Censorship

Little Brother Is Watching

Defending human rights with cameras and Internet connections

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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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  1. Good article. Thanks Jesse.

    I am not entirely sure that these officers that make and release the videos do it for the sake of freedom and liberty. May be some do, but suspect there are other insincere (related to corruption) motives.

  2. As long as the police don’t arrest the posters for >insert ridiculously vague charge

  3. As long as the police don’t arrest the posters for (insert ridiculously vague charge). Big brother doesn’t like getting watched much. Still, it is good to see when such effort work.

    The really disturbing thing is that I’ve no doubt a few sick fucks watch the site for enjoyment.

  4. I am not entirely sure that these officers that make and release the videos do it for the sake of freedom and liberty.

    They do not. But then they fall into the hands of people with nobler motives. (For a useful comparison, think of the Abu Ghraib photos.)

  5. They do not. But then they fall into the hands of people with nobler motives. (For a useful comparison, think of the Abu Ghraib photos.)

    Most certainly.

  6. But then they fall into the hands of people with nobler motives.

    Including neo-connish hands? You know, those Egyptians, as can be seen from the videos, need some freein, too. No?

  7. What a crude awakening from me trying to get my cool on at pitchfork.tv. Thanks for the heads up.

  8. Great article, but why make us run around getting the links to this stuff ourselves? this is the internet after all….

  9. For a useful comparison, think of the Abu Ghraib photos.

    And how many of those we haven’t yet seen and probably never will.

  10. Dave, it sounds like The Hub is the perfect place for you to launch your upcoming documentary about Archer Daniels Midland. Didn’t you say you had brutal footage of them force-feeding children HFCS-laden Pepsi and their lawyers beating sugar producers to death?

  11. Oh, yeah, the Nick Berg tape is a fake, too.

  12. In the near future we’ll all be wearing miniature live-feed cameras, broadcasting to the world our every exhibitionist move. That’s a good hedge against state abuse, and it will eventually supplant scripted “reality” television. Surveillance of everyone, at all times, by everyone.

  13. Never forget I’m here under the seats, watching you, always. I’ll be back, Mr. Big Shot ed, to make your life a living hell.

  14. Pointing out the human rights abuses only works with governments that give a damn about public or world opinion. If they don’t care, it’s hard to make them change. Myanmar is a good current example, as is China some days. When push comes to shove, 7.62 trumps NTSC every time.

  15. Oops, forgot to change my joke name from the other thread.

  16. I liked this article a lot. There are a couple of things I would have liked to read more about, although I realize they may have fallen outside the scope of this article (i.e., not about the Hub).

    (1) What about domestic citizen-surveillance activity? I’m thinking about incidents and organizations that have emerged since the Rodney King beating was caught on tape (CopWatch, for example, is a favorite).

    (2) I’ve heard weird reports about people videotaping the cops in the US and being charged under anti-wiretapping laws because they recorded audio. What’s up with that? I’ve always wanted to know how that could happen.

  17. I’ve heard weird reports about people videotaping the cops in the US and being charged under anti-wiretapping laws because they recorded audio. What’s up with that? I’ve always wanted to know how that could happen.

    Prosecutors weren’t doing well on those cases in court, especially the Pennsylvania one involving Brian somebody or other, so that tactic has been put on the back burner by the police lest they get some actually authoritative, unfavorable precedents. One problem is that the state with the strongest anti-secret-recording law is also a state that believes in keeping the police in line. That state would be California.

    I think that the next hot issue will be on this front:

    – photographer photographs police misconduct

    – police want to seize camera as “evidence” of crime

    – photographer flees to avoid turning over camera

    – police charge “failure to obey lawful order” for first footstep of chase

    – police charge “resisting arrest” for all subsequent footsteps of the chase

    In theory, it seems like police could make these charges, but I really don’t know how a court will look at it. I think this scenario will begin to come up on a monthly basis soon.

  18. I don’t know about anyone else, but on The Hub site I got quite a bit of “page not found” (for subscribe to RSS) and “this video is no longer available” for Egypt torture videos.

  19. Dave W.-

    Ha! What you describe happened to a friend of mine a few years ago. He used his cell phone to photograph a gang of 7 white cops arresting a hapless black man, and one of the deputies snatched the phone as evidence. When my friend asked how he could retrieve it, he was arrested and charged with “trespassing” in the parking lot of a club he’d paid to get into!

    (Ironically, the photo he took was completely black and unrecognizable.)

  20. and one of the deputies snatched the phone as evidence . . . (Ironically, the photo he took was completely black and unrecognizable.)

    Yeah, people are figuring out that they have to run if they want to keep the video. It is an insane, never to be repeated miracle that the Vancouver airport taser death footage survived.

    Conversations about that footage are interesting:

    Copluver: every so-called taser death is really a drug overdose.

    Dave W.: *Links to the Vancouver airport vid*

    Copluver: Well, he was breathing heavily before the police got there, so he was also going to die, taser or no taser.

    Dave W.: Ay yi yi. *smacks 4hed*

  21. “Yeah, people are figuring out that they have to run if they want to keep the video.”

    Emailing the video ASAP is another option, and probably safer than running away from excited cops.

  22. Our outfit operates almost entirely on you tube, to show the world the truth, and the Resistance to Empire and Fascism right here in the good ole USA

    you tube channel WHYnotnews
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