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Live from Syria: Swedish streaming site gains followers

A webpage of Swedish IT company Bambuser is pictured in Riga September 26, 2012. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

STOCKHOLM: Syria's civil war has made Friday afternoons a busy time at Bambuser, a tiny Swedish IT startup in an old bicycle factory which streams live video from the latest uprisings.

The Muslim day of prayer is when the largest number of demonstrators, from Damascus to Deraa, pour onto the streets from mosques and then upload live images to the site.

At the company's HQ in central Stockholm, Executive Chairman Hans Eriksson sits glued to his laptop, recognising users as notifications of new streams flash across his screen.

"This one does funerals and bombings," he says, pointing at a user who has just posted a new protest.

Bambuser started in 2007 and gained popularity early on in the Arab Spring when 10,000 videos were uploaded on a single day during Egypt's parliamentary elections in 2010.

It's not the only live streaming site - ustream.tv in the United States is far bigger and better-funded, for instance - but Bambuser has gained its own niche in the world of activism.

Industry experts say its simplicity, its ability to deal with poor connectivity and a huge range of mobile phones has made it the de-facto place for activists in the Middle East.

Some of its live Syria video is picked up by news outlets such as the BBC, CNN, the Associated Press and Reuters as it gives them access to several hundreds of Bambuser broadcasters.

Riyaad Minty, head of social media at Al Jazeera, said his news network monitors Bambuser on a regular basis to keep up with events in Syria.

"For us, as a news organisation which may not be on ground to get those images in real time, and unfiltered - the face of war - those can be really powerful images," he said. "It gives us a good sense of what's happening live on the ground."

Sitting at a desk cluttered with tobacco containers, an Egyptian fez cap and a copy of Wired magazine with the face of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Eriksson is in constant contact with many on the ground in Syria, helping them with uploads and promoting streams to other media and on twitter.

He recalls one, an activist called "homslive", who broadcast on Bambuser from his rooftop in the middle of a mortar attack on Homs earlier this year.

"He came online and he told me 'I'm going to stay here'. I said: You're going to get killed. He said: 'Well, I'm not going to leave. I'm going to show the world what happens'."

That video, Eriksson said, reached 80 different networks and was aired 600 times.

Bambuser has also become a favourite of anti-Putin activists in Moscow, anti-austerity campaigners in Madrid as well as the Occupy Movement which has used the instant archive Bambuser's live streaming provides to document police activity.

On one recent Friday, Eriksson had the usual burst of activity in Syria plus demonstrations in Cairo and video from outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up for several months.

The company, with its 12 employees who call themselves "ninjas", follow in the footsteps of other Nordic IT darlings such as Skype and Spotify.

The firm is funded by venture capital and says it is making money though not yet profitable. It hopes to boost revenues by integrating its videos with other news applications - it recently signed a deal to cooperate with the Associated Press - through premium packages for corporate clients and advertising.

The founders are fully embracing their activist appeal, saying they want to help "democratise" live streaming.

"This is something we wanted anyone to be able to do, without needing satellites," said Chief Executive Jonas Vig, who co-founded the company.

Their job has been simplified by the development of smartphones with powerful cameras, mobile broadband networks and video applications.

Users create an account, download a free app to their phones and then click on a record button to go live on the Internet at Bambuser.com. They can also stream video from webcams.

In Syria, most activists who stream video are men between 12 and 20 documenting a conflict in which activists estimate some 1,000 people are being killed every week.

"A lot of the videos are designed to show: 'we are brave, embattled fighters resisting the might of the Syrian government'," said David Hartwell, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS Jane's.

Bambuser is banned in Syria, but activists get around state controls via satellite or by connecting to networks in neighbouring Jordan or Turkey. A recent report in Syria told of a man arrested for just having the Bambuser app on his phone.

"I am afraid," Mazen, one of Bambuser's earliest users in Syria and who is known in the Bambuser network as No 2., told Reuters on a Skype call. "If they catch me, they will execute me," he said.

Vig, who started Bambuser with a friend he has known since the sixth grade, believes live streaming is easier to verify than videos on YouTube where it can be difficult to tell if they are old or edited.

Some news organisations have become wary of broadcasting video they have not taken themselves because of the risk that the images have been doctored. Reuters has a double verification process to identify sites and ensure videos are valid.

"You can actually see everything unfiltered," Vig said. "It's very raw. It's very authentic."

The fact that Bambuser has many regular contributors, often in fixed, recognisable positions, aids the verification process.

The disadvantage to streaming, however, is that hours can pass without any action. In one video which Eriksson clicked on, an activist has zoomed in on a plastic bottle.

 

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