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Witness, A Different Kind of Reality TV: Using video and the Internet to

by Laura Forlano, Feb 01, 2001
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Take an electronic journey to Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Guatemala, India or even our very own New York City at Witness. The music, Peter Gabriel's Passion humming in the background, is familiar, but the scenes are not. Faces of solemn women, crying children and stoic men line the Web site. All have been subjected to violent human rights atrocities.

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The proliferation of communications technology has provided a new tool for activists trying to combat human rights abuses worldwide. In the U.S., the increased penetration of broadband, high-speed Internet connections will allow viewers to see larger, higher-quality streaming video documentaries of these violations on-line and maybe inspire them to action.

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According to musician and Witness co-founder Peter Gabriel, "There has been a gradual increase in reality TV," their footage can help satiate "the appetite for stuff [content] that has real meaning in broadcasting, kind of a Jerry Springer hits the Human Rights Circuit." Gabriel co-founded Witness in 1992 in partnership with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the Reebok Foundation in response to the Rodney King incident. To date, the organization has provided video cameras and training to more than 130 human rights groups in 47 countries.

As Witness Director Gillian Caldwell told the New York Times, after the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers, "Peter was really galvanized--He had a very simple concept: give cameras to the world and enable people to right the wrongs they see."

Since then, the group has worked with local human rights group to create documentaries about abuses in the refugee camps in Rwanda, marches in Northern Ireland, massacres in Guatemala, military abduction in India and Burma's civil war.

But, not all of the violations are outside the United States. Witness has also monitored the situation at mental hospitals and factories within our boarders. In conjunction with New York City PoliceWatch and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Witness produced a Rights Alert on-line broadcast about the Amadou Diallo killing in which an unarmed black man was shot 41 times while entering his apartment building. "The Day after Diallo" highlights the realities of recurring police violence against people of color and shows the public outrage and political mobilization which resulted from this event.

Witness' involvement in the Amadou Diallo project proves the potential for the application of communications technologies to combat human rights abuses in our own communities as well as internationally. New technologies such as 360-degree cameras may shed new light on violations that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Many of the documentaries Witness produces cover themes common to many countries, such as children of war and violence against women. Oddcast, a Silicon Alley-based interactive design company, provides training on video and technology applications and produces the Witness Rights Alert.

In December, Arc: eConsultancy played host to Gabriel, Witness activists and private sector leaders at an open discussion on "How Video and Communications Technologies can Create Social Change and Advance Human Rights" downtown at their Wall St. headquarters.

As reported by the Silicon Alley Reporter, Gabriel said: "Human rights used to be something I just read about in the back columns of the newspaper. When you can see or hear the activists and watch their movies of their families slaughtered in from of them in the sitting room, it's something that becomes a very real issue. If we have, through this technology the capacity to put that in front of people in a real way, I think it really will change people--When most get on television the first question you ask is, how did I look. If you're an oppressor, probably not very good. Let's hope that is a deterrent."

At the December event, John Kelly, principal investigator at Columbia University's Interactive Design Lab, presented a vision of Witness' exciting future as a result of new developments in technology. Currently, the organization faces barriers such as limited point-of-view in visual and editorial coverage, problems protecting activist and media safety and security, difficulty of access and retrieval, limitations in editing documentaries and obstacles to reaching the general public with their difficult-to-digest but extremely poignant pieces. However, emerging wireless technologies, new smaller handheld devices and phones, and advances in encryption and digital watermarking offer new solutions for capture, storage, editing and delivery of footage. According to Kelly, these technologies will allow the training of a "21st century Peace Corps for young filmmakers."

Witness' work has been used as evidence in legal proceedings such as the International War Crimes Tribunal in Yugoslavia. They also provide an important resource for the United Nations, grassroots organizations, and even the commercial media.

In the end, Gabriel suggests, "Maybe this is about adding another human right--the right to have your story told."

In Other Technology News:
How many days until the West Nile virus outbreak in your neighborhood? How much snow did the last northeaster leave on your route to work? Here's an interactive map that can tell you all of this and much more. The New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has created NYCMap (pronounced "nice map"), an interactive database of aerial photographs and geographic information, that will be available on-line this fall on the official city Web site. NYCMap, which cost $5 million to produce, covers 35 miles, can zoom in to a space the size of six VW Bugs and is accurate to 12 inches. There are many useful applications of the map for citizens and businesses. For instance, new functions could help you assess property values without leaving your home. NYCMap brings e-government one step closer to reality. An exhibition about the map is on display at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College until March 17.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.




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