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20 avril 2008

Little Brother Is Watching

Defending human rights with cameras and Internet connections

Over the last few years, a brave band of Egyptian activists has circulated footage of policemen striking, lashing, and even raping detainees. The torture videos, filmed by the cops 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 receiving complaints about the violent clips.

The channel has since been restored to YouTube. 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. Since the first test version of The Hub appeared in 2006, more than 500 pieces of media content—videos, audio clips, slide shows—have been uploaded to it. Since December 2007, the results have been open to the general public. The content ranges from raw footage of a massacre in Guinea to a detailed documentary about forced labor in rural Brazil.

The site was created by Witness, a Brooklyn-based group founded by the globe-trotting pop star Peter Gabriel in 1992. Conceived in the wake of the Rodney King beating, the group initially focused on getting camcorders into the hands of human rights activists around the world. The goal, in Gabriel’s phrase, was to create a network of “Little Brothers and Little Sisters” to keep an eye on Big Brother’s thugs. He rapidly discovered that distributing tools wasn’t enough. To be really effective, you need a network.

“What we learned over the first four or five years was that the promise that Rodney King represented couldn’t be realized just by providing cameras to human rights groups,” says Sam Gregory, Witness’s 33-year-old program director. “In the absence of technical training, they couldn’t produce video that would be used by news organizations and they couldn’t craft the stories that would engage audiences.” The group did manage to place some footage in the news media, but even then it had trouble leveraging those appearances into actual change.

“So we learned to think more strategically about what kind of training you provided to groups, how you helped them tell stories, and, most importantly, where you tried to place that material,” says Gregory. The organizers didn’t want filmmaking to become a substitute for activism, so the videos were integrated into existing campaigns. “The voices that need to be heard are the ones closest to the violations,” Gregory explains. “It’s not a centralized vision, and all our work derives from the agency of those locally based human rights groups.”

The African group Ajedi-ka, for example, wants to stop the use of child soldiers in Congo’s ongoing civil war. One of its efforts involved going to village meetings around the region and trying to persuade parents not to let their children be recruited voluntarily. With assistance from Witness, Ajedi-ka created a video to “present a range of voices explaining the damage without pointing the finger at the parents so they just feel guilty, but instead giving them an option to find alternatives for their children.” The group kept going to those grassroots meetings, this time with a TV and a generator in tow. It credits the video with helping reduce the number of child soldiers recruited in those areas.

Other Witness videos have been screened in more high-level settings. The Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, for example, has been organizing around the murders of young women in Juarez, trying to bring attention not just to the killings themselves but to the conduct of the local police, who are accused of coercing confessions from scapegoats rather than seriously investigating the crimes.
“We worked on a video that found a very powerful individual story that spoke to the broader pattern,” says Gregory. “It was the story of a young woman who disappeared shortly before she was due to go to university. She’s never been found, but the police two weeks later arrested her uncle, accused him of the murder, and tortured him into confessing.” The commission “showed it to the attorney general’s office in Mexico and to local politicians there, and as a result of that the young man who had been arrested was released.”

The human rights community is not always harmonious. Organizations disagree about everything from the efficacy of economic sanctions and military intervention to the very definition of human rights. The Hub has, in Gregory’s phrase, a “broad church” approach, accepting videos on a wide range of topics from groups with very different ideas about appropriate solutions.

Those activists already could post at YouTube, of course, but Witness felt there was a need for a more secure system. “People may be uploading from situations where the government is watching the Internet and there may be potential repression,” Gregory points out. “Once they upload, we don’t hold onto their IP address, so if someone tries to obtain that information either legally or illegally we are unable to identify where users are based.”

Witness also wants to avoid incidents like YouTube’s suppression of Abbas’ digital video channel. The Hub does refuse to post some clips, either because they will place someone in the footage in further danger or because there are doubts about the material’s accuracy. But even in such cases, Witness hopes to move to a more user-based method of assessing content, so that clips are removed when the community of viewers finds substantial reasons to believe material has been faked or distorted.

The biggest difference between The Hub and YouTube is that the younger site is more concerned with context. Most of The Hub’s videos appear with additional information about the underlying issues and ways to act against the abuses. And Witness will soon make it easier to move the clips offline as well as watching them in cyberspace. (“Perhaps there’s only one connection to the Internet,” says Gregory, “so what you want to do is download it and take it into a communal setting.”) In these ways, the organizers argue, they’ll avoid the mistake they made in the early ’90s, when they assumed it would be sufficient simply to distribute cameras to like-minded comrades around the world.

“It’s not OK just to see scenes of misery,” says Gregory. “In fact it can be deeply draining and frustrating both for the people creating it and the people watching it. You have to think about ways to contextualize and ways to act.”

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). To read the full version of his interview with Sam Gregory, go here.

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