The world lost one of the only direct windows into the carnage in Homs, Syria, when Rami al-Sayed’s video live stream went dark Tuesday. A citizen journalist, al-Sayed was live streaming the Assad regime’s bombardment of Baba Amr and the brutal after-effects when he was struck by shrapnel and bled to death soon after, according to news reports. When outlets including the BBC World, SkyNews, and Al Jazeera aired his live footage, they highlighted how important this medium has become to journalism. And when the Syrian army took his life they proved how vulnerable it is.
Outside of the danger of war zones, live streamers face a wide spectrum of challenges unique to the medium. The panoptic coverage exposes them to the ire of illicit-minded citizens; lack of official credentials leaves them susceptible to the whim of authorities; and operating on shoestring budgets means the loss of even a single piece of equipment can silence the broadcast.
Live streaming is revolutionizing how news is gathered and consumed. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings were initially covered by citizen journalists using social media and online video-sharing websites, providing a never-before-seen level of coverage. As mobile technology improves, this model of rapid-fire journalism is getting even faster as professional reporters and citizen journalists alike take to live streaming events as they happen.
In the past, extended live broadcasts required a significant investment in terms of setup time, equipment, and manpower, and as such were usually conducted only by professional broadcasters and reserved for special, preplanned events such as sports or a presidential address. Working with mobile smartphones, live-stream journalists eschew such restrictions. Generally embedded with the movements they cover, live streamers follow the minutia of daily events, ensuring that they are present when something dramatic happens and frequently scooping mainstream media.
In such disparate places as Syria and New York City, live streams have sometimes been the only coverage available as major stories broke. In Syria, users such as al-Sayed are streaming footage of the shelling of Homs on sites like on bambuser.com, while foreign correspondents are largely excluded from the country and local traditional journalists are being arrested. And as Occupy Wall Street demonstrators were cleared from their main encampment in Zuccotti Park in downtown New York City in November, police herded New York Times reporters and other credentialed journalists across the street (allegedly for their own safety) while live footage streamed from the demonstration’s last redoubt inside.
On January 29, Tim Pool, founder of TimCast, a prominent live stream of the Occupy Wall Street movement, was attacked by a masked man in the streets of Manhattan. The attack did not come as a complete surprise. “I’ve received veiled Mafioso threats on Twitter like ‘If Tim Pool keeps filming, he better get security,'” he told CPJ. Most of the time, Pool documents dramatic events such as marches and police action, but by constantly filming he sometimes captures deeds that some would rather he didn’t, such as individuals vandalizing police cars. His steadfast refusal to turn the camera away has earned him enemies in the Occupy movement; in this video of the attack he is repeatedly accused of being a snitch or cop.
“He tried to pull down the camera. I thought it was an accident at first — that he got tangled in some wires, but then he came back again and smacked it out of my hand,” Pool said, describing the incident. One can watch as a person attempts to obscure the camera by directing a flashlight toward it, while another comes from off screen and strikes Pool.
The attack succeeded in interrupting coverage only momentarily, as both man and camera were unscathed. The loosely organized OWS movement has thrived on media coverage of mass marches and the police response, and prior to the attack on Pool had offered all live-streaming journalists protection details. On the phone with CPJ, Pool said he rejected the offer and is confident of his safety, stating “I think security makes you a target.” In an earlier interview with MSNBC, however, he had been less sanguine, saying, “I probably will get severely injured in these next coming months . . . I pretty much expect to wind up in the hospital.”
With live streaming an increasingly popular method of documenting violent events, the number of camera operators being sent to the hospital — or worse — is creeping up. Last year Basil al-Sayed, a citizen videographer and cousin of Rami al-Sayed, was killed by Syrian security forces in December. In March 2011, Mohammed al-Nabbous was killed while streaming live audio from a battle in Benghazi, Libya.
But it doesn’t take physical violence to disrupt a live stream. The day before the attack on Pool, the anonymous live streamer @occupyfreedomla, who goes by the pseudonym “Freedom,” had her camera stolen out of her hands by an unidentified thief while filming demonstrations in Oakland. Despite capturing the man on the stream immediately before the theft, and giving chase, he got away, ending her ability to stream.
As self-publishers, live streamers are on their own in terms of equipment, and are vulnerable to it being lost or destroyed. Even if the Oakland incident was nothing more than an opportunistic robbery — and there is no indication that it was otherwise — the effect on Freedom’s live stream is the same as if it were a planned attack to silence her. To fund a replacement, she has started a donation page asking for help. Currently it is at 5 percent of her $1000 goal.
Another limitation for self-publishers — as with many freelance journalists — is a lack of official credentials to identify oneself as a journalist. When live streamers draw the indignation of authorities, they often are treated as criminals instead of news gatherers, as Keilah Becker, of Occupy Chicago’s media team, discovered last month. In an Occupy Chicago statement, Becker said, “A woman officer grabbed my phone and turned off the stream. She deleted the footage and told me I could not record officers and that it was a class 4 felony.” (To be sure, at times holding press cards can be a liability, as authorities are able to easily identify and restrict the press).
In Chicago, the Illinois Eavesdropping Act makes it illegal to record audio without the consent of all involved parties, and has especially tough penalties for recording police officers without permission. The language of the law dates back to 1961, and with the advent of ubiquitous camera phones and live streams, some fear it may be used for the censorship of citizen journalism. Lucy Dalglish, executive director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told The Associated Press that “you might be OK if you are CNN, but not if you’re a blogger or look like any citizen on the street.”