London, The Arab Weekly – The revolution will not be televised, American jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron famously said, it will be live. As for the Mosul offensive in Iraq, it seems that it will be live-streamed to smartphones.
The live-streaming of the Mosul offensive, which analysts say could last months, is a first for digital war coverage and has raised questions about the intersection between news and entertainment.
Major news networks such as Al Jazeera and Britain’s Channel 4 have faced criticism for live-streaming the offensive, which aims to push the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Iraq.
“The battle for Mosul live-stream has become reality TV for the social media generation,” Al Jazeera’s Alexander Lerche posted on Twitter. On the third day of the Mosul offensive, Channel 4’s Facebook live-stream of the Mosul offensive had been accessed more than 500,000 times.
“We wanted to bring one of the most significant stories of our time to our viewers as it happened. Given the nature of conflict, we are cautious and vigilant that the material is appropriate at all times and have measures in place to stop the stream when necessary,” digital editor of Channel 4 News Jon Laurence told the Guardian.
“We apply the same editorial standards to Facebook Lives that we do to our award-winning programme and that means ensuring that they are effectively supervised at all times.”
The actual livestream is being carried out on the ground by local Kurdish news stations Rudaw and Kurdistan 24, switching between fixed camera positions, reporters and camera crews. It is less clear what measures those channels have in place to restrict or censor content before broadcast, whether in terms of not providing real-time intelligence to ISIS or not broadcasting people being killed as it happens.
A lively debate features in the comments section alongside the live images touching on a variety of issues and topics, from the expected insults hurled among supporters of the Turks, Kurds and Arabs to jokes about the similarity between the Hungarian and Kurdish flags to Lord of the Rings references.
Rudaw, in particular, has sought to become the “leading source of news and recognisable brand” of the Mosul offensive, deploying ten camera crews to cover the war. “If CNN took the news of the Gulf War into every household, Rudaw took the Mosul battle to every hand-held device across the globe,” boasted Hemin Lihony, head of Rudaw’s digital media.
In an opinion article on the Rudaw website headlined Rudaw: A pioneer in war coverage through Livestream, Lihony confirmed that the Mosul offensive was being reported in a different way from any previous conflict thanks to new technology, particularly livestream.
Rudaw has said it was committed to not censoring the livestream, whatever happens. Even when a Rudaw camera crew embedded with Kurdish peshmerga fighters came under attack by an ISIS car bomb, the stream kept rolling. “With racing hearts and trembling hands, we were glued to the screen, wondering if we were going to see the death of our own colleagues live on TV,” Lihony recounted.
“The car bomb reached them and detonated. The screen was covered in dust and our reporter went silent… The smoke cleared and soon we saw our crew safe and sound. Without a moment’s pause, they restarted their live coverage.”
“In this battle we broke traditional coverage of news. Our viewers watched the battle live on air [at] the same time as our cameramen and studio crews behind the scene,” he added.
As for the ethics of watching scenes of death and destruction, Rudaw’s YouTube viewers are sanguine. “I don’t know if it’s ethical but it’s cool,” responded one viewer in the comments section before returning to a discussion about possible troop movements.