June 19, 2005

Cameras without borders

By: Brian Moore

It’s not often I get good ideas from the President of Syria. But I definitely gained fresh insight from his recent rant about the evils of modern media technology. His terror is apparent:

These many inputs, especially with the evolution of communication and information technology, made the society open, and this opened the door for some confusion and suspicion in the minds of Arab youth. The ultimate objective of all this is the destruction of Arab identity; for the enemies of the Arab nation are opposed to our possessing any identity or upholding any creed that could protect our existence and cohesion, guide our vision and direction, or on which we can rely in our steadfastness.

Mr. Assad, it’s true: the media and technological revolution is indeed a threat to your vision of Arab identity. But judging from the quick adoption of such technology by your people, perhaps they don’t feel quite as threatened by it as you do. They seem to enjoy talking on their cell phones, watching their TV’s, and surfing the web, even if it means being exposed to crazy ideas that contradict state propaganda.

More concretely, I bet Assad is afraid that people might learn more about what’s going on in his country. Like all criminals, he fears seeing his crimes on the nightly news. The problem is that although networks like CNN and Al Jazeera are very good at distributing such information, they aren’t very good at uncovering it in the first place, especially when their highly visible reporters are at the mercy of the local dictator. And then the idea hit me–why not allow the citizens of Syria (or China, or North Korea) to become reporters themselves?

The idea has already taken hold here in America. Many bloggers have discussed the “citizens’ journalist kit,” a collection of modern devices that can bring your point of view to the world from any location. That’s all well and good for those of us who live in relatively free and open societies, where sitting down with a laptop and wi-fi access doesn’t bring the secret police. But what about those living in less free societies?

In Lebanon and Ukraine, pictures have been distributed from cellphones and personal cameras. The ability of protesters to get their message out has been instrumental to their success. Given the nature of the Lebanese protests, for example, we can certainly see why Mr. Assad is so frightened.

But what about those dark places in the world where not only CNN reporters are lacking, but even the basic technology to support such devices? Those places where even if one had the wealth to own a camera, you wouldn’t be allowed to snap more than a few shots before the authorities drag you off to prison? How can modern technology aid their fight for freedom? It turns out that the even in these darkest places, the common video camera has given us all a glimpse of hope–a single 35-minute video of protest against the most secretive state in the world, North Korea.

Mr. Do says this is the first known video footage of dissident activity in North Korea. He says the North Koreans who shot it call themselves the Freedom Youth Comrades Association. None of them is seen on camera and nothing more is known about them.

This is the first crack in the wall. Unfortunately, the tape had to be smuggled out of the country in order to see the light of day. Thankfully, we can streamline the process. Grab a commercially available mini-camera from the Spy Supply Store and hook it up to a hard-wired satellite phone to automatically update at regular intervals. Throw in a few dozen extra batteries and you have the “citizens’ resistance kit.” Distribute discreetly to individuals in the places where it’s most needed–Zimbabwe, Syria, Iraq or Sudan. We can fight oppression abroad by exposing it to the attention of world media. Once courageous citizens of oppressive states start using their resistance kits, all we will have to do is to sift through the uploaded pictures to find out what those secretive regimes keep hidden.

A philanthropist looking to advance liberty could make a big difference by starting a charity to distribute such kits to people in repressive regimes. He might call it “Cameras without Borders.” This kind of charity could appeal to everyone, left or right. It’s certainly cheaper and less controversial than shipping weapons. If you felt that terrible events are occurring that the world needs to know about in a particular country, you could sponsor a camera being smuggled into that country.

President Assad is right. Cheap media technologies and the freedom of information they bring certainly are a grave threat–to the secrecy of tyranny.

Brian Moore is a software developer in Little Rock, Arkansas. His website is fallofthestate.blogspot.com.

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