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The Death Of Oula Jablawi And The Democratization Of Bearing Witness

(Warning: Video is very graphic)

Images from foreign famines and wars have always shaped our consciousnesses. The famous images of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, reported by Michael Buerk for the BBC, spawned an international response. The photo of Jeffrey Miller, shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970, fuelled popular outrage and the subsequent strikes.

Back then, though, there were gatekeepers: producers, editors, arbiters of good taste, people who decided what we should or shouldn't see with our morning coffee. The Internet has changed all that. Our patterns of consumption have been flattened, with many of the bottlenecks of censorship (on the grounds of taste and sensitivities) now gone.

That has meant graphic images, like the footage above of a dead two-year-old girl, Oula Jablawi, who was allegedly shot in Syria, have found an easier path into our living rooms and workplaces. Now they don't have to go through that extra layer of media gatekeepers. I saw the video because someone posted it on YouTube and then a friend posted it on Facebook.

Of course, there are new gatekeepers: members of the Syrian regime could easily flag the content as inappropriate and it could be taken down by YouTube, as has happened lots of times before. But such content also manages to breach such barriers, shared, reposted by thousands of people, an unfathomable wave that always threatens to break, but just keeps on rolling.

This combination of the cell phone and the Internet have democratized our ability to bear witness -- out of the hands of a few media people. The footage of Jablawi is in no way voyeuristic (at least that is not how it was intended) or pornographic, or a snuff movie, but rather a profound example of digital activism.

Just like the Neda video in Iran, footage of a dead little girl does not just galvanize domestic opposition to a brutal regime, but can harden the resolve of politicians, policy makers, and influential media voices in the West. And that is exactly what the people behind the camera want. Theirs is a desperate and savvy calculation, an understanding perhaps that the Western media needs narratives, it needs stories. Brutally beaten down, desperate, without any chance of recourse to any countries' law, by holding up a cell phone and filming the death of a small child they are screaming at a world they think isn't listening.

They live in the hope that that footage might cause the world to intervene, or at the very least that their suffering is not in silence. In the video of Jablawi, another cell phone comes into the frame. There are clearly others clamoring around the child's body for their chance to tell the world about what they have seen. One even moves her bloodied head to show the brutality of her death, a cheap Nokia the only outlet for their outrage.

One thing dissidents always say after being released from long spells in prison is that they took comfort in knowing that the outside world knew about their suffering. In their dark, dank cells, they knew they were not alone. So too the people of Syria. Imprisoned on their streets, armed with mobile phones, they too must tell themselves they are not alone.

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