September 3, 2009

Ethics, human rights and social activism

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What are our ethical responsibilities when recording video of people under oppression?

Guest post by Sam Gregory

In June, my colleague Sameer Padania and I were part of a panel at the Open Video Conference in New York City on Human Rights, Indigenous Media and Open Video. We used the opportunity to launch what will be a continuing effort by WITNESS to engage with the human rights issues around dignity, re-victimization, consent and security raised by contemporary online video.

Above is the video we used for the WITNESS presentation at the conference.  Watch and tell us what you think — what should WITNESS (and others) be doing in this area?

My colleague Priscila Néri’s post on the footage of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran is a thought-provoking place to start: Iran Protests: A Woman Dies on Camera — to post or not to post?

WITNESS was created over 15 years ago coming out of the Rodney King incident asking this question: What if every human rights worker had a camera in their hand? Now, nearly every citizen does have a camera — and it is participants, witnesses and perpetrators who are filming.

Use of video, particularly mobile video, has publicized and documented many emerging human rights struggle from Rangoon to Tehran. Online there is an abundance of peer-produced content for the social good.

A respect for each individual’s well-being

However, despite the growing online circulation of images of human rights violations, victims and survivors, there is limited discussion of related safety, consent and ethical concerns. At the heart of human rights is the idea of respect for the dignity, worth and integrity of every person. We have an ethical responsibility as witnesses to violations to share the suffering of others in a manner that empathizes with — rather than re-violates — the victim.

From a human rights perspective, new issues around consent, representation and direct re-victimization and retaliation emerge in an open and networked online environment of reworking, remixing and re-circulating video and other imagery.

So how do we go about “incorporating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” into the “terms of service” of online video — an idea first suggested by Dan McQuillan? How do we introduce ideas around consent and human dignity into the broader culture?

This discussion needs to happen at a technological level (how do we build these concepts into platforms and technology, as we have tried to do with the Hub), and it is also a conversation about skills, media literacy and cultural norms.

We need your help to consider how to move this conversation forward — please contribute your thoughts, questions, and ideas in the comments field below.

This post originally appeared on the Hub blog.

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6 thoughts on “Ethics, human rights and social activism

  1. Sam, I saw your presentation at the Open Video Conference, and you raise some very important issues which are salient not only to WITNESS but to many other organizations.

    There's no easy answer. Journalists confront these issues all the time, and it generally comes back to the question of informed consent. NPR recently aired an interview with a young woman in China who was critical of government authorities and you could tell that they advised her repeatedly that her comments could have repercussions from the authorities. At that point, your obligation is to support her bravery, but also to muster all the leverage at your disposal should the authorities retaliate.

    I've occasionally seen producers pixelate the faces of demonstrators, but this diminishes the video's impact and detracts from its authenticity.

    I suspect it's impossible to make a one-size-fits-all rule for these situations. But WITNESS is to be congratulated for bringing these issues to public light because many people in the public, with no ties to a human rights organization, will face similar questions in the years to come.

    • Hi JD,

      Thanks for giving us the guest post slot. We've been hearing lots of great feedback on the post, so it seems to be hitting a chord.

      I think the real challenge we're pondering – and which you put your finger on in terms of how WITNESS or an NPR can react – is how to translate norms/standards etc that we take for granted, or are at least 'professionalized' in the human rights, documentary, news-gathering world – and translate them into an environment where people may not have been exposed to those norms, thought about them much, or have the resources to respond if there is retaliation. We're going to be putting out some suggestions in the coming months on practical steps we think can be taken that can engage technology providers, as well as broader citizen media publics than the usual suspects in the human rights/documentary world.

      On the ethics questions, from a documentary perspective, there are some interesting observations on how documentary-makers wrestle with these issues in the new Honest Truths report from Center for Social Media at American U:


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