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Human Rights Group Arms Activists With Video Cameras


These are clips from videos made not by professional filmmakers but by human rights activists on five continents. The local activist groups partnered with Witness, a New York-based organization founded by the rock singer Peter Gabriel. Gabriel had the idea for Witness after a notorious 1991 incident, when news organizations repeatedly broadcast video of California police beating a suspect, Rodney King – images captured on a bystander’s inexpensive camera.

“Witness donates video cameras to human rights organizations around the world and trains and supports them to integrate video into their human rights campaigns,” says Gillian Caldwell, executive director of Witness. That means training in scripting and editing as well as in shooting. Ms. Caldwell says these tools bestow the power to document events on the local people who experience them – as opposed to journalists visiting from other regions or countries.

“Essentially what's happening is that these local partners are looking from the inside out,” she says. “That's exactly the opposite of what you see in traditional journalism, when people parachute in and are looking from the outside in. And I think it's tremendously empowering for local human rights organizations to be able to speak in their own voices and own perspectives."

It also means that human rights abuses that may receive little attention from international or even local media can be taken up vigorously by local human rights activists. In 2004, for example, Witness partnered with a human rights group in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that campaigns against the use of child soldiers. Children make up 60 percent of the soldiers among the armed groups fighting in the region, and are forced both to suffer and to commit horrific abuses. The Witness-backed film on the problem of child soldiers is being shown this year in public screenings around Congo to build popular support against the practice.

In Burma, activist videographers trained by Witness have documented the government's widely-reported use of slave labor, making a video that shows villagers forced to leave their subsistence farming to work without pay building roads. In another Witness video from Sudan and Chad, people driven from their homes by Sudanese government forces and allied Arab militias told Human Rights Watch videographers of their fear of being murdered or kidnapped by the government of Omar Bashir if they try to return.

"Omar Bashir will kill us if we go back,” one woman explains in the film. “When the Arabs come, they keep all the women here. They ask us where we come from. If we say the North, we are finished. They terrorize us."

The images collected by human rights videographers are sometimes very difficult to look at. But that is what makes them potent. The president of Paraguay visited one mental hospital following a television broadcast of a Witness-backed video showing patients living in filth, without clothes or clean water and food. The government then signed an agreement to guarantee the rights of mentally ill patients to decent conditions.

In Sierra Leone, meanwhile, activists are distributing thousands of copies of a Witness video detailing human rights abuses during the country's civil war, to press the government to implement the binding recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Yet some observers say that advocacy videos should not always be taken at face value, for they may not contain the whole story. Mark Feldstein, who heads the journalism program at George Washington University, says that such films are valuable, but that they don’t necessarily aspire to the comprehensiveness of journalism.

"You need to get the other side, or multiple sides, and none of these organizations are going to want to provide that,” Mr. Feldstein says. “They're only really going to want to provide their own point of view. And there is something lost by approaching it in a way that journalism doesn't, by providing only the one side. Nonetheless, it's still more information getting out there, and that's a good thing."

Some Witness-supported videos have been submitted as evidence in war crimes tribunals, and given as testimony to U.N. regional commissions. But Gillian Caldwell says that even where video activism does not bolster a legal case, or lead to immediate change, it can sometimes keep conditions from getting worse, and that it also helps communities in a less tangible way. “I think some of the deepest impact we have is in fact much harder to measure or even to explain,” Ms. Caldwell says, “and that’s really the impact you have on a community when you give them the opportunity to explain their experience and you give them an audience. It’s tremendously powerful.”

Since its founding in 1992, Witness has worked with partners in sixty countries, including India, Bangladesh, countries in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and the United States. But Ms. Caldwell says that Witness doesn't usually work in war zones such as Iraq, where local human rights groups cannot operate safely.

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