Last week Rio de Janeiro military police joined lethal forces with the Brazilian Army for a counter-narcotics operation in the favela of Maré in the northern part of Rio. The joint forces committed several human rights violations and excessive violence against residents and bystanders, including indiscriminate shooting from armored helicopters and tanks.
Maré residents document the 100+ bullets fired by state helicopters
A prior incident in January saw residents of a nearby favela using mobile phones to capture a helicopter firing into their neighborhood. Following last week’s attack, public defender Daniel Lozoya called the indiscriminate shooting from helicopters at densely-populated areas “absurdly reckless”. The Public Defender’s Office in Rio immediately filed an appeal to prevent the use of helicopters in police operations, though the request has been denied by the Rio de Janeiro Court.
Last week’s attack is dubbed by some as a “revenge operation” as the government allegedly sought to serve twenty-three arrest warrants against those responsible for the June 12th murder of Ellery de Ramos Lemos, the chief investigator of the Drug Enforcement Office (DCOD). To date, no consequences holding state forces accountable have been announced, however, there are indications of extrajudicial murders of alleged drug dealers.
Today, Professor David Kaye presents his newest Report to the 38th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Professor Kaye is the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and this Report addresses the increasingly urgent human rights implications of content regulation on platforms like Facebook. The Report incorporates the serious concerns raised in written Submissions to the Special Rapporteur from civil society, including WITNESS’ Submission, and the recommendations from the Special Rapporteur for companies reinforced why WITNESS’ tech advocacy work has been ahead of its time and is particularly important now.
The 20 page Report, available in multiple languages on the UN website, is a must-read for anyone trying to understand how human rights principles can and should be applied to content regulation. While the Report addresses both States and Companies, WITNESS’ Submission focused on the role of technology platforms, and the biggest takeaway for us is the Report’s set of clear recommendations to companies:
1.“Companies should recognize that the authoritative global standard for ensuring freedom of expression on their platforms is human rights law, not the varying laws of States or their own private interests, and they should re-evaluate their content standards accordingly.”
We called for greater responsibility in our own Submission, noting that companies should “push back on laws or [content moderation] requests that violate human rights. . . even in places where it might affect their financial bottom line.” This Report provides an excellent basis for companies to start doing so, emphasizing that companies should have public commitments to “‘resolve any legal ambiguity in favour of respect for freedom of expression, privacy, and other human rights.’”
The Report minces no words when it says
“Companies committed to implementing human rights standards throughout their operations — and not merely when it aligns with their interests — will stand on firmer ground when they seek to hold States accountable to the same standards. Furthermore, when companies align their terms of service more closely with human rights law, States will find it harder to exploit them to censor content.”
2. “The companies must embark on radically different approaches to transparency at all stages of their operations, from rule-making to implementation and development of ‘case law’ framing the interpretation of private rules.”
The Report calls for better and broader input from civil society and users, and more transparency on how tools and policies work. We found this recommendation particularly striking. It is a stark reminder about why WITNESS’ tech advocacy program exists, and why we focus on the priorities raised by our own partners as well as their real-world experiences with the impact of company decisions:
“Companies too often appear to introduce products and rule modifications without conducting human rights due diligence or evaluating the impact in real cases. They should at least seek comment on their impact assessments from interested users and experts in settings that guarantee the confidentiality of such assessments, if necessary. They should also clearly communicate to the public the rules and processes that produced them.”
We couldn’t agree more. Last November,when the Intercept asked us about videos documenting human rights violations in Syria that were being deleted en masse by automated content moderation tools on YouTube, we told them: “Huge companies need to recognize that every change they make … will have an effect on human rights users. Instead of working to fix issues after policies and tools have already been instituted, it just makes sense to reach out to stakeholders. And in our Submission, we called for companies to “Invest in meaningful, regular outreach to human rights defenders and targeted outreach in key situations” like the Rohingya genocide, so that potential issues can be avoided, and current ones can be dealt with more quickly. We also called for companies to “include real information about content regulation in transparency reports,” and to “audit their machine learning processes.” We were pleased to see these recommendations in the Report.
In July, when we initially got wind of the Syrian video issue, we said that we were “working with YouTube to understand and remedy these removals, and we’re glad they’re open to trying to fix this problem– but they never should have happened in the first place.” Talking to us would have helped, but we believe that companies can’t just strengthen their existing relationships with groups like WITNESS- they must also expand, particularly outside of Western European/Anglophone civil society organizations to groups like the newly emerging coalition of activists calling for “parity, transparency, and accountability from Facebook in the Global South.”
We also noted in our Submission the “rapidly approaching danger that human rights defenders who are risking their lives to capture human rights abuses on the ground will be dismissed as ‘fake news.’” We were pleased to see the Report note; “Because blunt forms of action. . . risk serious interference with freedom of expression,companies should carefully craft any policies dealing with disinformation.”
Other standout recommendations included calls for “transparency initiatives that explain the impact of automation, human moderation and user or trusted flagging on terms of service actions,” as well as transparency when it comes to the relationships between States and platforms. As we wrote in our Submission, “some platforms acknowledge direct relationships with repressive States,” and those states even brag about their success in getting content taken down. The report makes it clear that “[U]sers can only make informed decisions about whether and how to engage on social media if interactions between companies and States are meaningfully transparent. Best practices on how to provide such transparency should be developed.”
3. “Given their impact on the public sphere, companies must open themselves up to public accountability.”
The Report calls for companies to bring “minimum levels of consistency, transparency and accountability to commercial content moderation,” and provides some clear recommendations like providing appeals on actions taken on content, such as “institut[ing] robust remediation programmes, which may range from reinstatement and acknowledgment to settlements related to reputational or other harms,” assessing the impact of new tools and policies on human rights, and seeking public comment on such impact assessments. The Report also recommends that automated content moderation technology should be “rigorously audited and developed with broad user and civil society input.”
As domestic and international policy makers eyes all turn to technology companies, in particular social media platforms, the threat of dangerous or reactionary regulation is all too clear. But companies haven’t stepped up to the plate either. This Report provides a number of clear steps that can help alleviate these issues, and we hope to see companies take those steps. Regardless, WITNESS and other civil society organizations will continue to advocate at tech companies for human rights.
From Ukraine to Malaysia, people are capturing human rights abuses and life-changing events, and the subsequent video footage is powerful. Last month especially we’ve seen the risks that women and their allies face—whether they are marching for equality and justice or simply going about their day. That’s why we’ve rounded up video news you may have missed from March 2018, highlighting the impact of video to shift narratives or document human rights abuse.
PSSST: Last Month in Video is going quarterly! Tune in this summer for April-June 2018 highlights. In the meantime, if you have a tip for a video story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 2018 in human rights video
March 3: Border patrol agents are caught pulling an undocumented mother away from her children
March 5: Sri Lankan police abuse of power & collusion in violence against Muslims captured on camera
March 10: Malaysian activists take to Twitter to demand accountability for acts of hate
March 14: Authorities ignore attacks on peaceful International Women’s Day demonstrators in Ukraine
March 31: Bodycam footage released two years after police killed Alton Sterling
Eyewitness documentation can be a powerful tool to expose Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) inhumane tactics. The video—captured by an eyewitness with a cellphone—shows Customs and Border Patrol agents ripping a mother away from her three daughters, who are all under 18, as they are left crying and screaming on a street corner. As can be seen in the footage, at no point does an officer check in with the children to see if they need help getting home, etc. The video also exposes that two of the men handling Perla Morales-Luna are in plain clothes—something that ICE has recently come under fire for, and shows important details on the agents’ car (CBP sign on the side, license plate) that could potentially help the daughters track down their mother if necessary.
The video of course also shows the horrific pain that ICE and CBP cause when they try to tear families apart. While it can be a powerful advocacy tool for the world to see their abuse and treatment (the video had millions of views online), it can also be traumatic for the person targeted and their families. Remember that video footage doesn’t need to go viral to have an impact. Before you share a video, pause and ask yourself these questions, and if possible, always try to get in touch with the person who was targeted or their family, so they can best decide what to do with the footage.
Since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in May 2009, incidents of anti-Muslim attacks throughout the country have been reported locally and highlighted by international news media. Although arrests have been made, perpetrators continue to remain free with impunity. Incidents of police brutality during the recent anti-Muslim riots in Digana, Kandy were first reported by Sri Lankan civic media initiative, Groundviews. CCTV footage as well as smartphone video have since surfaced online depicting members of the Special Task Force (recognizable by uniforms and protective headgear) entering a mosque in Digana and then harassing Muslims inside the building before escorting them off the premises. While the CCTV footage, which was reviewed by Reuters, does not depict the violence that ensued after the incident, supporting footage could help expose evidentiary details of acts of hatred and abuse of power committed by state actors who are entrusted with the responsibility of preventing harm and keeping citizens safe. Eye-witness video could be a powerful tool to convict those who incite hate and violence against marginalized communities in a court of law, especially in instances when perpetrators have colluded with the state’s armed forces to enact abuse against citizens and damage to property.
To ensure that eye-witness video is verifiable, some tips and techniques to help smartphone users can be found here:
A Facebook video, which was downloaded and transferred to Twitter by local activists, became a crucial piece of evidence of rampant homophobia as well as of the abuse against peaceful demonstrators at the 2018 Women’s Day March in Kuala Lumpur. The video—filmed by the perpetrators—was originally uploaded on Facebook with the malintent of ridiculing and silencing the LGBT community in Malaysia and its allies. The footage shows a group of staff from Women’s Aid Organisation being attacked by four unknown individuals as they walked peacefully after the demonstrations. But it had the opposite effect. Activists took the Facebook video, which has since been deleted, to Twitter in order to expose the rampant impunity of homophobic perpetrators and advocate for justice. After an initial attempt to get the attention of the Malaysian Police Twitter account failed, Justice for Sisters and other activists created a Twitter campaign which trended throughout the week. This powerful online campaign drew the attention of a member of parliament, who responded to say she had raised their concerns in parliament, and that instructions were sent to the police to arrest the four perpetrators involved.
With Malaysia having recently tabled an anti- “fake news” bill, a major assault on the freedom of expression, more LGBT individuals, social justice activists, human rights defenders and truth-speaking journalists stand to lose out whilst perpetrators of human rights abuses walk free. In this climate of fear-mongering and rising hate against the marginalised, the Twitter campaign of Malaysian activists and allies of the LGBT movement continues. The launch of @QueerLapis is a testament to the strength and stoicism of the community.
International Women’s Day 2018 in Ukraine was a dangerous time for women’s rights activists. Peaceful demonstrations in Kyiv, Lviv, and Uzhgorod were met with attacks from far-right extremists and threats of violence. These attacks have been committed with impunity. Police ignored the extremists at marches who intimidated marchers with verbal harassment, pepper spray, paint, and physical assault. In one instance, video evidence of bricks being thrown at activists in a tram car failed to lead to the arrest of any attackers. Communities at risk of harassment or violence are often doubly vulnerable because of the failure of the state to offer them protection and justice. Filming protests can be a way of holding authorities accountable for keeping everyone safe. In this case, the video could be applied to rally support for organizers such as Olena Shevchenko who was charged with “violation of order to conduct public demonstrations” and continues to face threats from members of the far-right. Video can also be used to bring attention to long-standing problems related to police misconduct. However, protests can also be chaotic and dangerous. Check out our tips and our video series for guidance on how to keep yourself and others safe while filming protests, and how to collect footage that can be used by courts, media, or communities.
For anyone following the Syrian uprising, March is a bittersweet month. It is the month, in 2011, that a group of schoolboys first scrawled “the people want an end to the regime”—the call to revolution echoing across the Arab world—onto a grain silo in Dara’a, southwestern Syria. When they were arrested, thousands more joined their call in Aleppo, Damascus and across the country, demanding an end to the regime and its brutal policies of arbitrary arrest and detentions for anyone daring to speak out.
Seven years later, the outlook for the original demands of the uprising is bleak. Since protesters took to the streets then, demanding the release of friends and family members, more than 13,000 have been executed inside of Assad’s prisons. Fighting has killed more than 465,000 and displaced another 12 million. At times, the Syrian opposition has controlled major cities and areas across the country, but have recently lost ground.
The regime has retaliated, ruthlessly recapturing cities and villages, massacring civilians and leaving others fleeing for their lives. Over the past month, more than 400,000 civilians in Eastern Ghouta have been the most recent victims of one of the Syrian government’s notorious bombardments, killing more than one thousand and violently recapturing half of the Damascus suburb.
However, Syrians—whether in Syria, Turkey, Germany, Sweden or the United States—refuse to give up fighting for justice. No matter how many bombings they have seen—and survived—activists and field researchers are still rushing to the sight of each atrocity, filming and photographing the evidence, and recording the name of every person who is killed or injured. They continue to utilize tools and methods from open source investigations and WITNESS’ Video as Evidence Field Guide to enhance their evidentiary filming skills and help ensure that their content can be trusted and authenticated.
Our partners at Syrian Institute for Justice are taking this footage, and using it to build case files about massacres, and other human rights violations, to later present to bodies like the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Justice in Syria (IIIM), a body set up by the United Nations to analyze evidence of war crimes in Syria.
“We have activists across Syria, and communicate with them every day,” Saeed Saeed, who works with the Syrian Institute for Justice, tells WITNESS. “Over the years, we have built case files against the Aleppo river massacre in 2013 and field executions of women and gender-based violence.” Nearly 150 bodies were recovered in the city’s river. Human rights groups concluded that the victims had most likely been executed in government-controlled areas.
from HRW’s ‘Syria: Bodies in the Aleppo River’
In addition to documenting war crimes, other organizations, like the Free Syrian Lawyers’ Association, are organizing legal clinics, and arbitrating dispute resolution programs in liberated areas to counter the ad-hoc “justice” systems put in place by armed groups. Recently, they allied the Center for Rule of Law and Good Governance to bring more than 100 different lawyers and civil society actors to Istanbul to discuss solutions to the legal challenges facing justice in Syria.
“We have many challenges working inside of Syria, it’s still very risky and our centers in Atareb and Aleppo have been destroyed-twice!” shares Deyaa Al-Rwishdi, one of the original founders of the Free Syrian Lawyers’ Association.
“On the international level, there is unnecessary bureaucracy,” he continues. “Changes in the political environment can really affect the legal work—we believe in the IIIM, but hope it will be less bureaucratic than the United Nations, as this puts strain on civil society actors.”
Read more about YouTube takedowns on our blog
Syrians in the diaspora have not stopped working either. Our partners at Syrian Archive are tirelessly verifying and archiving video footage from activists on the ground, organizing and preserving essential evidence of war crimes. Since last summer, they have had to dedicate their time and energy to crisis resolution as YouTube deleted dozens of videos documenting war crimes form their servers, removing one of the largest online archives of war crimes and richest sources of information on the Arab Spring in existence. Over the past months, Syrian Archive has worked to restore some of these archives, and most importantly, create a secure backup of these videos to ensure that they are available when the Syrian regime finally sees their day in court. Abdulraham Jaloud of the Syrian Archive told us:
“A lot of us just had to suddenly learn about how we could use these photos and videos, because of what happened in Syria. But now we are building legal cases, and trying to bring them to courts in Europe. In spite of everything, this brings me a lot of hope.”
Our partners’ courageous and tireless work in Syria has been essential to informing our Video as Evidence guide, now available for download in both English and Arabic. It also inspired our research on the legal landscape of video as evidence across the MENA region, resulting in a comprehensive report, available for download in Arabic and English, here. WITNESS shares Abdulrahman’s and our partners’ hope for justice, and we believe that Syria’s learnings can be shared to inspire activists beyond Syria and MENA. To date, we have given Video as Evidence trainings in over 17 countries and our guidance has been translated into five additional languages with over 35,000 downloads across the world.
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.
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.”