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.
The Rodney King incident brought that idea home. You had this example of an amateur, George Holliday, on the balcony of his apartment filming a graphic instance of abuse and receiving massive news coverage. That gave the impetus to start the organization. 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. 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.
We also found it was challenging to reach the right audiences. For example, it's very hard for most human rights activists to get mass media coverage. Their issues are either censored by their governments or not considered newsworthy or are hard to represent in just a single snapshot—they're more structural or deeper than just a single image of, say, police brutality. Similarly, trying to use the video as evidence did not work. It's challenging to get it into court, and the Rodney King experience taught us that video evidence can be turned either way—in the Rodney King case, used in the defense as well as the prosecution of LAPD officers.
reason: Were there any notable successes in that first period?
Gregory: There was footage that got into the news media, but it wasn't a successful period in terms of creating real change. I'm trying to think of what was especially effective in those first few years. I'm actually hard pressed to put my finger on an example.
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. We train them to develop something called a video action plan, which is essentially a strategic communications plan around video. They'll say, for example, "We're trying to persuade this UN committee to recognize that the government is not reporting the whole story on this issue." And we'll say, "This is how you might think about crafting videos so you'll be able to persuade that committee of the truth of your side of the story." Or they might be doing community organizing—to give a concrete example—around child soldiers in eastern Congo. They faced a problem in terms of persuading parents not to let their children be voluntarily recruited. They needed to find a way to show the impact on the children and 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.
reason: How do you get the video in front of those parents? I assume this stuff isn't aired on Congolese TV.
Gregory: The idea at the root of our work is that the voices that need to be heard are the ones closest to the violations. It's not a centralized vision, and all our work derives from the agency of those locally based human rights groups. At any given time we're working with around 13 groups around the world—our core partners—on a range of issues. They'll come to us with a campaign and a strategy that they already have in place.
The group in the Congo, a group called Ajedi-ka, was already doing village meetings all around this area affected by voluntary recruitment. What they were doing with the video is bringing it into that setting: They're bringing a TV, they're bringing a generator, literally just carrying it there.