Celebrating Eyewitnesses & Citizen Journalists on Press Freedom Day

Note: This is the text of a talk I gave on World Press Freedom Day 2016 at the Church Center for the United Nations on May 3, 2016. The event, “Media’s Role in Supporting Human Rights & Social Change,” was organized by the Communications Coordination Committee for the United Nations, the International Federation of Journalists, and the National Writers Union.

Take a moment to think about the last time you saw a video that exposed human rights abuse.* Perhaps it was of a protest, or of police brutality, or of the war in Syria. I suspect many of you here have seen footage recently in the news, or on your twitter feed, captured by an eyewitness. You may not have known who was behind the camera, but it brought a faraway scene to you to bear witness.

I’m going to talk about the people behind that footage.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, these citizen reporters represent the new face of the media. They are bringing us stories from more places and perspectives than have ever before been covered by traditional media institutions, and their footage is holding a mirror up to societies around the world — exposing previously closed spaces, and forcing us to contend with what we see.

Because of them, the press has never been more free. And never more at risk. Their footage is expanding the possibilities of journalism, meaning that we need to expand the ways in which we support press freedom.

It is not often we take the time to ask who is behind these videos. What did they experience afterwards? What videos (or whose) have we not seen, and why? What does eyewitness footage mean for human rights, journalism, and press freedom? I selected a few cases that have come to my attention in the past year to help us explore these questions.

In Rio de Janeiro last fall, a favela resident filmed the aftermath of a fatal police shooting. In the 5-minute video, you see officers fire a gun and plant it on the corpse of the 17-year old on the ground before them. Thousands of people are killed by police in Brazil each year, and rarely are any officers held accountable. Videos like this one are changing that. The clip went viral, and the incident was on the front page of newspapers the next day. The filmer, however, had to flee her community due to the threat of violence.

In Baltimore, a black woman named Kianga Mwamba was driving home late at night when she witnessed police beating a man who was on the street handcuffed. She stopped her car, took out her cell phone, and started to record. The officers then shifted their attention to her. They forced her out of her car, tasered her, and threw her in jail for the night. When Mwamba was released and given back her belongings, the video she had taken of the entire encounter was no longer on her phone.

It was days later that Mwamba discovered that her footage had been automatically backed up. She used it to get the charges against her dropped, and to sue the Baltimore police.

When I asked Mwamba what she would say to others who witness police abuse, she told me, “be careful, cause you never know what might happen.” If she witnesses police brutality again, she says she’ll probably just keep on minding her own business.

In The Gambia last March, a 23-year-old woman filmed a police officer beating a school girl. The filmer, Minah Manneh, posted the short clip on Facebook and, to be sure the authorities would respond to this, she sent it to government officials on WhatsApp. Less than 24 hours later, she received a call asking her to report herself to authorities. Manneh was charged with violating the country’s internet law that prohibits citizens from posting footage that could tarnish the state’s image. Rather than pay the exorbitant fine and serve jail time, she fled the country.

The final case I will share took place in the West Bank a few weeks ago. Imad Abu Shamsiyeh, a Palestinian father, cobbler, and photography enthusiast, heard gunshots while drinking coffee with his wife. He ran outside, and what he saw down the hill was the aftermath of a violent confrontation between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Shamsiyeh took out his camera, and captured the moment a soldier shot dead one of the Palestinian men laying immobile on the ground. He sent it to an Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem. The soldier now faces manslaughter charges, and the video has spurred a debate about the IDF’s code of conduct.

Click here for the eyewitness video.

As for Shamsiyeh, he told Human Rights Watch that when he was questioned by soldiers, they asked him, “Who is going to protect you and your family from right-wing Israelis?” suggesting, that it wouldn’t be them. Following the incident, Shamsiyeh’s name and number have been posted on Facebook with the word “Wanted”. He has received threatening phone calls, and a mob of people have appeared at his doorstep.

In just the past 5 years, eyewitness videos have taken on a dominant role in news reporting. And yet, we don’t necessarily think of the people behind them, like Kianga Mwamba or Imad Shamsiyeh, when we conjure in our minds the image of a journalist. Many of them are activists, some are bystanders. But by taking out a camera and pointing it at authorities charged with protecting them, they are acting from the same motivation as journalists: to make visible stories of injustice. And they are bringing us stories from communities and places that often go uncovered — conflict zones, rural towns, detention centers, and states that lack a free and independent press.

Their anonymity is a strength and a weakness. It means that they don’t have protection when they are targeted. They often don’t realize that the tools that they use to expose abuse can be used by their adversaries to track them down.

The reality is that the individuals responsible for bringing us some of the most critical information today — information that is changing the way we see ourselves, our communities, and our governments, are unknown, untrained, and at risk.

As journalism changes, so too must our approaches to protecting press freedom.

So how do we do that?

This is certainly not a new challenge; it is one WITNESS, our peers, and many of you here have been working on for years. And it is a conversation we must continue to have.

At WITNESS, we realized that even if we had all the resources in the world, we would not be able to train everybody who documents human rights abuse. Because many of the people who do never plan to. Like Kianga Mwamba, they do not consider themselves human rights defenders or even citizen journalists. They would not download a specialized app on their phone or attend a Copwatch training. So we’ve asked ourselves, how can we support people like Mwamba, who happen to be in what you could call the wrong place at the right time.

One way we have approached this is by working with technologists whose tools that facilitate documentation can also put filmers and citizens at risk. For example, YouTube’s face blur tool allows users to blur the faces of people in their videos. We are working with mobile companies to give users greater control over the images they capture.

Through the WITNESS Media Lab, we curate eyewitness videos to ensure that the footage they take such risks to film will be seen and trusted by human rights monitors who can take action.

And we collaborate with media activists who are working to expose human rights violations, to understand the emerging risks and challenges that they face.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with a group of people whose videos I had been watching from across an ocean. Their footage showed protests in the street that would inevitably be intervened by police. In some, you see just three women on the sidewalk, and as soon as they unfurl a protest banner, they are rushed by men in uniform.

These were taken in Western Sahara, a territory under dispute for 40 years. The Moroccan government prohibits any challenges to its sovereignty over the territory, and has expelled and banned international journalists and human rights organizations that have reported on Sahrawi people’s calls for self-determination. What this means is that the footage taken by media activists and posted on YouTube and Facebook are for the most part the only visual documentation of human rights issues in the territory.

Earlier this year, I took part in a workshop with Sahrawi media activists. None of them had studied journalism. Many of them had been beaten and arrested for their work. One told me he lost his university registration when the government learned of his activism. A colleague of his lost his job as a high school teacher for his work assisting foreign reporters.

Here are two of those activists — Salha Boutanguiza and Ahmed Ettanji — explaining, in their own words, the risks they face.

I asked Salha why she takes those risks. “Western Sahara is completely absent in international media. So what am I waiting for? Who else is going to reflect our reality?”

Thanks to media activists and citizen journalists like Salha, we can witness the experience of Sahrawis in Western Sahara.

Thanks to bystanders like Kianga Mwamba in Baltimore, and countless others across the United States, we have witnessed the epidemic of police brutality in communities of color in this country.

Thanks to anonymous filmers in Brazil’s favelas, videos have exposed a similar pattern there, and begun a parallel conversation about race, class, and accountability for police violence.

Thanks to Minah Manneh, Gambians have witnessed the treatment of schoolchildren by police, and have seen what the internet law means for press freedom.

Thanks media activists like Imad Abu Shamsiyeh, and the work of B’tselem, the Israeli army’s treatment of Palestinians and accountability for breaches of protocol are under scrutiny.

I am an optimist, and so I celebrate these stories as examples of the reporting and social change that is possible and yet to come because so many more people can participate in journalism. No matter what we call the people behind the cameras, they are challenging all of us to take a closer look at our societies and respond to what we see.

But these stories also provide a warning. Freedom of the press moving forward depends on the ability of all members of society to collect and disseminate information, and to do so without fear. When governments use surveillance against activists, when they shut down communications platforms, when they use anti-terrorism laws to prosecute citizen journalists, and when officers demand the phones of people filming on the street, we need to respond. Threats to citizen journalists are threats to freedom of information for us all.

Journalist & civic media innovator. Oakland native. Cumbiambera.

Journalist & civic media innovator. Oakland native. Cumbiambera.