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17 février 2008

Rodney King's Children

Human rights activist Sam Gregory on fighting oppression with video cameras

Over the last few years, a brave group of Arab activists has circulated footage of Egyptian cops striking, lashing, and even raping detainees. The torture videos, which had been filmed by the policemen themselves, prompted protests both inside and outside the country. They also prompted censorship: YouTube temporarily shut down the dissident blogger Wael Abbas' digital video channel after the company received complaints about the violent clips.

The channel can now be viewed on YouTube again. Much of its footage can also be seen on a website called The Hub, which is what YouTube would look like if it had been designed by Mohandas Gandhi. The site first appeared in pilot form in 2006, and a beta version launched in December 2007; over 500 pieces of media—videos, audio clips, photo slideshows—have been uploaded to it since its debut. The offerings range from raw footage of a massacre in Guinea to a detailed documentary about forced labor in rural Brazil. Most are accompanied by further information on the issues examined and on ways to take action against the abuses.

The site was created by Witness, a Brooklyn-based group founded by the pop star Peter Gabriel in 1992. Conceived in the wake of the Rodney King beating, the group first focused on getting cameras into the hands of human rights groups around the world and then on training them in the most effective ways to use those tools—creating, in Gabriel's phrase, a network of "Little Brothers and Little Sisters" to keep an eye on Big Brother's agents. Now Witness wants to move that community of camera-wielding activists online.

Gabriel serves as the group's celebrity face and as chairman of the board, but he stays out of the organization's day-to-day operations. Those decisions are made by people like program manager Sam Gregory. A human rights activist since he first joined Amnesty International in his teens, the U.K.-born Gregory became a student filmmaker at college, where he "was always trying to find a way to combine" his two interests. In addition to his managerial work, Gregory, 33, has co-produced videos about human rights issues in Burma, the Philippines, Argentina, Indonesia, and the United States.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker met Gregory at the DIY Video Summit at the University of Southern California, where Gregory gave a presentation about The Hub; Walker interviewed him via phone in mid-February.

reason: How did Witness get started?

Sam Gregory: Peter Gabriel had been traveling the world with the Amnesty human rights tour in the late '80s. He repeatedly encountered activists who were saying, "We've experienced this abuse, we've heard these stories of abuses, and we have no ways of responding." He had been carrying a Hi-8 camera with him, and it struck him that if those activists had access to cameras they would be able to document what was happening around them and share it in a way that would be totally different from the typical text-based approach.

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Jesse Walker | February 15, 2008

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