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Mobile Phones and the Middle East's Many Million Documentarians

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 21 2011

Photo by Mahmood Al-Yousif as uploaded to Flickr yesterday; caption: "Just Bahraini, with pride!"
Snippet of a CNN.com map showing the penetration of the Internet, mobile phones, and Facebook in the Middle East and Northern Africa; see the full thing here.

The humble and often affordable cell phone is becoming a powerful tool for dissidents in northern Africa and the Middle East in part because of their ability to capture photos and videos, report the New York Times' Jennifer Preston and Brian Stelter. In Bahrain:

By uploading images of this week's violence in Manama, the capital, to Web sites like YouTube and yFrog, and then sharing them on Facebook and Twitter, the protesters upstaged government accounts and drew worldwide attention to their demands.

And in Tunisia:

[C]ellphones were used to capture video images of the first protests in Sidi Bouzid in December, which helped spread unrest to other parts of the country. The uploaded images also prompted producers at Al Jazeera, the satellite television network, to begin focusing on the revolt, which toppled the Tunisian government in mid-January and set the stage for the demonstrations in Egypt.

And in Iran:

Memorably, in June 2009, cellphone videos of the shooting death of a young woman in Tehran known as Nedawere uploaded on YouTube, galvanizing the Iranian opposition and rocketing around the world.

CNN.com is running a click-through-worthy map at the moment showing the often high rates of mobile penetration in the region, along with their corresponding numbers for Facebook and Internet across the board. (via Movements.org)

One point to possibly tack on to Preston and Stelter's piece: the "tiny camera" inside so many cell phones these days actually has a power independent of the host phone's connectivity -- which comes in handy in a place like, say, Libya, were the Internet seems today to have been "almost totally severed" as protestors in that country rise up against their government and the major mobile phone company, Libyana, happens to be chaired by Muhammad Qaddafi, as in Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi's eldest son.

Unlike much of the tech we talk about when we talk about when we talk about how technology might play a part in social and political change, palm-sized cameras aren't totally dependent on being connected for their power. Protesters can record and store, which might lack the punch of the immediate upload, but still manages to create a historic record that dicators aren't likely to enjoy. They're like mini-documentary units. Sure, they can be taken away and smashed to bits, but that becomes something difficult for even the most committed of repressive regimes to pull off when you consider that in Libya, for example and according to that CNN map, 78% of the population has a subscription to a cell phone of some kind.

Related: Our Micah Sifry on the Middle East's "Generation TXT."

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