Empowering Human Rights Through Video: An Interview with Sam Gregory of WITNESS

October 2nd, 2013 by Andy in Media and Democracy

Empowering Human Rights Through Video
USTV Media producer Andy Valeri interviews Sam Gregory of WITNESS

WITNESS is a groundbreaking organization using video training and technology to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. WITNESS empowers people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change.

Sam Gregory is the program director at WITNESS. He is a video producer, trainer, and human rights advocate. In 2005, he was the lead editor on Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism (Pluto Press). In 2007, he developed the WITNESS Video Advocacy Institute, an intensive two-week training program. He has worked extensively with grassroots human rights activists in Latin America and Asia, particularly Burma.

Here, in an interview with Community Media Review Guest Editor Andy Valeri, Gregory discusses the importance of the work done by WITNESS, from its day-to-day efforts in the defense of human rights on the ground to its broader role in the expanding movement for establishing fundamental communication rights among all people.

Just how important is the use of mediated communication as a tool for the advancement of human rights and social justice?

Mediated communication functions as a tool for information sharing and, more importantly, organizing and connecting between groups with shared interests or a common problem, whether that be laterally or vertically in a country, or across national borders. So they are critical instruments for human rights campaigns, which rely on effective documentation and the mobilization of people within and across borders.

When WITNESS was created in 1992, following the Rodney King incident in the United States, the idea was very of the moment - drawing on the potential of the increasingly popular consumer handicam to document abuses. Yet, in retrospect, it’s clear how preliminary that moment was. Now, aided by the spread in low-cost, high-quality technologies, video and moving image media are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and multi-form (even though a considerable digital divide exists in terms of access, literacy, and skills both within and between societies across the globe). To us - based on our conversations with both international and local human rights defenders - it is clear that video will soon be discussed as part of every communications and advocacy strategy. This is because video production and distribution is emphatically no longer the exclusive realm of the professional: We have widespread tools to film present in tools that four billion people carry with them on a regular basis, i.e. the cell-phone; and dramatically increased capacities to share media via [a multitude] of cheap formats.

Increasing moving image creation, usage, and literacy also defines much of the experience of a connected younger generation, particularly in the Global North and within certain sectors of Global South society. Consequently, use of video - including, particularly, mobile video - has publicized and documented many emerging human rights struggles from Rangoon to Oakland to Tehran. Use of video characterizes many vibrant citizen media spaces that fill niches long ignored or abandoned by the mainstream media. Video is the “tool of choice” for many human rights struggles.

How does the role of organizations such as WITNESS and the kind of work you do advocate for the establishment of communication as a fundamental human right in and of itself?

In order to guarantee other rights, communication rights are key. To know their rights and understand them, to communicate and organize around them, and to hold people in power accountable, people need the ability to access and share information.

Almost all the situations in which WITNESS is operating with grassroots partners are at heart about how information, crafted into narratives, is deployed to secure attention and redress for rights issues. Typically these very issues have been neglected, ignored, or misframed by those in power and with better access to communication tools, to the detriment of victims, survivors, and affected communities.

A first step in securing such redress is clear information-sharing and solutions-proposing, both within affected communities and with others who have the responsibility or agency to secure change. This could be communities in urban and rural Cambodia facing forced eviction like our work with partner HereLICADHO (http://hub.witness.org/en/users/ licadho). It could be sex workers in Macedonia confronting police misconduct and abuse, as with our recent partner HOPS (Healthy Options Project Skopje). Or it could be people in the U.S., led by our partner the National Council on Aging, pushing against hidden patterns of elder abuse (www.elderjusticenow.org). In some cases, an information gap exists, so the sex workers in Macedonia have never had the opportunity to directly communicate their experiences to police officers with whom they have a conflicted and complicated relationship. In other cases, it’s a question of information being used to engage and mobilize a community to understand better their own dilemmas. For example, local human rights group Ajedi-Ka is engaging villagers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo around preventing the voluntary recruitment of child soldiers in their communities by using video (see On the Frontlines).

We live in a visual age where images seem to have more power and currency than the written word. How do you see the work of WITNESS in relation to this transition in the processes of global communication, and what effects do you see it having on the development in the course of your work and the work of human rights?

We are definitely in the midst of a moment of tremendous growth in visual media production at all levels of society, circulating both offline, mobile-to-mobile, and online. This content is most visible online, where a growing abundance of peer-produced content “for the good” is circulating across social networks, video-sharing sites, and blogs. Notably, however, much information is difficult to navigate or impossible to absorb, and it is unclear whom to trust.

Also, despite this proliferation of new spaces for communication and exponential growth in content, human rights spaces and advocacy approaches - formal and informal, new and old, virtual and physical - are nowhere near the saturation point of effectiveness in using moving images for change. An increase in media literacy, access to and creation of video is not matched by a “literacy” in strategic use of video for change (what WITNESS has popularized as “video advocacy”). This is particularly true in terms of creating, sharing, and viewing targeted, timely, compelling video that provides the impetus and the opportunity to act.

Strategic, directed, impact-driven use of video remains underutilized as an intervention by either NGOs or citizen networks in spaces including treaty monitoring systems, legislative debates, lobbying of decision-makers, and community organizing. Many human rights actors do not yet have the skills, connections, or experience to organize or coordinate others’ audiovisual media, including citizen media content in spaces like YouTube or the Hub. This is in order to create their own targeted advocacy media for specific audiences, collaborate to develop compelling material with professional or citizen storytellers, link their strategic use of video to new technologies that enhance creation, distribution, and debate, and increase diversity of content and range of modes of circulation to secure concrete impacts in crowded information environments.

How do you envision expanding the distribution and exposure of your content and that with a similar rights based focus?

Our focus has often been on strategic distribution of video content rather than broader exposure of the material for a general audience. We view this as particularly important in an area of growing information glut, where, as Susan Sontag said in Regarding the Pain of Others, “Image-glut keeps attention light, mobile, relatively indifferent to content. Image-flow precludes a privileged image.”

With many rights issues, a mass audience or mainstream space may never be the audience that is going to engage and take action on the issues, either domestically in their home country or internationally. With our Hub website, however, we have tried to highlight key examples of human rights media successfully being used to create change. Based on the lessons learned from the Hub, we are now also actively engaged in thinking about how to push some of these human rights values into mainstream video spaces online in a way that motivates people to action, but in a way that does not needlessly endanger the people filmed or those who speak out. This involves engaging the stakeholders around the ethical issues of ubiquitous cameras in situations of human rights violations. For an introduction to some of the questions we are posing, check out our presentation at Cameras Everywhere.

To what do you attribute the effectiveness of your video training programs, and how can that effectiveness be replicated or expanded through partnerships with other groups or institutions doing citizen media training?

We’ve looked to develop a wide range of training approaches and methodologies to fit a range of potential scenarios and depth of engagement with different actors. For example, we have ongoing training relationships - focused as much on strategy and advocacy distribution as on direct production - with individual partner human rights organizations at a grassroots level around the world. We work on those relationships based around a template Video Action Plan developed in partnership with an organization.

For more light-touch collaborations, and as tools that could be used by other training institutions, as well as self directed learning, we developed our book Video for Change and five-minute animations reinforcing key principles of effective video advocacy, our “Guides to Video Advocacy.” We also developed a two-week intensive Video Advocacy Institute curriculum.

On the Hub, we’ve focused one of our strands of coverage on highlighting key examples of successful use of video for change, as well as key ethical dilemmas that rights advocates deploying these new technologies may face. Among my favorite posts are the Top 10 Editor’s Picks and Iran Protests: A Woman Dies on Camera: to post or not to post?.

Over the coming year, we’re also looking to expand our training programs in a new direction: developing an online video action strategy toolkit that will enable self-directed learning that leads to a concrete and usable work product in a campaign. Also - reflecting just such trends as you mention toward increasing numbers of groups, collectives, and institutions providing citizen media training - we’re focusing on how we could provide additional training and support on advocacy-focused media usage to other training groups, as well as utilize our online spaces to share best practices and training approaches that work.

You state there is an overwhelming demand for training in the use of video for human rights and social justice advocacy. Do you see ways other institutions, such as public access facilities and community media centers, as well as communication programs in schools and colleges, potentially serve as partners in helping to fulfill that need?

We absolutely see the future of training in video advocacy being its mainstreaming into the spaces where current and future advocates congregate and learn. Many of our materials are intended to be adaptable for these programs. We’ve also explored how we could develop scalable modules to use in practitioner training for both communication faculties and public policy faculties.

Essentially, WITNESS coordinates its work through four programmatic initiatives:

1) Via our campaign partnerships with individual groups, as well as networks of human rights organizations/groups, working with them to integrate video into strategic advocacy on a range of human rights issues globally. This has included - for example - work supporting legislation to protect elder rights in the U.S., pushing for effective regional action on politically-motivated violence against women in Zimbabwe, and addressing forced evictions in Cambodia.

2) By providing training in using video for advocacy, including online toolkits and training videos/guides, and encouraging knowledge-sharing of best practices in using video for change, particularly via our WITNESS/Hub blog.

3) Through contributing to building a stronger human rights video for change movement by engaging in research and advocacy to policymakers, other human rights organizations, funders, and technology providers–° for example, around addressing human rights safety, security, and consent issues present in online human rights video; and

4) In maintaining an archive of over 3,000 hours of human rights footage, primarily from our partner organizations worldwide.

This essay was originally published in an issue of the Community Media Review on “Community Media and Human Rights” (Volume 33, Number 1), on the use of citizen-based media in support of human rights, as well as the recognition of the very process of communication as as a fundamental human right.) The CMR is the long-time flagship publication of the Alliance for Community Media.

The original CMR article can be found Here

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