‘Cameras Everywhere:’ Video, Human Rights and Media [GFMD Insider]

Bettina Peters, Director of the Global Forum for Media Development, an association of around 500 media assistance groups around the world, kindly invited me to introduce the new WITNESS Cameras Everywhere report to GFMD members in the latest GFMD Insider briefing. Here’s a cross-post of the piece, which speaks particularly to those involved in media assistance and journalism.

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Cameras Everywhere: Video , Human Rights and Media

When I spoke on behalf of the human rights organization WITNESS at the 2008 Global Forum for Media Development conference in Athens – about what the emerging ecosystem of citizen video meant for media development, journalism and human rights – the Greek capital was itself in the throes of major protests and civil unrest. Like many other attendees, I went to Syntagma Square to take a look for myself. As I walked the protest route, I tweeted about the march, the clashes with police, and the aftermath – and I uploaded a few eyewitness videos. But I was one of the few, if not the only, conference participants doing so, it seemed.

Fast forward to today, and this kind of eyewitness video is increasingly central to human rights work – and journalism. It has been critical in drawing attention to corruption, torture, denial of rights, and repression around the world.  More human rights video is being captured and shared by more people in more places than ever before, often in real time. It is happening in organized and spontaneous ways, by people with training and without. And unlike the past, when this footage was largely mediated through news media, much of it is reaching the public unfiltered. Video, often live video, alongside other social media, was critical in the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Media and the public have relied on these firsthand accounts to a striking degree.

These videos are shared, however, in corporate social media spaces and via mobile phone carriers (YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Vodafone, for example), many of which never before regarded themselves as having a stake in human rights. This is bringing a new range of players – often unwittingly – into the human rights field. By virtue of the sheer numbers of people using their products to report and expose human rights violations, these companies have both a stake and a say in how human rights are understood and handled worldwide, and they are increasingly being pressed to meet these responsibilities.

While the heart of WITNESS’ work remains grassroots movements and human rights organizations, we have come to recognize that the media, policy and technology sectors shape many of the standards and structures for the creation and distribution of this kind of human rights video, and of communication more broadly. Therefore they are de facto players in the human rights information landscape. By setting the parameters within which video is created, shared and seen, indeed in which much communication happens, these new human rights actors have the power to influence how activists, journalists and others worldwide collect and share information – and the scale of their potential impact.

In response to these changes, WITNESS has launched a new initiative – Cameras Everywhere to help foster more ethical, more effective and safer video for human rights. Here we offer GFMD members a look of our new Cameras Everywhere report on emerging trends in human rights, technology, media, and business – which we believe holds useful insights and opportunities for the global media development community, a critical partner of the human rights movement around the world. The report is based on interviews with more than 40 experts and practitioners, including major content publishers and technology platforms; international human rights groups; international policymakers; researchers in technology, privacy, and media; and of course, journalists. It recommends specific, manageable steps for players in the human rights and information landscape that we believe will strengthen the practical and policy environments for human rights video, and other information and communication technologies.

We identify five overall areas where there are particular challenges that need to be addressed, and that are relevant to the wide spectrum of GFMD members:

  • Privacy and safety
  • Network vulnerabilities
  • Information overload, authentication and preservation
  • Ethics
  • Policy

Video and other communication technologies pose significant new vulnerabilities. As more people understand the power of video, the more the safety and security of those filming and of those being filmed will become a concern. And because these technologies (automatic facial recognition being the most recent and concerning example) are networked, global and instant, the risks are networked, and move far beyond the control of any individual.

New communication technologies – the Internet, mobile phones, social networking sites, mapping and geospatial technologies like satellite imaging – are challenging long-held assumptions. More and more people, including many who see themselves as neither human rights activists nor journalists, are now using video and social media to create and share content, and to investigate, organize and advocate around issues they care about. But this presents new challenges in how to handle and understand such large quantities of information, how to authenticate it, and what to preserve and why.

Journalistic protocols and ethics have already had wide influence over the information environment, and human rights values and protections are woven into the fabric of these codes. But these codes too will need to evolve to respond to new kinds of ethical and practical challenges. Human rights approaches to information – for example, the right to visual anonymity, as discussed in this preview of the WITNESS report – might in some cases offer robust ways of dealing with these digital era challenges.

These challenges are becoming part of every society, not just a handful of the most developed nations, and it is increasingly apparent that they interweave with practically every area of policymaking too. Policymakers at all levels are struggling to understand and accommodate the shifts that mean that even technology-related trade, health and culture policies, for example, can have significant human rights implications.

The values that have driven the media development community in the past are the same ones that it brings to this new, evolving environment. New information and communication technologies (ICT’s) can bring broader participation, transparency and opportunity, but who can participate – and survive – in this emerging ecosystem of free expression is still shaped by poverty, inequality, marginalization, discrimination and repression. The media development and journalism community can play a key role in guarding against the creation, as one recent study put it, of merely “fatter elites.”

We hope that this report offers some insight into some of the most pressing issues in this arena, and suggestions for how to address them. To read, download and debate the report and case studies, visit http://www.witness.org/cameras-everywhere/report-2011.

Sameer Padania is lead author and researcher on the Cameras Everywhere report.

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