Page last updated at 11:43 GMT, Saturday, 30 April 2011 12:43 UK

How cameras hidden in pens outflanked Syrian regime

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News, Beirut

Western journalists are currently banned from Syria, but many locals are going to great lengths to show their uprising to the world, and the violent backlash they are encountering.

Syria: the brutal suppression of peaceful protesters. That is what is happening, right?

Photo thought to be of protesters in in Dogma town, Syria
Protests such as this, thought to be in Dogma town, are secretly filmed

That is the line the UN secretary general has taken and the international media, too. But having watched the Syrian crisis unfold for the last couple of weeks from Beirut, I am not so sure the brutal suppression of peaceful protesters quite captures it.

I should say first of all that the BBC is covering Syria from Lebanon, Reuters is reporting from Jordan and the Associated Press from Cyprus.

The Syrian government has thrown out virtually all the foreign correspondents based in Damascus and will not let any new ones in.

It has also set about frightening local journalists - detaining them, calling them in for interviews and so on.

In the old days it might have worked. The official news agency, Sana, would have pumped out the government's version and, having nothing else to work with, the international media would have reported it.

Opposition activists have run an unexpected, brilliantly executed and brave campaign to film the repression and to put it online

Of course, the Syrian government could not control what Western journalists would have said - and no doubt they would challenge the official line - but the government would have determined what the press was talking about and it would have defined the terms of the debate.

But this time something new happened. Opposition activists have run an unexpected, brilliantly executed and brave campaign to film the repression and to put it online.

Despite the government attempts to close down local communication networks, pictures showing dreadful violence by security personnel have been posted on the internet - sometimes with more than one angle of the same incident.

This did not happen spontaneously.

The cameras, some of them disguised as pens so people could film without being noticed, had to be purchased and distributed, and the same goes for the means to upload the images: satellite phones, foreign SIMD cards and even, I am told, small portable sat dishes.


And what story have the pictures told? Time and again it's been the brutal suppression of peaceful protesters. And, after Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain it has been all too easy to accept this without much pause for thought.

Unverified - photo of injured protester
This unverified image of an injured protester was uploaded to You Tube

But journalists are meant to be sceptical about whatever is put in front of them.

The BBC - and I am sure it is not alone - has put considerable effort into checking the films, to the extent it can: does the weather in the picture match what it was like on that day, in that place? Does someone who has been to Deraa or wherever recognise the buildings? If the cameraman speaks, is the accent right? And so on.

I should perhaps say at this point that having seen countless numbers of these films, many of them showing gross acts of violence, I have no doubt they are genuine, and what is more the people who filmed them have taken great risks to tell the world what has been happening.

But I do just wonder about what is not being filmed and what is not uploaded.

The government's old-fashioned effort to control the media coverage has been outflanked by a sassy opposition

The Syrian ambassador at the UN this week said 51 security force personnel had been killed in the previous 10 days. Since then another six have been killed.

The official Syrian news agency has published pictures of their funerals.

It compares with, according to the opposition, between 200 and 300 civilians killed over the same 10-day period. So, far fewer, but still a considerable number.

In the West we have not heard much, if anything, about those dead 57 security personnel.

Of course Sana does not help itself by writing up their stories in almost Soviet language: "We feel proud of our son because the martyr's blood remains the epitome of sacrifice for the sake of the homeland," one father is quoted as saying.

Funeral of soldiers in Damascus
The West has heard little about the deaths of security personnel

A mother says: "The homeland needs its brave sons who are ready to defend it." It is clumsy and crude - but actually how did those soldiers die?

There was a man speaking on the BBC World Service the other night who made a fascinating remark.

He said his wife's cousin, a colonel in the Syrian army, was shot dead with eight other soldiers on 10 April as they drove on the main road into Banias. Their car was raked with gunfire.

There is a lively debate about the incident on various blogs and I will spare you the details.

But to cut a long story short, the opposition claimed the soldiers were killed by the state for desertion whereas the evidence strongly suggests they were ambushed and killed in cold blood.

The government's old-fashioned effort to control the media coverage has been outflanked by a sassy opposition that has shaped what the PR experts would call "the narrative".

And even though they are operating in the free market of cyberspace, they have been remarkably effective.

So the brutal suppression of peaceful protests?

As the obsequious editor says to the fearsome newspaper magnate in Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's satire on foreign correspondents, "Up to a point Lord Copper".

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent

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Listen online or Download the pod cast

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Read more or explore the archive at the programme website .

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