MobileActive in the BBC

Posted by CorinneRamey on Dec 11, 2007

December 11, 2007|BBC News

Digital activists expose abuse by Lauren Howey

Shaky digital camera footage posted online shows one man beating up another - but this is not an amateur fight sequence loaded on YouTube by film students.

It was filmed by Egyptian police, documenting the beating of a prisoner, and circulated within Egypt to intimidate dissenters.

The footage also made its way to international bloggers and caused a worldwide scandal. It eventually resulted in the arrest and conviction of two police officers.

Such is the power of online video to document human rights abuse and raise international awareness.

'Wake up call'

This was the subject of a panel discussion on technology and social change convened at the United Nations on Monday as part of celebrations commemorating Human Rights Day.

"The power of visual images can go a long way in making people wake up," Jenni Wolfson of the human rights group Witness told the audience of NGO representatives and UN officers.

"It won't allow perpetrators to say that abuses didn't happen, won't allow them to say they didn't know what was going on."

Witness runs a YouTube-esque website for human rights activists, where visitors can upload their videos.

Titles include Burma Army Attacked Protesters and Egypt Police Brutality Cell phone Footage.

Users can add a description to contextualise their footage, submit comments, and link to relevant websites.

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

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

"Even as the internet was shut down, all the cell phone footage was being sent to reporters on the other side of the Thai border," said Katrin Verclas of

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.

Prison sentences

Human rights organisations are now trying to harness this technology to benefit the victims while minimising the advantage to the abusers.

"Any medium can serve the oppressor or the oppressed, and the challenge is to make sure the media is put to the right use," said Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the US office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Governments are beginning to use internet video technology to respond to accusations of violations.

"Human rights abusers are using the same tools to put propaganda videos on sites like YouTube," said panellist Rebecca Sommer, an independent filmmaker.

But there are successes too. The Egyptian police brutality video has been viewed more than 112,000 times on YouTube, and in November the two police officers were convicted of torture and sentenced to three years in prison.

"I don't think this would have happened without this cell phone footage getting out to a much larger audience," said Ms Wolfson.