The BBC runs a fascinating story today on how young people (who in the story are mostly male) are capturing violent events and processes in Kashmir using their mobile phones.
The example of Kashmir suggests that the prevalence of mobile phones leads to a situation on the ground that mainstream news agencies could not have imagined even a few years ago. The BBC’s story ends by noting that the Kashmiri conflict has become fully digitalised. War today, as Estonia and Georgia demonstrate, is more than the destruction of bricks and mortar structures or military gains on the geo-physical battlefield. It’s also conducted online – either through outright cyberwar – or a more long drawn out propaganda war on the web.
Kashmir’s mobile phone totting citizens are the new producers of this propaganda. Bearing witness to the violence of the every day, which is so normalised that it doesn’t even register on the radar of international wire agencies (what bleeds daily does not lead!), the content created by youth and young adults with mobile phone is as the story suggests capturing history in the making.
Of the hundreds of videos on YouTube, I am positive that one won’t get any context, a sense of history or impartiality. That’s still the realm of professional journalism and the more committed citizen journalist. What one does get are snapshots of a polity and society mired in conflict, where ordinary people, with no training whatsoever in journalism, are capturing vital moments, people, events, places and processes that define their lives and in doing so, are collectively producing an oral and visual history.
“This is a new trend in Kashmir. There are a lot of young people moving around the city with such mobile phone recordings,” says Amjad Mir of Sen TV, a local news and current affairs channel. In the restive Batamaloo area in Srinagar, a 29-year-old man, who owns a small mobile phone shop in the city, says he goes out every other day with his phone in search of “interesting footage”. This is the first time ordinary people like us are coming out with our phones and shooting. This is the only way we can show to the world what is happening here,” says the young man, who prefers to be unnamed.
This is bearing witness and what I have for the past two years worked hard to engender in Sri Lanka, where once again, information on the on-going war is limited to the bias of either the government or the LTTE. No one today knows what citizens in Vavuniya, less than 8 hours by road from Colombo, are going through because NGOs and INGOs still have not fully leveraged digital media in general and mobile phones in particular to raise awareness of the human rights and humanitarian conditions on the ground.
There’s another dimension to this story. Telcos and big business, wherever they are and invest in, want political stability and ROI guarantees. The socio-political architecture that animates both is largely immaterial. This often leads to a resistence of telcos to support, or be seen to be supportive of efforts to augment democratic governance and human rights using their networks, devices, bandwidth and technology. The result of this is that telcos are often more conservative and closed than most repressive regimes.
Yet, Kashmir is an interesting case where authorities didn’t ban mobile phone usage despite fears they aided attacks by armed militants, unlike in Sri Lanka where all major telcos routinely follow the overt and covert edicts of the Ministry of Defence to restrict and ban mobile phone usage. As a result, Kashmiris may already have more content on its conflict produced that Sri Lankans have produced on theirs, esp. from the front-lines of violence. This content is invaluable in any peace process or process of reconciliation as they capture aspects of violence that could possibly, if unaddressed, sow the seeds of future violence.
In general, its damn exciting to see mobile phone based journalism kicking off in South Asia. There’s even now a word for these mobile phone totting citizens – camjos.
Long may they live and capture!