Support Activists Globally to Use Video for Change

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Support Activists Globally to Use Video for Change
Support Activists Globally to Use Video for Change
Support Activists Globally to Use Video for Change

Western Sahara, with a population of over half a million people and 200,000km land mass—the size of South Dakota—is the world’s largest non self-governing territory. It is also Africa’s last colony, left under Moroccan occupation following the retreat of Spanish colonial power in the 1960s.

The human rights situation is still dire, and This April, the U.N. Security Council will once again consult on the status of its peacekeeping mission in the territory—due to expire at the end of this month—after a 6-month extension was granted in October of 2018. Despite the high levels of censorship, access restrictions, and media blockades over the last few decades, indigenous Sahrawi activists and journalists have harnessed the power of eyewitness footage and mobile phones to provide a rare window into the human rights abuses taking place in Western Sahara. But these brave actions do not come without danger.

Silencing of the Press

Nouzha El-Khalidi, journalist and member of the Sahrwai collective Equipe Media, was prosecuted on March 18th for filming and uploading a video of a peaceful demonstration in the streets of Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara. She was arrested while her video showed the moment of police chasing her. She was subsequently beaten, arrested and had her mobile phone confiscated.

She was charged with “impersonating an illegal profession” as part of a plan by Morocco to silence journalists who are seen as key to breaking the Moroccan media blockade.

“We are trying to highlight human rights violations in Western Sahara, which puts our safety at risk,” Khalidi said. “We are subject to arrest and torture. Our families are under pressure and threats. The only crime I have committed is that I have filmed the violence of the Moroccan police against peaceful Sahrawis and therefore I am likely to be arrested for months or years. But there is no way to break the media embargo imposed by Morocco. “

In recent years, the number of Saharawi journalists who photograph and share their footage has increased because of abuses by the Moroccan police. Morocco’s response was to increase the number of arbitrary arrests, prison sentences, harassment and physical attacks against them .

Al-Khalidi was arrested last December while directly broadcasting a demonstration on social networking sites. In August, when she was covering a demonstration for Sahrawi women, Moroccan police confiscated her camera and detained her at a police station for a night. During her detainment she was interrogated and subjected to ill-treatment but was released without charge.

Morocco is one of the most difficult areas for media workers, with increased arrests of journalists during demonstrations, the trial of Saharan journalists and the deportation of foreign journalists.

WITNESS supports Sahrawi activists

In April of 2016 WITNESS began working with Sahrawi activists, journalists and technologists to curate and verify 111 eyewitness human rights videos. These videos included footage of protests and testimonies from international observers or from witnesses, victims, and survivors of human rights abuses.

Read our 1-year report on the methodology and curation of these videos at WITNESS Media Lab. We stand with the brave activists who fight for freedom of expression and the protection of human rights in Western Sahara. For more resources, visit our free library to find guidance on verification and curation of human rights video.


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Image credit: Augustin Safari Macumu/TRIAL International

WITNESS, together with TRIAL International and eyeWitness to Atrocities, used video footage in a landmark court victory, securing justice for human rights in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

On September 21, 2018, justice triumphed in Bukavu, where a military tribunal in Bukavu condemned two high-ranking commanders for murder and torture constituting crimes against humanity. Video footage was submitted to the proceedings as incriminating evidence–an all-time first in DRC. Thanks to the power of video evidence, the two commanders of the rebel militia Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) received life sentences for their crimes against humanity, which also included pillage and arson. All 100 victims party to the proceedings have been awarded reparations ranging from 5,000 USD to 25,000 USD. 

In 2012, the villages of Kamananga and Lumenje (South Kivu) were the stage of barbarous attacks by the FDLR. Alleging the villagers' support to a rival local militia, militiamen led by commanders Gilbert Ndayambaje (alias Rafiki Castro) and Evariste Nizeimana (alias Kizito) looted both villages, killed and tortured civilians, and burned buildings to the ground. Read more about the case here.

"We are delighted with this verdict" says Daniele Perissi, Head of the DRC program at TRIAL International. "Impunity in DRC is rampant... This sends a strong warning signal to anyone committing abuses who might think their military power places them above the law.

This success is the result of close collaboration between NGOs: WITNESS worked with TRIAL International, whose mandate is to fight impunity for international crimes; and eyeWitness to Atrocities, which has developed a unique tool to record, file, and verify videos used in judiciary proceedings. Together, they assisted the victims' lawyers in collecting the strongest incriminating evidence, including verified video footage and photos - a first in the Congolese judiciary. 

Isabelle Myabe, Program Manager at WITNESS, explained: "As part of the investigative process, we trained lawyers working on the case in the best practices of capturing and preserving video as evidence. During a fact-finding mission in July 2017, one of the lawyers documented evidence of mass graves in the targeted villages. An extract of this video was presented in the trial.

On the base of the collected evidence, TRIAL International assisted the victims' lawyers to build their legal strategy.

"When the footage was shown, the atmosphere in the hearing chamber switched dramatically" testifies Guy Mushiata, DRC human rights coordinator for TRIAL International. "Images are a powerful tool to convey the crimes' brutality and the level of violence the victims have suffered.Learn more about the use of audiovisual as evidence here.

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In the state of Sonora, north of Mexico, the Sonoran government is insisting on building a gas pipeline despite strong opposition from the Yaqui people, an indigenous tribe that has been living in the state for centuries. Although the community has a court ruling in its favor, the company behind the megaproject is hellbent to impose the construction of the pipeline by resorting to violence and forced imprisonment. 

Despite being exposed to harsh conditions of slavery, military attacks, and forced exile, the marginalized Yaqui people are resiliently fighting by using video to express their commitment and conviction to preserve their land and the environment.

Earlier this year, WITNESS teamed up with InsightShare, a community development organization to conduct a workshop on how to use video to defend their land. We trained local activists from the Yaqui community on the basic aspects of video advocacy production, preservation, and how to create independent video advocacy campaigns to mobilize key stakeholders in the public.

The videos that participants of the workshop produced highlighted the protests that are taking place in Sonora in opposition to the construction of the pipeline, along with shots of the land, and encounters with law enforcement officials.

As we witness similar levels of abuse of power and injustice in other parts of the world, such as against the Rohingya people in Burma, we believe that it is critical that human rights advocates and organizations continue to educate people on how to use video for change and see through that it creates a lasting impact. 

Justice in Sonora is yet to prevail. People are still unjustly being imprisoned just for expressing their views against the construction of the pipeline. We must continue to keep fighting and advocating for them. The fight isn’t over.

We are grateful for your support which enables us to bring innovative resources and guidance to communities like the Yaqui people. We hope that you will continue to support us to win the fight against injustice and abuse.


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Used with permission, (c) Mustafa Karali
Used with permission, (c) Mustafa Karali

In 2013, eyewitness media documenting abuse in the conflict in Syria flooded the internet, but most of it was poorly shot, unverifiable, put subjects at risk, and didn’t make crucial linkages to who was responsible. Identifying a critical need to make this flood of citizen footage count for evidence, WITNESS began supporting activists, media collectives, lawyers, and others documenting in the region to improve their preservation and verification efforts. Those collaborations led to the creation of the first-ever guidance around the use of video as evidence.

To date, our guidance has been downloaded 36,000+ times in 7 languages, and dedicated trainings have taken place in 17+ countries. In February 2018, the full Video as Evidence Guide was published in Arabic. As Raja Althaibani, WITNESS' Program Manager for MENA explains: “Our goal is that the guide will bridge existing gaps so that citizens, activists, and lawyers can better work together in using video for justice.”

Recognizing the importance of verification and archiving video from the Syrian conflict, we have supported our partners at the Syrian Archive to use our video as evidence and archiving guidance in their critical investigations into human rights violations taking place in the conflict. As they state in their mission, “We believe that visual documentation of human rights violations that is transparent, detailed, and reliable are critical towards providing accountability and can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability.”

To date, the Syrian Archive has preserved 1.5M pieces of media documenting war crimes and has already verified nearly 4,500 videos. In April 2018, the Independent, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) whose mandate is to investigate and prosecute people responsible for war crimes in Syria, announced that it would work to permanently save and analyze evidence. The Syrian Archive is one of several organizations that will participate in this historic protocol. As Fast Company reported, “The IIIM will facilitate the use of the videos in court if alleged human rights abusers ever face trial.”

As we witness similar levels of abuse and injustice in other parts of the world, such as against the Rohingya people in Burma, we believe that it is critical that human rights advocates and organizations start to build comprehensive archives now to secure the historical record and for future justice and accountability.

Bringing justice to the people of Syria will likely take years, if not decades. We are grateful for your support which enables us to bring innovative resources and guidance to groundbreaking organizations like the Syrian Archive. Thank you for standing with us!


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WITNESS and Papo Reto at work
WITNESS and Papo Reto at work

In 2014, communities on the frontlines of police violence in Brazil were embracing the potential of video and social media to speak out about the human rights violations being committed against them. Upon learning this, WITNESS formed a partnership with Coletivo Papo Reto (whose name roughly translates to “Straight Talk Collective”), a group of community-based activists who use cell phones and social media document abuses and report police misconduct and expose their impunity in the Complexo do Alemão, a group of 16 favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

WITNESS’ Latin America team offered Papo Reto resources surrounding safety and security. In collaboration with our Senior Program Manager Priscila Neri and Brazil Program Coordinator Victor Ribeiro, Papo Reto also pulled together teams of allies including activists, public defenders, and lawyers, to critically consider how to use visual documentation for protection, and evidence.

Papo Reto also uses video and social media to upend harmful mainstream narratives about favelas as places that are engulfed entirely by drug trafficking and violence. The media fails to account for the full experience of those who live in the community. Papo Reto co-founder Raull Santiago described the “war on drugs” and legal systems as racist tools of containment and control over poor communities in Brazil. Take for example, the case of Eduardo de Jesus, a ten-year-old boy who was fatally shot in the head in 2015 by a police officer who supposedly mistook his phone for a gun as he played on his front stoop.

In the aftermath of Eduardo’s murder, Papo Reto was the first on the scene and quickly began filming and taking photographs to preserve critical evidence. Papo Reto’s presence and cameras prevented the police from tampering with the crime scene, a common tactic used to mask extrajudicial killings. Their involvement also initiated a forensic analysis of the scene, something Raull remembered as “the first forensic analysis of a killing in a favela that I’ve ever seen in my 28 years of living in Complexo do Alemão.”

Without Papo Reto’s visual documentation, certain victories would not have been possible: the preservation of the evidence and an in-depth investigation (rare), as well as the ultimate conclusion that Eduardo was indeed killed by police fire (even rarer).  

Last year, Papo Reto celebrated another important milestone 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. This case is a significant success, considering the widespread impunity for abuses committed by police in favelas.

Now, however, Papo Reto’s work, and WITNESS’ support of them and other activists in Rio, is more relevant than ever.

Last month, due to escalating violence throughout the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s president ordered the military to take control of public security. The military has been called in before to assist with policing, such as during the 2016 Summer Olympics.  “We have seen the effect of using military to police Rio,” says Jurema Werneck, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil. “There was a significant increase in human rights violations, especially in the case of young black men.”

Rio’s police force is already one of the most deadly in the world: 925 people were killed during police operations in 2016, according to the think tank Brazilian Public Security Forum, and initial tallies by human rights groups put the 2017 number over 1,000.

WITNESS has rapidly responded by sharing tips about filming potential military police misconduct as safely as possible. Our tips were also featured in a popular Brazilian newspaper that reaches many in favelas who may be disproportionately affected by the military police decree. We also teamed up with Papo Reto to hold a workshop on live streaming for human rights documentation with favela community activists in Rio.

With the responsiveness of WITNESS’ Latin America team, Papo Reto and their allies continue to expose human rights abuse in Brazil and empower their communities to use video and technology for lasting change.

Military takes control
Military takes control
Papo Reto founders, Raull and Renata
Papo Reto founders, Raull and Renata


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