WITNESS makes it possible for anyone, anywhere to use video and technology to protect and defend human rights. In this edition of Press Play we spoke with Priscila Néri, the organization’s Associate Director of Programs who oversees WITNESS’ work in Latin America. They are based in Brooklyn and you can watch their videos on http://www.nyxt.nyc/witness/.
NYXT: How did WITNESS come to exist? What societal problems are you trying to solve?
Priscila Néri: In 1988, musician and activist Peter Gabriel traveled with Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! Tour. While touring, Peter realized that powerful stories of oppression and abuse were being lost, buried, or ignored . . . and that video camera technology could serve as an invaluable tool to capture the truth. Years later, on March 3, 1991, taxi driver Rodney King was savagely beaten by Los Angeles police officers. WITNESSing the scene from his balcony, a plumber, George Holliday, took out his brand-new Sony Handycam and pressed record. The clip exposed flagrant police brutality and was seen by hundreds of millions of viewers on the nightly news, catalyzing protests, centering the debate around ingrained structural racism and demonstrating the potential of video to create change. The following year, Peter, the Reebok Foundation and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights co-founded WITNESS on the premise that ordinary people could use video to expose human rights violations, influence policy and create change. In its 28-year history, WITNESS has partnered with hundreds of groups and movements in 100+ countries, helping advocates use video effectively and safely for advocacy, documentation and evidence with the goal of protecting and defending human rights.
NYXT: What does WITNESS focus on, and how does it work?
PN: While the organization has worked on several different issues and regions over the course of its history, today WITNESS is focused on three overarching themes globally: land rights, police violence and war crimes. Our programmatic team is based in 10 countries (Brazil, Czech Republic, England, Germany, Holland, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, and the United States) and is made up of a diverse and brilliant group of lifelong human rights defenders experienced in using video to advance justice. In addition to the three prioritized themes, the team also strives to help build up the global field of video-for-change by, whenever possible, supporting activists to use video more strategically and safely in rapid-response situations like mass protests or elections. As WITNESS works and learns about new tactics and approaches for using video to protect human rights, the organization is deeply committed to making these learnings accessible to anyone who could benefit from them wherever they may be. Much of this knowledge is available in our online Library of resources and in our pages in Portuguese, Spanish, French and Arabic, as well as in our regional channels for Africa, Asia, Brazil, Latin America, Middle East/North Africa, and the United States. And to tackle the bigger systemic challenges activists face when using video to protect human rights in our fast-moving media and technological landscape, WITNESS also has a team focused on influencing emerging technologies as they’re developed and pressuring technology companies to uphold human rights principles and reduce harm for activists on their platforms.
NYXT: What can the power of media and videos do to protect and defend human rights?
PN: When leveraged strategically, video has proven to be a most powerful tool for those fighting to protect and defend human rights. In the first case taken on by the International Criminal Court, for example, video was used to prove that children under the age of 15 were being enlisted to fight as soldiers by Thomas Lubanga, a militia commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo; in Brazil, we’ve seen video challenge the deeply rooted legacy of impunity, helping victims and families of those killed by Police counter official lies, expose corruption, and defend the memory of their loved ones; in Ecuador, indigenous communities used their cameras to gather evidence that proved that miners were invading their lands, leading to an unprecedented legal victory that helps protect the Amazon forest in such testing times; in Syria, courageous activists have been dutifully verifying and preserving videos of the atrocities being committed against the Syrian people, building a database to protect the truth and fuel efforts for accountability and justice in the years to come; during protests around the world -- from the Arab Spring to the recent waves of protests in Latin America, for example-- video has helped defend protestors of false charges, or prove excessive force; and in Trump-era United States, video has helped immigrants fight abuses by deportation authorities like ICE, as well as expose the disproportionate and racist practices of law enforcement against communities of color and support movements working for decarceration by using video to strengthen requests for clemency or sentence mitigation. When discussing the recent cases of killings of African Americans by Police across the country, renowned journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked: “The violence isn’t new, the cameras are new”. Imagine all that can be achieved with so much power - join us in the movement to see it, film it, change it!
NYXT: Does WITNESS collaborate with other organizations?
PN: Collaboration is one of the core aspects of WITNESS’ DNA and a defining element of how we work. We collaborate --and learn from-- community leaders, independent media collectives, human rights lawyers, NGOs, movements, journalists and others in the ecosystems of stakeholders required to create change. How we collaborate varies widely and depends on what the exact needs and interests of our partners are; in a community seeking to learn how to film police abuse, for example, we might offer workshops on safe/effective tactics for filming; with a group of human rights lawyers, we might share successful case studies of how video has been used in courts around the world; with journalists, we might offer guidance ethical ways of verifying and sharing videos about human rights violations. True collaboration needs to start with deep listening and mutual understanding, and that’s always our first step!
NYXT: What are some of WITNESS' proudest accomplishments?
PN: Throughout our history there have been many inspiring examples of how video has strengthened communities, protected truth and helped advance justice. But for me, one of our proudest accomplishments has been the people we’ve chosen to stand alongside -- people that face great risk in the name of defending what’s right, people that have experienced great personal loss but never stop fighting, people that emanate courage and hope even with so much inequality and despair. Supporting them -- in ways big but more often small -- has been one of the greatest privileges of my life!
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