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How WITNESS Is Making Video Safer for Activists to Use (Video)

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This post was written by Yvette Alberdingk-Thijm, executive director of WITNESS.

If there are no cameras, the police can make us disappear. They [the government] are scared of cameras. - Egyptian cab driver interviewed by blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy, October 2010

Over the past few weeks, as people in Tunisia and Egypt with cameras in their hands bravely marched for freedom of speech, an end to police brutality, or their livelihoods, I have been asked many times: "What is WITNESS doing?" "Is this the WITNESS dream come true?"

It fills me with hope that so many citizens can now document their world and that their images are catalyzing a movement for change. It is what WITNESS co-founder, the musician and activist Peter Gabriel, calls the "Little Sister" movement -- citizens turning their cameras on "Big Brother" demanding justice and transparency, holding their governments accountable.

While WITNESS is not directly involved on the ground in Egypt, we hope for the people of Egypt what we hope for activists around the world who are using video: that they can do so in an increasingly safe and secure environment and that their video will effectively contribute to their struggles for justice.

Amidst the hubris over "Twitter Revolutions" and sweeping demonstrations being filmed and followed second-by-second, I can't help but note that human rights violations continue, un-watched and un-covered elsewhere. There are places where there is no mass uprising, no mass media interest, and where even Twitter does not reach. Video has demonstrated its power to create real change, but in some of the darkest corners, where it is needed most to bring those cases to light, it is still an underutilized or unavailable tool.

In other places, brave human rights activists risk their lives to share untold stories. For them, I worry that those images, once uploaded and widely distributed outside their original context, will identify or re-victimize the people in those videos or serve as a tool for repressive regimes to find and arrest those being filmed.

While all eyes have been on the millions of Egyptians taking to the streets, at WITNESS we've also been focused on a dozen activists who gathered last week in Mexico City to learn how to use video in their efforts to stop the building of a state-sponsored dam which will destroy the livelihoods of thousands. We have recognized for almost two decades that it is often the movements like these in Mexico that never generate mass media coverage, that require our assistance most.

While we are incredibly excited to see the images flow out of Egypt, we are concerned for these activists' safety too. Recent events in Iran and Burma have shown that videos taken by activists have been used to identify, threaten, arrest and jail these Little Sisters.

Are There Solutions?
There are tools that can help address some of the safety and security issues related to using video. For example, we have a training manual available in several languages including Arabic. We also have short training videos with captions in Arabic available on YouTube:

Through a new leadership initiative we are working with developers on a mobile app that could easily conceal someone's identity in a photo or video. We are also engaging technology companies to push them to make their platforms and social media networks safer for activists and citizens using video. We will also edit our how-to videos in a format that will be easily sharable in a crisis situation and continue to crowd-source translation of these tools into an increased number of languages (see our training videos in Burmese here).

Only a few years ago bloggers Hossam el-Hamalawy and Wael Abbas were relatively lone voices, defying a brutal regime by leaking videos exposing rampant police brutality and other human rights violations in Egypt. Over the past couple of weeks, thousands of Little Sisters have joined them in sharing images and videos from the uprising in Egypt.

It is our job now more than ever to equip these citizens with knowledge and tools and to realize the full potential of video as a powerful, safe, and effective human rights tool.