A video containing footage of a brutal police incident went viral amongst social media users in Rio de Janeiro. The footage shows Lapa Presente officers — a unit of military police dedicated to tourist areas and funded by a group of business and economic interests called the Federation of Markets in Rio de Janeiro—beating and using pepper spray against local teenagers hanging out in the popular tourist hotspot of Lapa in downtown Rio.
Police use pepper spray as one teen attempts to shield another. Click on photo above to open the original video.
The events in the video take place on March 2nd at the Selarón Steps, a famous set of painted stairs which—amidst a rise in Lapa’s gentrification—is one of the only places where younger locals can afford to hang out. The person holding the camera can be heard yelling out: “I am filming, ok?” several times. But the Lapa Presente officers continue to beat the teenagers and confiscate their cell phones. Later in the video, another teenager who attempts to film the violence is beaten, arrested, and has his cell phone confiscated immediately.
Human rights defenders and independent media collectives denounced the police brutality by sharing the video on social media to bolster public support and sending it to the Public Prosecutor’s office. However, it is an unfortunate reality that incidents like this—even with video footage—rarely lead to indictments of or repercussions for the guilty parties, which further encourages violent cops to .
Whether or not the police officers in question face repercussions, the Lapa video is bringing public attention to an urgent human rights discussion in Brazil: the right to record the police. Guilherme Pimentel is a coordinator with Defezap, an organization that designed an online platform to collect videos and photos depicting police abuse in Rio. In an interview with WITNESS, Guilherme noted:
“The footage shows unjustified violence, banal usage of pepper spray (a chemical weapon), and seizure of cell phones, which clearly represent a violation of the right to record police abuses.”
Defezap frequently posts on social media with guidance about the right to record in Brazil (see picture below). They inform the public, and especially residents of marginalized communities, about the following basic rules:
it is legal to film police officers on duty
It is illegal for police officers to seize cell phones and cameras
It is illegal for police officers to prevent the public from filming
The outrage in the reactions to the Lapa video further exemplifies how often such police violence occurs and showcases the power of video to amplify the voices speaking out against it. WITNESS is working closely with Defezap to verify the mounting collection of videos submitted to the organization, and how they can best utilize eyewitness video to secure justice. To learn more about WITNESS’ work in Brazil, visit portugues.witness.org (in Portuguese).
In over 25 years of working side-by-side with human rights defenders from 108 countries, one could say we’ve WITNESSed it all. But we continue to be awed and inspired by individuals, collectives, and organizations fighting for change. Whether it’s women creating short videos to fight gender stereotypes in Syria, grassroots campaigning to promote dignified narratives and just laws for LGBTQI persons in Malaysia, or compassionate storytelling led by women for HIV persons in South Africa to shed light on otherwise invisible communities, we are privileged to know and work with these powerful groups using video for change.
In honor and in celebration of International Women’s Day 2018, WITNESS’ regional teams highlight the women and organizations who inspire us.
Be sure to check out our new video “5 Things to Never Do when Interviewing Survivors of Sexual Violence” featuring writer, producer and activist, Agunda Okeyo. You can watch it below and read the guide this video is based on, Interviewing Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, which is available in 7 languages!
5 Things to Never Do When Interviewing Survivors of Sexual Violence - International Women's Day 2018 - YouTube
Justice for Sisters and SEED Foundation, Malaysia
Despite a glaringly appalling record of gross mistreatment and dehumanization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and inter-sex (LGBTQI) persons, Malaysia maintains that it treats the community equally, although it acceded the CEDAW in 1995.
Article 377 of Malaysia’s Penal Code criminalises same-sex activity with sentences of up to 20 years of imprisonment, or fines and whipping. Religious laws and policing punish men who crossdress in public with combined punishments of a fine, jail term and whipping. A fatwa that exists since 1983 prohibits sex change operations, which are understood as unnatural modifications to the human body. The Ministry of Islamic Development or JAKIM endorses “conversion therapy”, which calls for LGBTQI persons to “repent”, “seek guidance from God” and enter into heterosexual marriages by transformation through an extensive reprogramming of sexual orientation.
Defying the state’s intrusions into their intimate lives and the fear-mongering by religious leaders, who call for a tight control over the use of social media by LGBTQI persons, activists have taken to video to assert their rights, and to fight for their lives and dignities. Nisha Ayub, co-founder of grassroots campaign Justice for Sisters and the non-profit SEED Foundation, uses Facebook Livestream to dispel myths about transgender people, to voice her outrage at hate crimes, and to call for just laws. She also recently called out a popular local radio station for being transphobic in a video advertisement, which has since been taken down.
In June last year, Nisha successfully lobbied the Health Ministry to revise its discriminatory guidelines for a nation-wide video competition on adolescent sexual and reproductive health. The Ministry revised its gender dysphoria category with “gender and sexuality” and affirmed its commitment to the non-discrimination of LGBTQI persons. Nisha was joined in her efforts by the Malaysian AIDS Council, who uses video to break the stigma around LGBTQI survivors of HIV/AIDS.
In February this year, activist Arwind Kumar took to YouTube to respond to a homophobic checklist that was recently printed in a Malay language local newspaper. In his viral video, Arwind directly addresses the writer of the article to say:
“There are much more important issues in this country that need to be addressed, and THIS is not one of them. If you really want to educate society, then explain to them the traits of a paedophile, a molester, a murderer, a kidnapper, those kinds of people who actually endanger the life of another… how the hell does a gay person endanger your life?”
MY RESPONSE TO SINAR HARIAN'S 'LGBT TRAITS' - YouTube
Liberated T, Syria
In Arabic, words are feminized with a ة character—often called “the silent t.” However, Liberated T breathes life into all things feminine with a series of short videos documenting the exact ways that Syrian women are impacted by the war. “We want to shine a light on how our society treats women,” one of its founders told WITNESS MENA.
“Some well-known (male) activists are pro-human rights, but don’t see gender-based violence as a human rights violation. These activists—and this mentality—is one of our main targets.” On Liberated T’s carefully-curated website and social media pages, one can browse vignette-style videos describing everything from women rebuilding their homes from the ruins of Raqqa to the difficulties of having one’s period while under siege. “We use video to reach our audience in an impactful way; each video is produced by someone within our network of activists on the ground” the founder continues, speaking to the challenges of video and verification.
While Liberated T and their women-led team continue to shatter gender stereotypes by using the power of video in online spaces, that also means they have to carefully navigate the dangers of such spaces. For women speaking out in some of the most dangerous places in the world, the threat of digital violence, negative comments, and doxxing are an all-too-real risk. Nevertheless, Liberated T holds the conviction that the impact of video advocacy, however far-off, is important. “We are documenting these extraordinary women, in hopes that our next generation will be more open-minded.”
شو بتعمل لو كنت مرا/رجال؟ What if you were a woman/man? - YouTube
Voces de Mujeres, Mexico
Launched in 2015, Voces de Mujeres is a storytelling project based in Mexico comprised of women’s collectives and communication groups that focus on highlighting women’s stories of struggle and social transformation through a visual medium. Individual projects include thematic issues such as violence against women and gender non-conforming people while challenging and changing the way women have traditionally been represented in the media.
The project brings together 20 female activists and community organizers from all over Mexico to partake in workshops, training them on various communications tools and documentation techniques, therefore allowing them to develop and strengthen their audiovisual skills and empowering their individual voices and stories creatively. Over the course of six months, the participants are able to hone in on their storytelling skills and produce a final video piece. In 2017 the project kicked off its second year of workshops with a new group of participants featuring the stories of gender dissidents, indigenous women, poets, journalists, footballers, land defenders and more as participants continue to raise awareness and fight against social and institutional injustices.
Social Transformation and Empowerment Project, South Africa
Women have been second class citizens for much of South Africa’s history. Activists fighting for women’s rights are using video to leverage the transformative power of narrative and highlight voices that are often silenced. The Social Transformation and Empowerment Project (STEPS), one of our long-time partners in South Africa, is an NGO that uses storytelling to educate and empower on human rights and environmental issues. STEPS creates documentaries on pressing social issues, organizes community screenings, and trains facilitators to use documentaries for awareness and advocacy.
The encouragement and support from STEPS helped Mariam, featured below, produce a participatory film about becoming a young mother at 15 years old; in the process of filming, Mariam encourages other young mothers to continue their education, adding:
“I also want to go back to school. I just want to let young girls like you know what I experienced mustn’t happen to anyone.”
Marianne Gysae and Elaine Maane are inspiring community trainers for STEPS to guide people to spark productive dialogues about films to generate building blocks for change: compassion, solidarity, a sense of connection, and understanding. Marianne has been involved in media for development projects in Southern Africa for more than 20 years. Elaine promotes the visibility of people living with HIV through working on projects dedicated to this cause, in addition to her book about her experience of living with HIV. Marianne and Elaine boost the diversity of media content and ownership in South Africa and amplify people’s ideas and opinions throughout the world.
A Mother At 15 (Kukhala mnzimayi uli wachichepere) - YouTube
Anna Lekas Miller is WITNESS’ MENA Communications Consultant based in London. She has reported from the Middle East on the Syrian refugee crisis, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and other issues for a variety of publications, including The Intercept, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, and VICE.
Izzy Pinheiro is WITNESS’ Program Assistant based in Brooklyn, NY. She has worked advocacy campaigns including health care for Syrian refugees in Jordan, sexual violence prevention on college campuses, and redressing rights abuses in South Africa.
Meghana Bahar is WITNESS’ Asia Communications Consultant—a gender and media expert, with 18 years of experience in transnational women’s and human rights movements as an activist, journalist, writer, media and communications specialist.
From Florida to Pakistan, people are capturing human rights abuses and life-changing events, and the subsequent video footage is powerful. That’s why our Last Month In Video series covers video news each month, highlighting the impact of video to shift narratives or document human rights abuse. We will also help you stay up to date with security and technology news that relates to video.
If you have a tip for a story, please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com In the meantime, check out February’s post.
February 2018 in human rights video:
February 15: Florida students use video as a platform for gun control advocacy
February 22: Residents in Rio film destruction left behind by illegal police invasion
February 24: Apple moves to store iCloud keys in China, raising human rights fears
February 26: Islamabad High Court rules mobile network shutdowns illegal
February 28: The future of cameras and artificial intelligence
The WITNESS Take: Bypassing what has now become a standard protocol of mass shooting followed by thoughts and prayers and then congressional inaction, high school students in Parkland, Florida offered us a never-before-seen narrative of a school shooting, utilizing social media to feature interviews with other survivors as the tragic events of February 14 took place. As the day unfolded, eyewitnesses videos lit up the local Snap Map. David Hogg, a student journalist, added “I want to show these people exactly what’s going on when these children are facing bullets flying through classrooms and students are dying trying to get an education.” These students are prime examples of how the impact of video can be used to affect change by applying the principles of video advocacy to immediate effect on February 14 and afterwards, moving their message for gun control to prime time network TV and beyond while maintaining a constant presence on social media. And their powerful calls for action are paying off: David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and others took part in a nationally syndicated town hall meeting last month with 2 senators, the sheriff’s department, and a lead spokesperson for the National Rifle Association. Support for the students, survivors, and family members of the Parkland shooting is picking up momentum as reform measures are being discussed—and passed—across the United States.
The WITNESS Take: As favela residents brace for the worst after the Brazilian president announced a military intervention that puts the army in charge of policing in Rio, courageous residents continue to use their phones to expose the violations they’re enduring. In this example, Maré Vive—a community media network—shares a video made by residents whose property was destroyed by police under military orders. After the local press parroted the version of events released by police and reported that the property was owned by drug bosses, outraged residents took to their phones to correct the story and film the damage left behind, explaining the house was actually built up over several years and rented as a space for parties and gatherings, contributing to the family’s livelihood. Once more, we see how video can be deployed quickly to counter false narratives and defy the curse of invisibility that too often still prevails in cases of police violence in favelas and poor neighborhoods.
Some of WITNESS’ guidance on how to film safely and the right to film were shared in a major newspaper after news of the military intervention broke.
The WITNESS Take: As Apple moves to comply with Chinese law and host iCloud data with “a state-owned firm, human rights defenders face mounting risks by storing personal information—which can include contacts, notes, files, photos, and messages—in the service. While encryption keys will still remain with Apple, they are legally obligated to comply with warrants for information regarding criminal activity, which—unlike the legal framework for obtaining warrants in the United States—are both issued and executed by the police without the oversight of an independent court. The further danger to dissidents, activists, and human rights defenders is the level of scrutiny—or lack thereof—that is applied to these warrants; infractions which may trigger an investigation of criminal activity can include “undermining communist values, ‘picking quarrels’ online, or even using a virtual private network to browse the Internet privately.”
We recommend that anyone working with sensitive data assess their risks and take steps to protect their information—our primer on digital security includes the principles of threat assessment and links to leading resources on the topic, including Surveillance Self Defense by Electronic Frontier Foundation and Security-in-a-Box by Tactical Tech and Frontline Defenders.
The WITNESS Take: Pakistan’s High Court ruled that suspension of cellular networks during “civil unrest”—such as the crowds that amassed during the previous shutdowns on Pakistan Day— was “unjustified and a matter that caused distress to customers in times when people need the services most to get in touch with their loved ones.” The 2015 Pakistan Day shutdowns in the country’s capital affected networks in a 5km radius, including a major hospital and airport in the government’s attempt to secure the area. The High Court’s ruling is a key victory for freedom of expression as the right to stable and open access to the internet is under threat across the globe, and videos of protests, violence, and human rights abuse are increasingly shared using mobile data plans and social media platforms.
As targeted shutdowns are still taking place and are centered around major Pakistani cities and events such as elections, people who capture video should be prepared to safely store their footage offline—visit our archiving website for more resources and information.
The WITNESS Take: Cameras are getting smarter. New technology is bolstering the power of “dumb” cameras such as those used in CCTV, nanny cams, and home security systems. And with even newer technology which embeds artificial intelligence (AI) programs into cameras directly, the human rights world can rejoice at the implications of being able to, for example, quickly find a perpetrator in a video without the need for massive dedicated teams and resources. Patterns of abuse and mass atrocities can be recognized perhaps before they reach a critical point, helping investigators and human rights defenders hold perpetrators accountable and preventing mass deaths and displacement. But the very notion of intelligent cameras should give us pause for that exact reason. Using a supercharged network of cameras and AI technology, Chinese authorities can now locate people in a matter of minutes, meaning that yes, “criminals” can be located but so can dissidents and activists. As these technologies further develop and governments gain unprecedented access to data sourced from peer-to-peer surveillance and pin-pointed facial recognition, it is more important than ever that activists take measures to protect themselves and their communities.
Apps like ObscuraCam, which we co-created with The Guardian Project and groups like Tactical Tech and Article 19 have useful resources to help activists fight surveillance.
In 2015, WITNESS and PILnet co-hosted a Video as Evidence training in Casablanca, Morocco, designed to train lawyers from across the MENA region in how to use video footage as evidence in a trial. While the participants were interested in the concept, many of them did not know how video would fit the legal context of their respective countries. How do you use video as evidence, when video has never been used as evidence before?
Over the following months, WITNESS and PILnet collaborated to fill this gap—traveling to Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, collaborating with local partners to research each jurisdiction. The result is a 70-page report that examines legal contexts, precedents, and challenges facing each of the surveyed countries; you can read it in English and in Arabic.
Below, Tara Vassefi (VAE Legal Fellow) joins Raja Althaibani (WITNESS MENA Program Manager) and Maysa Zorob (PILnet Senior Legal Officer for MENA) to discuss the creation of the Video As Evidence report.
How did the Video as Evidence guide come to be?
Raja: Our Video As Evidence Field Guide was born out of our work on Syria. We, as WITNESS, were providing training and support for activists, citizen journalists, lawyers and many others who were filming human rights abuses and crimes that they were witnessing on the ground. We wanted to ensure that those who documented with video had access to a resource that could continue to strengthen their efforts to use video for media advocacy, human rights advocacy and justice and accountability.
In the beginning of the conflict, many people were seeking support to film for media reports—but as the conflict continued to escalate and access into the country for international stakeholders became less of an option, Syrians began turning to video to document war crimes with the hope that their content could be used to help fuel investigations and prosecutions – and overall efforts towards justice and accountability.
By default, local activists are taking on the role of investigators and human rights monitors—and they had to learn these skills. Seven years later, there is now more hours of footage of the Syrian conflict on YouTube, than of the conflict itself. But how can these videos be used for justice and accountability?
We sat down with lawyers, and asked them what kind of evidence they would need to build these cases, and tried to connect them to activists (first responders when an incident occurs). We worked with technology experts, on issues like verification, and using tools like geolocation and other metadata to confirm information and understand how people are documenting and sharing information. We also worked with legal experts, both in Syria and internationally, to better understand how video should be captured, collected and prepared for legal systems around the world – systems that have been largely under-equipped to handle the influx of footage made possible by today’s mobile technologies.
WITNESS Senior Attorney and Program Manager Kelly Matheson developed these findings into a guide that would be relevant, and useful to people around the world.
When did WITNESS and PILNET decided to collaborate, to further understand Video as Evidence in the MENA region?
TARA: The collaboration started three years ago, when WITNESS partnered with PILNET to run a Video as Evidence training in Casablanca, Morocco with lawyers, judges, and journalists from across the MENA region. But while the participants were interested in learning about Video as Evidence, many of them didn’t know how to apply it to the legal context of their countries. What are the laws governing video and digital evidence? Do judges accept it? What factors are used to weigh the evidence?
RAJA: After this training, we saw that PILNET was the ideal influencer to help tailor this guide for the MENA region.
TARA: As a network public interest advocates, of pro-bono lawyers and law firms, PILNET was able to reach out to one of their partners, Latham & Watkins who in collaborating with local counsel in certain jurisdictions, provided the legal memos in respect of the countries surveyed which were the backbone of the research. I ended up traveling to several of the countries to connect with lawyers, judges, and civil society on the ground and learn more about the practice of using video evidence in human rights cases within the various jurisdictions. I wrote out the book based on all of that information.
As a network of public interest advocates, pro-bono lawyers and law firms, PILNET was able to reach out to one of their partners, Latham & Watkins who, in collaboration with local counsel in certain jurisdictions, provided the legal memos in respect of the countries surveyed which were the backbone of the research.
MAYSA: We made this happen by collaborating—Kelly (WITNESS) had the expertise on video as evidence, and could provide substantive guidance and input. Tara interviewed our partners on the ground, and did legal research beyond the memos provided. I leveraged PILnet’s resources and contacts, coordinated the efforts of the different partners involved and oversaw the process, to make sure we were on track and had the information we needed. It was a multi-stakeholder collaboration, and so much greater than the sum of its parts.
The MENA region has so many different countries, political dynamics and legal systems. How are you personalizing the guide’s information to be useful in each context?
TARA: The key issue in this research is that it has to be very localized—different countries have different legal and historical contexts. While the justice systems are all similar in their form and codes and the countries have all experienced an uptick in video and social media documentation especially in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, any discussion of how video evidence might be used is very different from one country to the next. In Tunisia for example, there is a unique sensitivity to transparency and privacy, not just in the justice system but in society writ large, that underlies any conversation about social media and digital documentation. As another example, the Egyptian justice system implements technical means related to the use of video evidence that I didn’t see in other countries like how to make sure the video is shown in court or verified and authenticated before its use. So it is very important to localize this research and discussion as much as possible.
While there is a lot of focus on sourcing evidence of war crimes in international courts, there isn’t a lot of focus on domestic legal systems, which is where the bulk of the day-to-day decision-making and advocacy is actually happening.
MAYSA: As International NGOs, the partnerships that WITNESS and PILNET establish with local partners are crucial. We can’t possibly come in and pretend that we know the local context as well as someone who is on the ground. Without creating local ownership, whatever we do, no matter how valuable we think our expertise and information is, if people don’t trust it and translate it into a way that speaks to them, it won’t have any impact.
What kind of impact are you hoping that the Video As Evidence guide and research will have on the MENA region?
TARA: The MENA research is just a starting point. There are a lot of issues that need to be fleshed out like how this evidence can be used in civil cases (in addition to criminal cases) and how the evidentiary standards shift based on the stage of proceeding. But as I’ve been traveling and discussing the topic with more and more people, it has been super helpful to have something like this a basepoint for conversations around how to most effectively use digital/video evidence, whether and to what extent it is beneficial to a case, and perhaps most importantly, what other steps need to be taken to improve justice and accountability systems so as to optimize this kind of evidence. The cool thing about this topic is that it is something that applies across various disciplines and actors: everyone agrees that there is more and more digital/video evidence, everyone agrees that it affects their work and impact in some way.
RAJA: We want activists that are filming, gathering content—and evidence—become more equipped and better supported. As locals, they have unique access and expertise that has resulted in some of the most powerful reporting and documentation. Foreign monitors are not always able to do this, especially in a dangerous environment like Syria—so it is that much more important that people know how to do this in the most effective and safe (and ethical) way.
In our conversations with lawyers, we found out that one example that was seen time and time again in Syria, are the dozens of videos of barrel bombings uploaded to the Internet. While activists thought that they were proving war crimes, these videos alone weren’t necessarily useful for building a case. In addition, the lawyers needed footage of munitions used, or the exact geo-location of the bombing itself–footage that would be available if the activists were filming strategically. This is the kind of information that provides the necessary evidence to prove the context of the crime and therefore demand accountability. Our Video as Evidence field guide goes into further details in the Collection Planning section, as well as the Filming Secure Scenes and Filming Linkage Evidence sections.
Ultimately, the goal of the guide is to connect the lawyers with the activists, with the technologists and provide the knowledge and know-how to optimize this rich archive of videos, as evidence.
TARA: So for example, when we launched this report in Tunisia we wanted to open the discussion with different elements of civil society and the response was striking. People were really excited about the topic and they felt like they had a key role to play in figuring out these issues. But they were also very much aware of the importance of other actors. We spoke to human rights groups and they said: “make sure you talk to journalists about this.” We met with a union of journalists and they said, “make sure you bring in members of parliament or ministry of justice.” Each party was eager to make sure that others, including the government, were looped into the conversation. As so I’ve been working closely with an awesome local organization called LEAD to put on some kind of a convening, hackathon, startup weekend, etc. where we bring together people from technology, human rights, and government and have them discuss and design a possibly tech-enabled solution to address issues related to digital technical evidence.
We talked about what video can bring to the table. What are some of the challenges with using video as evidence?
TARA: I think there are a few ways that video can be more effective. The first step is clarifying that video can be used in a case; it sounds easier than it is. Sometimes it is political; other times, it’s technical. For example, in Egypt there are two government bodies that handle showing video in a court case—the first is the Ministry of Interior’s Technical Support Administration, which ensures that the courtroom is equipped with a projector or other means to show the video; the second is under the State Television Agency and is responsible for verification and authentication of the evidence. In theory, if a party tries to use video, and it’s not allowed without just cause, leading to an unfavorable decision, it can be grounds for a mistrial. In reality, this mechanism has been used as a political tool by the government and prosecution against activists and others in human rights-related cases.
The other problem is technical issues. In many of the countries surveyed, the judges and lawyers I spoke with had never seen a courtroom that was outfitted with a projector or anything to show the video. A description of the video might be accepted as evidence in the case file, but the courtrooms are lacking a mechanism to ensure that it is used during trial or other proceedings.
RAJA: Video is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. It is important to consider other sources of evidence that can help prove a whole story versus relying on a single video clip to tell the whole story and context surrounding it. Another challenge with video as evidence is that it is a double-edged sword. In the same way, it can help catalyze an investigation, justice, and accountability, it can also jeopardize lives. For some—like the Egyptian woman in Tahrir Square whose sexual assault was documented and shared online—it is a living record of trauma, that can be re-victimizing. In the same way it can be used to expose crimes and abuses, it can equally be used by adversaries to identify witnesses, victims, and individuals behind the camera. Some videos are also misinforming; if you have audiences that are interpreting it out of context, it can create a space of misinformation and distrust. That’s why things like verification and ethics are so important when filming, sharing, or even viewing a video. Whether you are the filmer, lawyer, sharer or viewer – be sure you understand the strengths and limitations of video. Be safe. Be ethical. Be effective.
For more information visit vae.witness.org.
About the author: Anna Lekas Miller is WITNESS’ MENA Communications Consultant based in London. She has reported from the Middle East on the Syrian refugee crisis, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and other issues for a variety of publications, including The Intercept, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, and VICE.
From Rio to Catalonia, people are capturing human rights abuses and life-changing events, and they’re doing it with their cell phones. Our Last Month In Video series covers video news each month, highlighting the impact of video to shift narratives or document human rights abuse. We will also help you stay up to date with security and technology news that relates to video.
If you have a tip for a story, we want to hear from you! Please feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, check out January’s post. There were many developments stemming from late 2017 and we will continue to provide coverage on the impact of these events.
January 11: NYC council members among those arrested at rally for detained immigration activist Ravi Ragbir of New Sanctuary Coalition
January 15: Residents of Rio de Janeiro favela used mobile phones to capture footage of an armored police helicopter opening fire at random
January 27: Community activists transmit live commentary on the inauguration day of contested Honduran President
January 30: Deposed Catalan President Skyped in from Brussels to address his constituency regarding a parliamentary vote
January 11: Facebook announces algorithm change
The WITNESS Take: Facebook’s announcement came close to a month after admitting that passive social media use may be an unhealthy practice. While this may be guided at increasing meaningful personal interaction and decreasing exposure to ads, we cannot ignore the fact that, from the Arab Spring to the 2017 Women’s March, online spaces such as Facebook have become public spaces where nonprofits and coalitions share videos and engage with people seeking to spark social change—and despite the security concerns regarding activist use of platforms like Facebook, it continues to dominate political and organizing exchanges. Facebook had already tried a similar tactic in select countries before, resulting in massive drops in engagement for business accounts, but we have yet to see what the true ramifications of January’s algorithm change may be for social organizing. WITNESS will continue to monitor these changes in collaboration with other organizations; in the meantime, to continue viewing WITNESS and other public accounts, be sure to click on “see first” in the follow options.
The WITNESS Take: Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials continue to spread fear in immigrant communities and undermine the legal system by arresting people at their scheduled check ins, in restaurants, courthouses, and schools; Ravi’s detainment was no different. Despite being married to a U.S. citizen and actively challenging a non-violent conviction from 20 years ago, ICE marked Ravi as an “aggravated felon”, moving quickly to attempt to deport him. While a U.S. district judge has since ordered ICE to free Ravi, citing that his detention by ICE was “unnecessarily cruel”, Ravi’s release does not change the reality for thousands of other immigrants facing targeted surveillance and detainment. Filming encounters with ICE is one way that immigrants and their allies can help counter ICE’s cruel tactics, but we urge anyone thinking of filming to take precautions. The footage from these counters can expose human rights abuses, deter violence, substantiate reports and serve as evidence. But if the footage isn’t captured safely and ethically, it can put people filming as well as immigrant families at risk. Learn more and stay safe with our checklist for filming ICE encounters.
January 14: Residents of Rio de Janeiro favela used mobile phones to capture footage of an armored police helicopter opening fire at random
The WITNESS Take: Favela residents in Brazil continue to face illegal and barbaric military police actions—in Rio’s Complexo do Alemão community last year, the military police took over rooftops of residents’ homes to create makeshift bases of operation. It is precisely the video footage and documentation of eyewitnesses and residents that helped the community, in conjunction with public defenders and organizations such as Coletivo Papo Reto, successfully launch a campaign to hold police accountable; this campaign led to a pivotal decision to indict two high-ranking commanders of the military police on charges of illegal home invasions. Mobile phone footage like the video below from Jacarezinho favela, also in Rio, serve to counteract the dominant police-led narrative, and can continue to help hold perpetrators of illegal actions accountable. If you are filming, be sure to stay safe and film effectively by following these tips.
Jacarezinha Favela 20180114 - YouTube
January 27: Community activists transmit live commentary on the inauguration day of contested Honduran President
The WITNESS Take: We promote the safe, ethical and effective use of video for human rights. Sometimes, that means putting the camera down. Amidst the brutal threats to land defenders, indigenous groups, and political opposition, the highly-contested November 2017 presidential election and a general strike, Honduras remains one of the most hostile countries to activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. Voces de Mesoamerica—an independent collective of media activists—teamed up to produce a live audio stream providing contextual background on the election and reporting in solidarity with the massive protests taking place during President Juan Orlando Hernández’s inauguration. By transmitting from Mexico via internet audio and retransmit from local radio stations in Honduras, Mexico and Chile, the group was not only able to broadcast safely but also reach and hear from thousands of people in at-risk communities across Latin America who do not have high bandwidth internet access. Read more here on how WITNESS joined the Voces de Mesoamerica Caravan to train Latin American activists on how to stay safe and protect human rights using video.
January 30: Deposed Catalan President Skyped in from Brussels to address his constituency regarding a parliamentary vote.
The WITNESS Take: With Carles Puigdemont and his government in (digital) exile or prison, and the independence movement scrambling for clear leadership, the Spanish government stepped up surveillance in order to prevent Mr. Puigdemont from secretly entering the country, and has announced an investigation of sedition into the Catalan regional force for providing protection to referendum organizers. This is in addition to the devastating orders in late 2017 demanding that internet service providers (ISPs) filter websites hosting referendum and voting content, that web domain registries both turn over information on its customers and take down sites that help people vote, and that even a Google voting app to be taken down. We believe that a free and open internet is pivotal to a functioning democracy—especially in moments when at-risk communities are looking to make their voices heard. But as we have also seen, in today’s age the curtailing of rights in digital spaces is often a first step to curtailing rights in physical spaces as well; another key precedent set in Catalonia in light of the referendum was the number of shared eyewitness videos depicting state-sanctioned violence against protesters. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and grassroots organizers alike have denounced the unprecedented digital repression of Catalan residents and political dissidents, and WITNESS stands in solidarity with those who seek to protect internet freedom across the globe.
Junts fins a la plenitud de la nostra llibertat - YouTube
With contributions from Sam Gregory, Dia Kayyali, Palika Makam, and Dalila Mujagic
2017 was a challenging year for most of the world, and the exceptions (Trump, white supremacists, nationalists in multiple countries, religious extremists, greedy corporations) are the ones responsible. But the oft-repeated maxim that these forces are fighting so hard because their positions of power are being threatened is not wrong. Video had a big role to play in 2017. Some of it was good, some it was bad, and we saw some new developments that we are keeping our eye on to understand better. Here’s our take on video in 2017.
Video was key to holding police officers in the US and Brazil accountable
In 2017, despite multiple disappointing verdicts in court proceedings that included video as evidence against police officers in the United States, we also saw cases where video was key in court cases and administrative proceedings. In the U.S., Michael Slager, the officer who shot Walter Scott, was sentenced to 20 years after pleading guilty. In Brazil, our incredible partners Papo Reto celebrated an important victory, when a collection of video footage was used as evidence in court to indict two high-level commanders for their responsibility in the unlawful invasion of private homes.
YouTube introduced a new blurring tool and responded to critiques about how its new policies are affecting human rights material
In August, YouTube launched a new and improved face blurring tool that makes it easier than ever for anyone to protect identities in videos. At the same time, we collaborated with our partners the Syrian Archive to discovere that YouTube’s new machine-learning system—meant to detect extremist content— had been deleting hundreds of thousands of videos depicting human rights abuses in Syria.. We were able to get tens of thousands of videos restored, and continue to push YouTube to fix their broken system.
Video- and especially livestreaming- amplified the voices of millions of people around the world demanding justice
Video created by activists was key to showing the incredible organizing by water defenders at Standing Rock, independence activists in Catalonia, protesters rejecting disputed election results in Honduras, and most recently the unprecedented protests in Iran. In each of these cases, the in-depth documentation carried out by activists and their smartphone cameras thrust a powerful international spotlight on police and military repression that could have otherwise gone largely unnoticed.
Courts in the United States upheld the right to record the police
There has been no Supreme Court decision in the United States that ensures that the right to record is respected in every judicial district. However, courts of appeal (“Circuit Courts) in two districts held clearly that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects the right to record the police. The decisions in Fields v. The City of Philadelphia and Turner V. Lieutenant Driver strengthen the right to record in the United States even further, and set a good precedent not only for cases in the United States, but for this important issue of freedom of expression worldwide. The United States has one of the most strongly enshrined bodies of law on this issue, and we hope that other countries start to follow suit. We believe it’s not just the First Amendment that supports the right to record, it’s Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Indigenous Communities in Mexico Won a Land Rights Victory in Federal Court
The Júba Wajiín and advocacy group Tlachinollan, after years of video campaigning in judicial decision-making spaces and public awareness raising,secured their biggest victory to date. Last summer a federal court ruled the Mexican state has a constitutional obligation to respect indigenous land rights, and that mining operations cannot continue without input from the Júba Wajiín community. Though the federal government appears to disagree with the court decision, the Júba Wajiín and their allies continue to use video advocacy and powerful community organizing in order to ensure their land rights.
Video exposed human rights defenders and at-risk communities
As more and more people get in the habit of whipping out their smartphones to document activism and human rights abuses as they happen– and immediately posting them to the Internet– more and more at-risk people are getting exposed by these videos. Sometimes the consequences are lack of privacy and embarrassment, but sometimes the consequences are worse- after a video depicting people waving rainbow flags at a concert in Cairo was posted on social media, Egyptian security forces arrested seven people in what was the beginning of the worst crackdown on LGBTQ people in decades.
YouTube’s New Machine learning deleted tens of thousands of human rights videos
In June, Google announced it would be using machine learning to “detect extremist content.” Only a few months later, our partners alerted us that tens of thousands (the count is in the hundreds of thousands now) of videos showing human rights abuses in Syria, as well as the channels that feature these videos, were being removed. Open-source investigations- investigations that use such publicly-available material- are one of the only pathways to justice for the millions of Syrians that have had their lives torn apart or taken away by the Assad regime and ISIS. Not only is this bad for Syria, it’s a troubling precedent that could affect documentation from places like Burma, and we will continue to fight it, especially as companies come under pressure from the European Commission to remove objectionable content in 120 minutes.
“Fake news” caused chaos around the world- but it also unfairly called into question citizen journalism
The term fake news became a huge buzzword this year. We continue to defer to the excellent taxonomy of misinformation created by Claire Wardle at First Draft News. Regardless of what you call it, there is no question that people were manipulated by bad actors, and the consequences– such as the election of Trump and the resurgence of white supremacists and nationalists all over the world-were real. But citizen journalism has become collateral damage in the fight against misinformation. One particularly troubling example of both sides of this issue is the human rights abuses being committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Even as official government channels put out patently false information, reports coming directly from citizen journalists, as well as Rohingya news services like Rohingya Vision, were successfully depicted as fake news by the government. We continue to believe that citizen journalism cannot be so easily dismissed, and we will push platforms like Facebook to understand that and work with partners across the world to disseminate and refine our resources on making media verifiable and reliable.
WITNESS has been skeptical about bodycams since they started being touted as a panacea for U.S. police violence in 2014– especially since we have seen so many localities adopt harmful policies that actually exacerbate the problem. But this year, we learned that fortunately, police officers don’t necessarily understand when and how bodycams turn on, resulting in compelling evidence that officers are planting evidence on suspects. In Baltimore, the State Attorney was forced to drop dozens of cases after body cam footage showed what appeared to be a police officer planting drugs on suspect, and in Los Angeles Officer Samuel Lee was pulled from duty after a video appeared to show him doing the same. At the same time, the Salt Lake City District Attorney ruled that the fatal police shooting of Patrick Harmon as he ran away from police- as shown on bodycam-was justified.
The use of video from social media as evidence mushroomed
In a historic first, on August 15, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli for crimes in Libya, based largely on 7 videos obtained on social media. We also saw Sweden, Finland, and Germany use videos from social media in prosecutions and investigations. As Human Rights Watch points out these prosecutions are, unfortunately, focused on terrorism-related charges instead of war crimes prosecutions against Assad’s regime-partly because of ISIS’ predilection for filming itself committing human rights abuses as propaganda. We are working to ensure that such evidence is understood and used appropriately.
Video created by the perpetrators of human rights abuses
Syria remains the greatest example of how these videos can shape the fight for justice, while also being used as propaganda. As noted above the ICC and state prosecutors are using such videos. And aggregators like the Violation Documentation Center in Syria relies on such videos as well. Such videos have also exposed abuses in other places, for example myriad videos showing abuse of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, posted on social media by perpetrators who clearly don’t fear reprisal. However, Facebook Live has been used in countless cases by people to livestream abuse and even murders. Video on social media is also being used in places like Kyrgyzstan to intimidate and sometimes bribe the LGBTQ community. We’ve written about the ethical concerns around using perpetrator video, and we are keeping a close eye on this issue.
As an organization and individuals embedded in the fight for human rights for multiple decades, we believe that 2017 was a wakeup call for those who haven’t been paying attention. Looking forward, our Executive Director Yvette recently wrote “In 2018, WITNESS is committed to partnering with marginalized and vulnerable communities, and building capacity for people to use video and technology to put an end to injustice. And from time to time, this year, no matter how deep the crisis or how urgent the need, we will take a moment to listen, to learn and to ensure that our efforts and those of our partners will be more impactful than ever.”
It doesn’t feel like long ago that the first shaky videos of the Arab Spring were uploaded to the Internet.
First it was young Tunisians—protesting for the rights of young men like 26 year old Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire when he was arrested for selling fruit, the only way he was able to make a living to support his family. A few days later, Egyptians began sharing images of Khalid Said–a young man who died in police custody in Alexandria, when police tortured him to death for being in possession of video evidence that implicated the police in a drug deal. The video showed evidence of corruption; the images, of the brutal torture that the regime was capable of. Both inspired a movement that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year rule and a new dawn for Egypt.
Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria quickly followed suit. Young people filming demonstrations on their smartphones—and then sharing them on social media as a call to action—became so ubiquitous that terms like “Facebook protests” and “Twitter revolutions” were thrown about to characterize the technology-savvy uprisings.
But soon this form of documentation started to play another role. As the regimes cracked down on the protests, many of the activists turned their cameras towards the security forces, documenting the tear gas, beatings and bullets that were injuring, and killing their comrades. Like the images of Khalid Said’s maimed body, the viral videos that once catalyzed the revolutions were no longer just about demanding change; they were also demanding accountability.
Seven years later, it is difficult to remember the optimism that once galvanized a movement across the region. The death of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has left behind a political vacuum that devolved into militia-governed chaos. Egyptians—who originated the “Facebook protests” now face Internet surveillance and censorship so extreme that many are wary of communicating—much less, organizing—using online platforms. Yemen and Syria’s uprisings became full-scale wars.
Still, the importance of documentation remains constant. Syrian activists who have spent the past seven years documenting the regime’s crackdown on their demonstrations—and then the barrel bombs, chemical weapons attacks and massacres that came after—are now being approached by international media outlets and human rights organizations to see if their videos can be part of an effort to support investigations, advocacy, and eventually even hold war criminals accountable.
But it isn’t only the activists who are using video. Governments have used video to discredit activists—such as the Egyptian court that showed a video of Egyptian activist Ala’a Abdel-Fateh’s wife belly-dancing in their home, to indict him on charges of participating in civilian clashes in front of the Shura Council building during protests in 2013. Extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State uploaded countless videos of their own group, beheading civilians and pillaging ancient artifacts from Syria.
As a result, we are overwhelmed with video footage—on YouTube there are more hours of documentation of the Syrian conflict than of the Syrian conflict itself. It got so extreme that YouTube tried to flag, and in some cases, remove, the often violent content—a policy that many activists, including our partners, Syrian Archive, fought. Legal systems around the world have been largely under-equipped to handle the influx of footage made possible by today’s mobile technologies; and, simultaneously, the power of citizen witnesses to capture video for social change and evidence remains largely unrealized.
In an effort to strategize effective ways to use video evidence as a tool to defend and advance the public interest, PILnet and WITNESS organized a training on how to make use of such resources in legal proceedings. The training took place in Morocco in December 2015, bringing together human rights advocates from across MENA. While participants recognized the value of video evidence, many of them were unfamiliar with the question of how different jurisdictions can use video evidence in their respective legal settings.
As the executive director of a human rights organization and a member of a global community of activists, you have to regularly ask yourself an existential question: why do we exist? At WITNESS, our raison d’être is our belief that when human rights defenders can use video and technology safely, ethically and effectively, more human rights change will happen. We believe that there are millions of us who could be defenders as we now can use the technology at our fingertips to create a just world: together, our stories, our truths, can create accountability for human rights crimes and mobilize a just society. This is very personal to me because it is why I get out of bed in the morning. But on a practical level, that existential question should underpin, on a daily basis, everything we do in the struggle for human rights.
This is why last December we brought our entire staff- from Malaysia, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, The Netherlands, and Senegal- to join their U.S.-based colleagues in Brooklyn, NY for our Global Team retreat. And the purpose of our existence was the question that simmered –brightly!- right below the surface as we took a critical look at the state of human rights in the world, questioned our priorities, took in feedback, analyzed our successes, anticipated our future challenges, and evaluated our partnerships and our methodologies.
In the fight for human rights, there are no guarantees of success, but in our 25 years in this fight, we have honed and fire-proofed our approach. In reviewing this past year, we celebrated successes with our partners and identified where we could do better.
We’re proud of the progress we’ve made as collaborators in the growing networks of resistance around the world, building capacity with activists to use video and technology effectively to defend their rights. We (both WITNESS and our partners) saw stronger ‘ecosystems’ of activism emerge in a tumultuous human rights landscape. For example, an indigenous community in southern Mexico used video documentation and technologies that helped them win an important victory against abusive extractive industries with illegal mining permits.
Juba Wajiin Community Fights For Land Rights - YouTube
We noted the growing reach and use of our tailored, timely guidance, tools, and resources, enabling communities to speak out more safely, document human rights crimes in ways that can be verified and trusted, and use video as a strategic tool to push for changes and accountability. For example, across the Asia Pacific region, acts of discrimination that target indigenous peoples and minority populations are on the rise. Based on input from partners, we produced a video with tips for filming acts of hate which was viewed more than 35,000 times via our Asia Facebook page.
Our strategies are anchored in deep collaborations, coupled with the strength and resourcefulness to respond to expected and unexpected challenges. These were the seeds for progress and impact that were planted along the way.
We also looked, critically and with feedback loops from our partners, at where we (as WITNESS or collectively) could have done better, worked smarter, could have been more focused or strategic.
One of our observations is that the phrase ‘tireless activist’ is a misnomer. We and our partner communities get tired, suffer setbacks, and face new challenges that were in no one’s plans – all the time. The mistake we make, over and over, is that, as human rights activists, in the face of mounting crises and phenomenal enemies, we don’t stop often enough to assess, take a breath, and adapt.
Last year, in particular, the human rights movement was under constant attack. More defenders were killed in 2017 than any year before. Populism, repression, ethnic cleansing, blatant disregard for rule of law, were only some of the successive challenges we encountered. This work comes at a high cost to activists and brave communities who resist. We are in a crisis, but to be as effective as possible, we need to operate outside of crisis-mode.
The world is never going to be predictable, but we’ve built the capability to stop and assess into our plan for the coming year. Because, for example, when the WITNESS team paused, briefly, to discuss our learnings, something wonderful happened during our retreat: we realized how similar the needs on the ground were in one region to others and how we could adapt and share solutions hatched in one place to other places where communities faced similar challenges. For example, our work with partners in Syria dealing with large volumes of human rights documentation that they aim to turn into concrete impact informed updated guidance we’ve shared on crucial cataloging and archiving strategies with activists in Brazil, the United States and beyond.
As millions of people turn to their mobile phones and social media to share their stories of abuse, sometimes putting themselves at great harm, we see repeat patterns of the challenges they face. Building on what we are learning with our partners, we are devising ever-smarter ways to get solutions, tools, and guidance, urgently into the hands of the many, many communities around the world who are facing similar roadblocks to justice. And we’re taking their needs to the tech giants to advocate for system-wide solutions that can turn millions into safer and effective defenders.
To do this, we need to pace ourselves, be radical listeners to our partners and the landscape, and take the time to understand what we are seeing and learning. Then, we can act nimbly, practically, and effectively – to address the challenges and risks defenders face in creating impact. For example, with more people telling their stories on video, which can be accessed by perpetrators of the abuse, we’re pushing for functionalities that protect people’s identities. And we’re helping to remove the barriers that activists face such as ensuring their content can be preserved, trusted and found in an environment rife with misinformation.
And when we come together in shared, networked advocacy efforts, and spend the time to compare and coordinate our efforts, like the groups we work with on exposing and addressing violations committed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in the United States, powerful alliances are built and our chances of success increase.
To do our work well, we must pause to listen, learn and adapt. That is, admittedly, hard to do in a world that requires immediate responses to violations of rights, a world where hatred and violence can move and spread quickly and easily and do more harm than ever.
In 2018, WITNESS is committed to partnering with marginalized and vulnerable communities, and building capacity for people to use video and technology to put an end to injustice. And from time to time, this year, no matter how deep the crisis or how urgent the need, we will take a moment to listen, to learn and to ensure that our efforts and those of our partners will be more impactful than ever.
In documenting historical records of destruction or grievous danger to a peoples over time, digital trails are a human rights crusader’s best–sometimes most accurate–source of evidence. And yet at the same time, such data can fall into the wrong hands, putting the lives of the persecuted, and those fighting for their rights, at grave risk. Today, we consider digital footprints in the context of the growing body of evidence on the Rohingya genocide.
From online videos of eyewitness testimonies to satellite images of arson or environmental degradation, we have increasing access to more relevant data today than ever before. When used responsibly, this data can help ensure justice for survivors of gender-based violence or help book war criminals to account in a court room.
WITNESS’ Asia-Pacific team recently caught up with activist Jamila Hanan, who has been campaigning for the rights of Burma’s Rohingya people since 2012. She shared with us her experiences, methods and challenges in documenting and verifying eyewitness accounts of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people by harnessing online media:
Why did you decide to launch the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign, and what has the response been like over the years?
I was first introduced to the plight of the Rohingya during the attacks in 2012, and was so shocked by what I learnt, I felt compelled to use my voice on social media to raise awareness and campaign for their rights. When I started, out few people seemed to know what was happening. It was clear to me from the start that even back then, this was a genocide and I expected media to jump on the story once they knew about it. I soon learnt that is not how mainstream media works.
Over the years, due to the hard work of many activists, and sadly the increasing scale of attacks on the Rohingya, awareness has gradually grown. The recent mass exodus has now put this issue into mainstream media where it should have been reported for years now but wasn’t. It is good to see the media coverage the issue is getting now, but sad that things had to get so bad in order for this to become an issue of clear international concern.
“We want people to consider, if they do not take the time and effort to defend the Rohingya minority, one day it could be their rights that are taken away from them too.“
In October 2016, a new phase of military clearance operations against the Rohingya was launched, and then in January 2017 I was approached by Shahid Bolsen regarding strategy in campaigning. He asked if I had considered targeting multi-national corporations to call on them to act. It was as a result of our in-depth discussions regarding our ideas on such an approach that we decided to launch an organised digital campaign.
We brought together a team of concerned online activists who have also supported the Rohingya over the years, to help with brainstorming and actions, and together we decided to launch the campaign using the hashtag #WeAreAllRohingyaNow. We felt it tied in with feelings worldwide regarding the oppression of civil liberties, which the Rohingya suffer far more than others.
The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign is entirely focused on calling on multinational corporations to speak out and eventually act on behalf of the Rohingya. It is focusing on these corporations because we believe they have more power and influence that they could exert on the Myanmar military than our own governments do in today’s world.
What have been some of your and your team’s methods and processes in collating data from the ground?
The gathering of data is not an activity of the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign – that campaign is very strategically focused to bring about actions that might stop the genocide and return citizenship rights to the Rohingya, rather than on data-reporting or raising awareness. However,as an individual, I spend much time in collating data reports from the ground, which are then of course useful as information for the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign to act upon, to help us work out best strategy at any time.
I have at times tried to get more people involved with gathering this data, but up until now I have found it difficult to get volunteers to put in the daily dedication and persistence required to keep up with this task, so at the moment I do this mostly by myself. The most useful thing I have done regarding this is a simple online data log of all the reports that come in daily from people on the ground. I have a Twitter list (@AllRohingyaNow) of my most trusted contacts that I check each day for any new reports which I then record, including date and place name of each incident.
“The data log is shared as a Google document for anyone to access and download, which many people use to help with their own research.“
I try to work out coordinates for each incident reported, and use these to map events on to a shared GoogleMap, in which I also embed images and YouTube videos. Mapping the data is very useful to help see at a glance what was happening in any one area at any one time or over a period of time, which can help spot relevant events in an area that would otherwise have been missed.
GoogleMap of the Rohingya Clearance Operations 2016-2017:
WITNESS: What have been some challenges that you have encountered in ensuring that data is authentic and verified, and how have you overcome them?
Getting the geographical co-ordinates for places is difficult because the Rohingya use different place names to the official Burmese names for which I have a list of co-ordinates. This is also because the Burmese language uses different characters to the English alphabet, so the same names can often be spelled in several different ways.
To help me resolve this, I depend on trusted Rohingya contacts. I have one Rohingya friend who knows very well the equivalent place names in Maungdaw township, and another that knows well all the places in Buthidaung township. We are in constant contact using Twitter direct messages. But even with these contacts sometimes, we have to ask several people to try and work out some of the names, which can be very time-consuming.
When keeping a daily log, it is really important to not miss a day, as going back to capture data later can be difficult, especially when depending on Twitter, since tweets get quickly buried.
“I find that logging Twitter data is extremely good evidence since every tweet records an automatic date and time that cannot be edited or faked later.”
If multiple people are tweeting the same video with a similar description within a similar time frame that hasn’t been published before, that is a good indication of its authenticity. Much of the data I log is later proven accurate by cross referencing with eyewitness testimonies or satellite imaging that often comes out weeks later.
I have spent at least an hour, and sometimes several hours, every day just data-logging for the last two months now without a break. I did the same during the attacks from October 2016 through to February 2017 without a single day off. I do so because I know how valuable this data has been and continues to be for so many people, from journalists, to politicians, to human rights workers and now even international lawyers who are working on building up the case of genocide against the Myanmar military. I hope one day it will be presented as evidence when those responsible are eventually tried in the International Criminal Court.
How have you been able to circumvent or debunk certain online narratives that can be deemed as propaganda?
The Myanmar military have tried to portray these latest attacks to clear out the Rohingya as a response to insurgent/terrorist attacks. One way I have been trying to debunk this narrative is to point people to the data log that clearly shows how the clearance operation started well before 25th August, when the insurgent attacks were reported to have taken place. Then there were some mass graves of mutilated bodies dug up by the military who they said were those of Hindus massacred by Rohingya insurgents. Photos were quickly spread around social media as propaganda against the Rohingya.
We all knew that there were many question marks over who had killed these people, and the way in which graphic images of bodies were being used to drive up the hatred against the Rohingya. In that instance, I worked closely with a journalist who was on the ground in the refugee camps in Bangladesh to help research and publish information online that helped draw attention to the inconsistencies in the regime’s narrative.
“Another thing everyone noticed is that there was a sudden increase in new Twitter accounts created at the beginning of September, shortly after the attacks on the Rohingya began–an army of new Twitter trolls.”
The best way to deal with them I have found is to report and block anyone who is tweeting propaganda against my tweets. These trolls are easily identifiable because of the dates on which their Twitter accounts were created, and they all tweet the same junk at the same time.
Do you think that there is room to prioritise or push the gendered nature and repercussions of the crusade against the Rohingya among the media?
I am very concerned about the awful attacks against Rohingya women, rape and sexual assault is very much a part of genocide, but perhaps not everyone understands that an attack on the women is also an attack on the men. There is perhaps nothing much worse for a husband or a father than to witness his own wife or daughter raped, when he is totally unable to defend her.
“What interests me more is how to translate the growing concern about the media reports that are coming out into meaningful action that could actually help these victims, and bring some degree of protection for women and girls in the near future.”
Through working closely with reporters and aid workers on the ground, activists such as myself can identify practical steps that we can assist with to help make a difference. One example, women who are now on their own because husbands and fathers have been killed or taken away, are very vulnerable to sexual assault. Gathering firewood is therefore a dangerous activity; it means they have to go out on their own. But this risk could be reduced if we were to buy gas stoves and cylinders for these vulnerable ladies to do their cooking.
Once such a need has been identified, as an activist, I then go about trying to work out how we could make such a project happen. Sometimes this might be through crowdfunding and passing on funds raised to someone working in the area. It could be as simple as passing on the idea to an organisation that might already have the resources ready to act on the information presented.
Check out the campaign’s blog site here and their YouTube channel here.
Read our earlier blog post on the importance of verifying digital data streaming out of the Rohingya crisis.
These interview tips will ensure the dignity and respect of survivors of gender-based violence.
Watch this video which was adapted from WITNESS’ tip sheet on Filming Hate, a primer for using video to document human rights abuses, to learn how to verify valuable footage.
If you are one of hundreds or thousands reporting from the front lines of this refugee crisis with your mobile phone, these tips will help ensure you are safe, ethical and effective.
Will your human rights film be a testimony to truth? Watch 17 short videos that teach video production fundamentals.
Meghana Bahar is WITNESS’ Social Media & Communications Consultant for Asia-Pacific. She is a gender & media specialist, with 18 years of experience in transnational women’s and human rights movements.
This is Part One of our new “Eyes On ICE: Documenting Immigration Abuses” series, which examines the role of video in exposing immigration abuses, holding Immigration and Customs officials accountable, and advocating for communities. Follow along each month as we create & share resources, case studies, interviews with activists and organizers, videos and more in hopes of strengthening communities in resistance. #nobannowall #nodeportations #heretostay
In just the first 6 months of this new administration, arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increased by 40%, and arrests of individuals with no criminal convictions doubled, as ICE desperately tries to substantiate false narratives of immigrants as “threats” to national safety. ICE has been racially profiling people on the street, picking up immigrants at routine court check ins, using harmful surveillance tactics, and detaining people en masse – as they target “sanctuary cities” that don’t comply with detainment requests. And while deportation rates have remained stagnant, suggesting that people are being left to suffer in detention facilities as their cases filter through federal deportation proceedings, reports of abuse and inhumane treatment of detainees persist, and deaths in detention have spiked.
From a 10-year old girl with cerebral palsy who was detained at a checkpoint on her way to undergo emergency surgery, to the six men detained after leaving a church homeless shelter in Virginia, to immigrants not reporting sexual abuse or domestic violence in fear of deportation, this expanded deportation machine is chipping away at the safety, security, and rights of immigrants, and threatening the fabric of all our communities.
The Role of Video
As immigrant communities across the country adapt rapid response and defense strategies to this harrowing immigration climate, activists and organizers tell us that the question of filming comes up at almost every training or workshop. With the help of video documentation, communities around the country can expose the illegal and manipulative ways that ICE operates, and channel that knowledge to better strategize how to fight back. WITNESS is working with activists, organizers, and lawyers to create resources like our Filming ICE tip sheet and Eyes on ICE webinar series to inform community members of their right to film, and how to do so safely, ethically and effectively.
“The reality is that video is not necessarily going to stop every person’s deportation,” Michelle Parris, Staff Attorney and Training and Resources Director at Immigrant Defense Project, said in an interview about the potential of video in supporting resistance work.
“But it’s still incredibly important to document these types of abuses because they’re really a starting point for communities to talk about the horrible things that are happening to them and to expose those things and organize around them. So it’s not necessarily going to help one individual, but it may help a community come together and create a plan of action for fighting ICE and fighting what’s happening in their communities,” said Parris.
Video can alert community members of ICE’s whereabouts, and has the potential to help verify reports of raids in a time when fake news and false reports do nothing than create more fear and anxiety among already vulnerable communities. Groups like Movimiento Cosecha have been effectively using Facebook livestreaming to amplify direct actions and bring people into the movement. Video can capture racist attacks on immigrants (and those profiled as immigrants) by an emboldened xenophobic public, as well as preserve stories from those whose truths are often left in the margins.
Video, both eyewitness and surveillance, can also serve as valuable evidence, exposing how ICE agents violate constitutional rights and/or their own policies. The eyewitness video below shows plain clothes ICE officers arresting a man without a warrant or explanation, after illegally entering a home (not shown in the video).
Video can also be used as a tool for advocacy, as we saw with this heartbreaking video taken by a 12-year old girl as her father was arrested by ICE in front of her eyes. The video, which went viral, became an emblem of the trauma caused by these immigration policies, and helped galvanize support for her father’s case – his deportation has since been put on hold.
But as we’ve heard from many activists and organizers, public facing campaigns have not been as effective as they were under the last administration, and in some cases have caused ICE to retaliate against detainees. As activists are forced to rethink advocacy strategies to account for safety, it’s important that we also keep safety and security in mind when documenting or sharing videos, and protect people’s identities while still exposing injustice.
Safety and Security Concerns
We know that the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) is collecting social media accounts from all immigrants, making undocumented folks who interact with them vulnerable. DHS also makes arrests based on information shared from secret and problematic gang databases that someone can be added to just for engaging with “gang members” on social media, having tattoos, or hanging out in certain areas.
While video can be a powerful tool for justice, it’s not always safe to share videos of ICE and people being detained on social media because this could potentially put families at further risk, or expose other undocumented people in the frame – making them vulnerable to retaliation.
New Series: Eyes on ICE
In response to these inquires about filming and concerns about safety, we’re launching the series Eyes on ICE: Documenting Immigration Abuses, a deep dive into how video can be used as a tool for justice, accountability, and advocacy in immigration work. Over the next 6 months, this series will focus on different uses of video – from evidence to storytelling, keeping in mind safety and digital security. We’ll be working with activists and organizations around the country, including immigrant communities who have previously been targets of DHS surveillance, and/or live in border states and port cities where ICE and border patrol have regularly wreaked havoc.
These conversations will help us to understand what challenges and barriers there are to safely and effectively filming ICE, how to protect ourselves against surveillance, and help us to provide thorough guidance for how video can be used to help fight this deportation machine. We’ll be creating and pushing out resources, case studies, interviews with activists, organizers and lawyers, videos, and more in hopes of strengthening communities in resistance.
As we embark on this journey, we’d love to hear from you about what you’d like to know or learn more about. Feel free to reach out to pali [@] witness [dot] org and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date as we roll out the series.
For more on how to film ICE safely, ethically and effectively, check out our existing resources (available in multiple languages):