Mobile Phones in Human Rights Reporting

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Dec 12, 2007

Mobile phones and global internet dissemination are important tools in citizen "sousveillance" and reporting of human rights abuses, notes an article in the BBC. Reporting on a panel at the UN in honor of Human Rights Day on the significance of new media in human rights. I, as a representative of was part of the panel.  The article notes rightly some of the potential of mobiles in documenting abuses through video and audio:

The footage, often shot on mobile phones and digital cameras, can be instrumental in alerting the international community to human rights violations.

Any medium can serve the oppressor or the oppressed, and the challenge is to make sure the media is put to the right use
Craig Mokhiber of the UNHC

Much of the recent video from Burma was shot by amateurs and sent via digital networks.

Mobile phone footage and texts are also helpful because the sender can report mistreatment but remain unidentified.

"With pre-paid sim cards, you don't have to register... Anyone can buy a sim card on the street and it's anonymous," said Ms Verclas."

While the article notes the importance of citizen reporting if human right abuses (and sometimes dissemination of footage actually shot by the abusers, as in the case of the Egyptian police abuses that were recorded by the abusers themselves), the article does not mention some of the other implications of mobile ubiquity in human rights work that were discussed on the panel, for example the systematic documentation and recording of human rights abuses using mobiles as a data collection and reporting device. Similarly, advocacy groups such as Amnesty have used mobiles in their work both in urgent actions trying to free political prisoners, and more typical advocacy work, advancing a particular human rights issue. 

We also discussed the potential privacy and security implications of widespread dissemination of mobile video, potentially exposing the victim as well as the reporter, but agreed that the benefits of uncovering the abuse outweighed the potential negatives. Finally, with sousveillance false and miseleading reports of abuses can happen for political reasons to agitate and then embarrass activists - something that Egyptian parties, for example, have experienced.  There is much more to say on this topic, so we welcome feedback via the comments to develop a more comprehensive white paper on how human rights work is supported by mobile phones.   

For a recent discussion on the topic, see also the New Tactic in Human Rights discussion.

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