Civil Liberties

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.

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.

In other settings you take a different approach. In a high-tech setting, you might carry a video around on an iPod. On Capitol Hill we'll get a screen up and do a much more traditional showing. But the root of it is always the human rights groups themselves thinking about how to use it as a tool to complement what they've done before, and not assuming that video is a magic bullet that will get people to react. It has to be within this context of options for people to take action.

reason: How do you train the people?

Gregory: We train them initially around how to film. We're not trying to make human rights workers into filmmakers, but we give them the tools to be mediamakers within their work. It's media literacy: Just as they can write a written report, they should be able to pull out a camera and film. Alongside that we develop this video action plan.

Usually there's a process after that where we receive footage from them and we provide feedback. We'll say everything from "Maybe you should put that person a little bit to the right in the frame" to "Have you thought about whether you're getting the right testimonies in order to persuade the audience you want to reach?" Typically, at least in the first instance, groups will come to Witness to edit. We do that partly so they can tap into a range of experiences here. In a lot of the relationships, as time moves on, we train them how to edit on their own. So, for example, a group we've work ed with on the Thai-Burma border that secretly travels into Burma to document atrocities there—they produce all their videos in the villages on the border. At this point we're really just a strategic consultant to them.

reason: Did you have any notable successes during that period after you rethought your approach and before you launched The Hub?

Gregory: I would highlight Ajedi-ka. We worked with them first on that campaign around child soldiers, and they've seen a decline in voluntary recruitment in communities where they've been doing work. They then identified a need to reach a completely different audience, to communicate with people at the International Criminal Court, which was making a decision about what to investigate in the Congo. We worked with them to develop a video that spoke to the impact on children of being involved in conflict. The organization did private screenings with senior members of the International Criminal Court, and that helped push the court to prioritize that issue. The first arrest warrant they issued in their investigation was for a warlord, and it was specifically on the child soldier issue.

Another example is in Mexico, where a group called Comisión Mexicana has been looking at murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez. You've had this pattern of murders of young women, failures by the local police to investigate, and choices to arrest and torture scapegoats. We worked on a video that found a very powerful individual story that spoke to the broader pattern. 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. So this one story wrapped together both the murders and the abuse of power.

They used this video to lobby Congress here in the U.S. but also 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.

reason: What were they lobbying for in Congress?

Gregory: They were lobbying for a House statement that Mexico should do more to investigate these murders. I wouldn't place much emphasis on that, but you can use it in human rights advocacy. For example, recently we've done a lot of screenings around Burma with the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in D.C.—again, trying to bring those voices of people driven from their villages directly into a committee room in Washington. You can sometimes see the boomerang effect of that.

reason: What did you think of the way the Burmese atrocity footage was used at the beginning of the new Rambo movie?

Gregory: The people we work with inside Burma are tremendously excited that the Rambo movie came out, because it's another way of focusing attention on the crisis. I think it was effective. I have some concerns about how you then go into, essentially, a Hollywood revenge fantasy. But I think it was important that people knew that this was a real situation, and I think it is important to think about how this accesses other audiences that might not know about Burma.

reason: Most of the examples that you've given so far have involved one form or another of narrowcasting. Do you still make an effort to get something out to a mass audience like that?

Gregory: We absolutely do think about how you reach out to a broader audience. In fact, some of our footage appeared in the opening credits of Rambo.

We try to build media attention when we think it's complementary to the advocacy goals. We don't assume that media attention will work. The experience of many of the groups that we've worked with is that the way they're represented in the media doesn't represent either them or their communities well and can be counterproductive. So we try to find opportunities where we can help navigate how it's covered and retain the advocates' point of view. Certainly with The Hub we're thinking about how the media gets access to a broader range of grassroots footage.

reason: How do you police the clips on The Hub for accuracy?

Gregory: We don't police heavily. We made a decision early on that we cannot guarantee the accuracy of every clip. But when we look at clips, we look for red flags, such as someone being exposed to a risk by being seen, or graphic sexual violence that's not in a human rights context. If it's something we're not sure about, we'll try to contact the user who uploaded it and ask more questions. If there's a big question mark in our minds we won't upload it.

We're trying to move to a more community-based model of assessing human rights footage. We've seen success in a number of instances. There was a case from the Ivory Coast where collective intelligence helped identify falsification of footage around a shooting of civilians there.

reason: But nothing goes up until you've approved it. It's not like YouTube.

Gregory: At the moment, nothing goes up until we've approved it. In the long run, I think we'd like to move to a situation where more material can go directly up. We'd like to trust more to the community to assess that material, but right now we've got to build that community.

reason: What are some of the other differences between what you do and YouTube?

Gregory: One key area is the issue of security. We are very aware that people may be uploading from situations where the government is watching the Internet and there may be potential repression. So when someone tries to upload to the site they're given an indication of the security risks. We provide ways to upload safely and securely. 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.

Another element is editorial control. We're trying to tap into a participatory community of human rights activists rather than leave it in the hands of a corporation. That's an important difference.

Another element is that the pages are designed to provide space to contextualize and act around the footage. We're building a number of advocacy options into the site, so people can find ways to generate online or offline action. If you look at the Shoot on Sight clip from Burma, for example, the video itself is quite self-contained, but the underlining material gives more information, gives the statistics, gives more background about what's been happening, and gives ways to act.

One of the functionalities that will launch shortly is an ability to download the clips, so people can use them in the kind of offline settings that are particularly common outside the global North. Perhaps there's only one connection to the Internet, so what you want to do is download it and take it into a communal setting.

We're definitely encouraging people to port the media out. We want them to share it, to embed it in their blogs, and to take it offline, in a community setting or on a mobile phone.

reason: Are there projects outside of Witness that have influenced what you're doing?

Gregory: I think the Amnesty International Unsubscribe Me campaign, which shows six minutes of someone going through a stress position, is an interesting one to look at, in terms of how you use the vaudevillian characteristics of something like YouTube and turn it around for human rights purposes.

reason: The definition of human rights activism gets kind of hazy around the edges sometimes, and you'll often see groups with very broad political agendas. There are also times when people in different parts of the community have had very different ideas about, say, whether to call for military intervention. Do you accept clips from groups with different analyses? How do you deal with those tensions?

Gregory: We don't have any particular focus in terms of human rights issues. We define human rights very inclusively, so we include economic, social, cultural, political, and civil rights. We wouldn't typically take two core partners that have dueling perspectives, but we're open to groups that are on the edge and leading. We worked, for example, with the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan under the Taliban when they were definitely not the mainstream of human rights activism there. We don't necessarily go for the middle-of-the-road groups.

In the context of The Hub, there's a clear set of community guidelines in terms of how people should act on the site. So advocating violence or posting hate speech or slurs will violate the terms. But we don't legislate a particular point of view, and in fact we encourage different points of view on how to address human rights violations.

We also, in some cases, will contextualize clips that have a public service value, even though they may be a piece of hate speech. If we were to receive footage similar to, say, the incitement to violence by the Rwandan government during the Rwandan genocide, I think there would be a strong reason to feature that on The Hub, but then to put a comment around it. So there is a place where we might editorialize, to explain why something is there.

reason: How does the site deal with informed consent?

Gregory: The overall framework we've set is to think about informed consent in a victim- and survivor-focused model. That means making sure that someone who is filmed is doing it voluntarily, that they understand the risks, that they understand how it's going to be used, and that they're competent to agree, so it's not someone who for reasons of mental disability or age or trauma is incapable of making an appropriate decision. Often oppressive governments will hunt down people who are featured in human rights material. People should be aware of the risks, and they should be aware that any piece of media, once it's out there, can be seen by their worst enemy.

We recognize that we can't impose that standard on people uploading to The Hub. So we emphasize that people shouldn't just think about consent as something legalistic. It's not a legal question whether someone in Burma is filmed and faces risk. They're never going to sue you. You should think about it in a much deeper way that centers on the safety and security of the person filmed as much as the person filming.

reason: The site includes clips of beatings in Egypt that were filmed by Egyptian police officers themselves. How often does that kind of footage appear on the site?

Gregory: There's quite a lot of it. One piece of footage that surfaced in the pilot project was something that became known as squatgate. Police officers in Malaysia used a cell phone to film the humiliation of a young woman who had been arrested. They forced her to strip and to squat in a jail cell. Similar to the Egyptian footage, that escaped from the closed circle of police officers sharing it among themselves and sparked a national outcry in Malaysia around police misconduct.

reason: Do you worry about consent issues in that context?

Gregory: We do. In fact, with the Egypt videos, we made a decision not to show the most grotesque of them, which included the sodomization of one of the detainees. And in the squatgate example we decided not to post that video because it had been seen so widely, and the woman involved specifically requested to me, "Please don't circulate this anymore."

In the case of the Egyptian footage, the people involved said they really wanted people to know about what was happening. When we can get that kind of cue from the people in the material, that helps.

reason: What other approaches have the clips taken?

Gregory: One of the primary modes is witness journalism. Clips filmed by the right people in the wrong place. We have a clip, for example, from a group in Cambodia that is recording forced evictions in Phnom Penh.

Another genre is advocacy videos—videos that speak to a particular audience and push for a particular change in policy, behavior, or practice. Most of the videos from Witness are in that mode, including the videos I talked about from the Congo.

And I think there's a third kind of video: more traditional documentaries that follow a story in a human rights context but don't necessarily have an explicit call for action. It sort of splits into two. For example, we have footage from Al Jazeera on The Hub. So that's a news story. And there's a video that explains the history of West Papua under Indonesian control. That's more of a documentary.

The important elements for us are to go beyond a space where footage is viewed to think about how you create a human rights community around it and how you turn that visual media into action. It's not OK just to see scenes of misery. 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.

Discuss this story at reason's Hit & Run blog.