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No CNN effect?

February 20, 2012 Comments off

Since the start of the Syrian uprising more than a year ago, an estimated  number of 5400 people have lost their lives and many more are left injured, displaced, detained, tortured and disappeared. The Asad regime continues its relentless oppression of opposition forces and shelling of civilian quarters  despite of the efforts, warnings and the sanctions of international community, from the United Nations to the Arab League.  From its outset, the Syrian regime expelled all foreign journalists from the county and the offices of major newscasters were all closed. All information is relayed to international organizations and news media from trusted sources from within Syria—activists or members of Free Syrian Army—or a handful of “fearless” reporters who risk their lives and enter the country illegally and smuggle out their findings in precarious conditions. What makes the Syrian revolution now-turned-civil-war unique amongst the wave of uprisings in the region and beyond is the absence, or rather the extreme scarcity, of images. The Syrian uprising is an Arab Spring without live global spectatorship, an untelevised revolution. The other unique feature of the Syrian uprising is its longevity compared to other revolutions in the region in the past year. Are these two aspects of the Syrian crisis related? Is the absence of the image the reason that the crisis still continues?

Since the live coverage of the arrival of American troops to the Somalian beach of Mogadishu in 1992, many theorists and commentators were quick to announce that there is no war without television. The arrival of American soldiers, on a humanitarian rescue mission, was greeted with an army of photojournalists instead of clan fighters and starving children, marking the beginning of an era of live crisis broadcast where soldiers and reporters, cameras and weapons, march together the zones of conflict. Later the Bosnian war continued under the limelight of news media reporters and the humanitarian observers while the “whole world was watching. In the words of David Rieff, “no slaughter was more scrupulously and ably covered.” The first Gulf war was covered live through the night vision of American bomber planes of the Desert Storm Operation. The latter was dominated by its particular aesthetics of representation that Baudrillard famously announced the Gulf war did not take place.

However the Arab Spring, was not as much reliant on the presence of news casters’ cameras thanks to mass availability of cell phone digital cameras and broadband connections that immediately transmitted the images over the world-wide-web. These images were instantly fed into Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the proceedings, and the station redefined itself as a visual hub and a transmission center selecting the images and providing live commentary on them.

But Syria is absolute darkness, there is no instant coverage, no live feed, no real time broadcast of the crisis. There are images no doubt— mostly courtesy of indigenous reporters—but the drumbeats of total spectacularization of the event are silent. Syria is a phantom, it is reached through distorted phone lines, and talks to us through jittery connections. However the images coming out of Syria, those can be found on youtube and other websites, are the most horrific ones, the most violent of images. There are for the most part quickly removed or marked as “graphic content.” Syria is producing images that we cannot consume, images that cannot be incorporated into an event spectacle to be followed by the global news audience. It is not that other images from the Arab Spring were not violent, but rather that they were part of a larger flood of images filled with revolutionary euphoria of occupying iconic sites and chanting of large groups of crowds in front of a defeated riot police. The violent images were the unfortunate byproducts of an otherwise mesmerizing eruption of human emotions, courage and heroism. The scenes of the crowds pushing back the military and the riot police guards made the few [surfaced] images of absolute violence more tolerable. The consensus was (even amongst the Egyptians) that they sacrifices for a cause, larger than life. Syria is not providing any of this, it is only the brutal violence captured on hidden cameras of civilians who are on the run, or sheltering for their lives. Every image coming out of Syria is in itself a sacrifice of the image-maker who risks his/her life to seize the event on camera. In Syria, in the absence of global viewership, the image becomes a site for public torture and execution. It documents the atrocities, but at the same time it permeates fear, the image becomes an instrument of torture. There is nothing glorifying about the annihilation of humanity on camera, there is nothing dramatic about dying livestream. While the so-called “CNN effect” did not end the war in Bosnia, neither its absence affected the crisis in Syria.

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