals on their cellphones. Often cellphone video would be aired  on Lebanese television to portray scenes which were missed  by regular TV cameramen because it was too dangerous to visit the scene or they simply weren't there at the time."

Blanford was able to tell a story of a confrontation between Hezbollah fighters and government supporters in the village of Saadiyet three weeks ago thanks to camera phone footage provided by a Future member of parliament.

"The downside of it is that it exacerbates the conflict," Blanford told MENASSAT in a phone interview.

In the Chouf too, where the Druze stood their ground against a Hezbollah onslaught, camera phone photos and videos are being circulated of opposition victims.

Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director at HRW, said accounts of abuse on both sides of the political divide are "spreading like wildfire and raising tensions" in Lebanon, stressing the need for the state to bring the perpetrators to justice.

If the guilty are not held accountable, there are "likely to be further reprisals," continued Stork.  

Last year, the world's first media-sharing site for human rights, The Hub, was launched in partnership with the global rights group Witness. Users can upload videos, photos, and watch media related to human rights issues.

HRW's Nadim Houry hopes that video clips such as the one from Halba may at least serve as a catalyst for a probe into the abuses and help bring about accountability.