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How can video as a Human Rights tool shape the future of rights in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

2019 Chilean Activists protests the police’s targeting of protesters’ eyes with rubber bullets (Photo credit: Nicole Kramm)

Information communication technologies (ICT) are becoming widely used by human rights defenders (HRDs) as a tool for measuring and advocating for human rights (HR). This Article explores the video aspect of these technologies, and how they have been implemented by HRD’s across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).

The field of Human Rights is changing due to open source data and video, this is subsequently reshaping the paradigm of who’s considered an expert, with so many more tools available in the human rights fact-finding arsenal today than ever before (McPherson, Thornton and Mahmoudi, 2020). At their core, HRs have always been driven by visual imagery since the UNDHR was signed in 1948, after photographs of the holocaust came to light (Ristovska, 2016). This is crucial for the understanding of how video technologies have become a tool used by human rights defenders, and also by abusers. 

States such as China and Russia dominate the literature surrounding surveillance technology being used to monitor their citizens, however, recent cases also exist in LAC where surveillance software has been implemented. In 2017, Mexico adopted the Pegasus software originally to monitor drug cartels, yet they were soon using it to spy on Journalists. This has led to a backlash by various human rights institutions (Salazar, 2019) who attribute that scaring Journalists into silence as unconstitutional under Article 6 of the Mexican Constitution where,

 ‘Every person shall be entitled to free access to plural and timely information, as well as to search for, receive and distribute information and ideas of any kind, through any means of expression.’ (Mexico’ s Constitution of 1917, 2016)

Many Latin American and the Caribbean states have exercised their power to weaponize ICT’s against freedom of expression, even though they tend towards serial ratification of international treaties, aimed to counteract these practices, prompting Simmons (2009) to describe them as ‘Serial Ratifiers’ (cited in Engstrom, 2019, p. 275). Yet, ICTs are also utilized by activists to hold state actors accountable. ICTs are thus described as dual-use technologies, and therefore ambivalent when assessed against international norms. For example, ICTs are effective in counter-terrorism, combating child pornography online, and also censoring HRDs, yet they can be used by activists themselves (Gregory, 2010). Recognizing the nature of dual-use technologies, this text will focus on how certain HRDs use video as advocacy in LAC. By examining the NGOs Witness and Survival International, this article explores how they make video technologies credible, and how these NGOs can build political narratives. 

The literature surrounding video as evidence comes predominantly from the protest school of thought in HR scholarship. As Dembour (2012) defines, there are four broad schools of thought when interpreting Human Rights. First, there’s the natural school which sees Human Rights as a universal given, the protest school which see’s rights as something which are fought for, the deliberative school which sees rights as a social construct dependent on institutional governance and the contextual time and space, and finally, the discourse school which sees rights as concepts which are spoken about, but in theory, never materialize. These four schools also sit alongside four theories of international relations scholarship: realism, liberalism, poststructuralism, and constructivism (Donnelly, 2017). The theory of constructivism and the deliberative school are interesting theories to frame video advocacy. Constructivists believe that, 

“States are led by individuals who make decisions based on certain norms. Those norms, in turn, establish expectations about how states should behave, which help guide what types of decisions policymakers will choose.” (Weeks, 2017, p. 179).

In reference to the global HR system, this also includes transnational NGOs and organisations (Ibid), which makes the case for Latin America and the Caribbean important. When examining these concepts of international norms and who the key actors are in the region’s past and present, it’s essential to turn to Sikkink, who’s an authority on the scholarship. Her work on NGOs as actors in the HR system provides a detailed analysis of how the rights ecosystem in the Americas functions. NGOs in LAC came to prominence in the 1970’s and 1980’s forming around violations and military regimes in Mexico, Brazil, and the Southern Cone (Sikkink, 1993). Then during this period, Human Rights NGOs started gaining attention from international actors such as governments and IGOs. However, there’s also been cases where some actors like the US State Department were occasionally willing to turn a blind eye to smaller states who violated Human Rights, such as Paraguay under Stroessner (Lambert, 2010)

Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner, left, and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco at a ceremony in Madrid in 1973.Credit…Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In 1993, Sikkink described these interactions between NGOs and IGOs as a ‘dense web of interconnections’ (Sikkink, 1993, p. 416). Now with the advent of the internet, ICTs, open data, and video technologies being so abundant, this web of interconnections has grown vaster. These connections and international norms frame the Human Rights literature, and consequently lead to academic empirical evidence, which is growing surrounding video advocacy. 

As Ristovka (2016, p. 347) notes, “information is the oxygen of the human rights”, however, this does depend on the information and the truth claim. Her work is a good introduction to video advocacy, yet her methods can be scrutinised. Ristovka couples the organisations Witness and Storyful as advocating for video to be used as a tool for Human Rights. However, she doesn’t consider that these are two very different organisations in terms of their remits. Storyful being one of the first social media news outlets, may say they champion Human Rights; however, it’s part of the NewsUK conglomerate which was implicated in a phone-hacking scandal that forced the British government launch an inquiry into Human Rights and press ethics (Leveson, 2012). Whereas, Witness is an NGO whose sole focus is teaching Human Rights Defenders to use video, providing them with applications, and a secure platform to upload their content. Ristovka affirms her argument by coupling quotations from both organisations in agreement with one another on the subject of Human Rights yet fails to scrutinise, how each actor arrived at the same conclusion. Storyful is built around paid-per-view advertising, whereas Witness is funded via public donations, thus giving these two business models very different incentives. 

Another prominent scholar surrounding video is McPherson (2016) who’s built upon Gandy’s (1982) concept of the ‘information subsidy’ adapting it to the 21st century. McPherson uses the example of NGOs and the Mexican media to explain her expansion of the concept. Essentially, established NGOs, video, and the media sit in an ecosystem of Human Rights actors and are reliant on one another in some capacity for publicity and credibility. McPherson relates this to Bourdieu’s (1986) seminal idea of different social capitals existing and intersecting with one another to create structural power relations within a society, arguing that this is a form of symbolic capital. This mirrors Brough and Li’s (2013) HR media systems dependency theory, where symbolic power isn’t just visual media, but how it’s subsequently consumed in its cultural and political ecology. Thus, NGOs can be a source of information to news outlets with their video content, and news outlets also rely on NGOs to provide credibility to their news coverage and organisation. Whereas, before works from Thrall, Stecula, and Sweet (2014) highlighted there had been little quantitative research into NGOs strategically utilizing the media and social media to address the public, and what the effect was. They concluded much of the findings lacked an important baseline of NGO’s and the media’s effectiveness. Though McPherson’s work is not quantitative, it has however moved the debate further along, and perhaps opened up new doors for exciting future research into the effectiveness of NGOs communications in Latin American and the Caribbean.

Comparing this concept to Ristovka’s work on eyewitness video, individuals witnessing incidents and publishing them on social media platforms wouldn’t validate as a credible information subsidy. Yet it’s widely agreed in the Human Rights scholarship that after the Arab Spring, video plays an important role institutionalizing communities and establishing grassroots movements, especially in the Americas. Yet, this becomes problematic with the described notions of the ‘Digital Economy’ or ‘Network Society’, (Salazar, 2006; Gottdiener, 2007), enacting with the cultural hegemony of social media platforms, creating a power imbalance over society. However, due to the growing idea of neoliberal corporate social responsibility, social media platforms, and ICT companies are beginning to see themselves as having a stake in Human Rights, because of the number of activists distributing content on their platforms or using their devices to film abuses (Gregory, 2010).

Copyright of Vice Media: Know Your Rights Video 

The predominant use of video as a tool for rights advocacy comes from the filming of protests and demonstrations across the world. In the last decade (especially in 2019), LAC saw an abundance of demonstrations regarding various topics involving rights and freedoms. These tend to fall into categories such as the right to citizenship, democratic representation, economic stability, public security, the environment, and the right to nature (Puente, 2019). These protests have coincided with the rise of many individuals having a camera in their pocket able to film and post videos to social platforms, documenting the demonstrations, and filming eyewitness videos of police brutality and violence. Whereas in previous decades during LACs dictatorships, video was used in covert to film state brutality and was often confiscated or was unsafe for the HRD’s to release. In the few cases, if it did leak, regimes used it to smear the credibility of the movements as left-wing propaganda (Sikkink, 1993). However, Hindman (2008) has argued that even though the internet has made it easier to distribute videos, it’s also made it harder for some NGOs to create content which is comparable to that of traditional media organisations. Considering video cameras may be cheaper, the professionals who operate them aren’t always more abundant. The fast-paced culture of the attention economy, also incentivises NGOs to resort to using short text and image-based videos to hold the audience’s attention, thus running the risk of taking content out of context by pushing ideological narratives to portray a succinct point. This has prompted scholars such as Donnelly (2017, p. 505) to describe some NGOs as 

Video is now widespread, with NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International implementing new methodologies to keep up with the pace of technological change (Ristovska, 2016). This is leading to new knowledge and experts corroborating due to the new methods of fact-finding (McPherson, Thornton and Mahmoudi, 2020). Thus, video is back at the forefront of the rights conversation, however, different controversies now exist surrounding video as a credible source. This can explain the growth of NGOs such as Witness, who advocate for how to use video in order for it to be considered credible. 

The NGO Witness was founded in 1992 following Rodney King’s assault in Los Angeles, and since then they’ve advocated for the use of video to be a tool for frontline HRD’s filming police, security forces, and state actors in order to hold them accountable to their HR standards (Gregory, 2006). Witness’s main ideas are centered around ‘visual amenity’, and how the human rights model needs to adopt a fresh paradigm to accomplish this concept. When filming on a phone or digital camera, there are various risks associated. First, the filmmaker is vulnerable due to the risk of being seen by aggressive security forces, this is seen in the context of Brazil, one of the main countries where Witness operates. The second is once an activist uploads the content to the internet, hostile governments can exploit the digital footprint and trace individuals through code on video file (Gregory, 2010). This has happened on numerous occasions with Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela all having access to these types of software (Lazadle, 2015). Witness also has policy recommendations for video sharing sites in regards to videos taken down for violating the platform’s policies. As they’re dual technologies there’s legitimacy to this, however, this is a policy area governments and platforms have simply failed to address (Gregory, 2010). In response, Witness has created their own platform called the Hub, a space where videos from HRDs can be uploaded and stored securely by the NGO. Witness has thus helped reshape NGO and media dependency (Brough and Li, 2013), however this is only part of the narrative.

Latin American and the Caribbean states have some of the most violent, corrupt, and repressive police forces in the world and, therefore, need to be held accountable. This has led to an emerging opposite story which is seldom told or spoken about until the release of the 2016 report Good Cops, Are Afraid focusing on policing in Rio De Janeiro (Human Rights Watch, 2016). While this report cited shocking statistics and the corrupt practices of the majority of policing culture in Brazil, it did also shed light on the lesser told stories of some moral officers struggling with their mental health, due to the job having endemic levels of violence. Since then, violence has reduced but at the expense of more ‘suspects’ killed in Brazil, explained by President Bolsonaro’s endorsement of militaristic tactics of former Rio de Janerio State Governor Wilson Witzel (Magalhaes and Pearson, 2019; Wheatley, 2019). Consequently, prompting the think tank Igarapeé Institute to create projects involving police body cameras (Igarapeé Institute, 2018). These are marketed to police around making their job safer, whilst simultaneously being sold to the public as accountability devices. However, Witness and HRW argue that this doesn’t stop the police simply turning the cameras off. It is also important to mention that various other incentives also exist in the region. One project in Mexico, ‘Mi Policia’, went even further incorporating a mobile application which includes tracking the police, surveillance cameras, and can also be utilized by the public to report crime (Luccisano and Macdonald, 2017). In 2015, this represented a 7.6 percent drop in violent crime, but has been interpreted by some at the expense of civil liberties due to its surveillance element (ibid). 

Image taken from the International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law: Article about US Police Surveillance trends

Human rights and security in Latin America and the Caribbean have to be equitable (Pearce, 2019). The middle-class political opponents during dictatorships and the transitions to democracy are no longer just the victims of violations, the shift has moved towards poorer and marginalized individuals (Ahnen, 2003, p. 322). Organisations such as Witness and other NGOs play a crucial role in representing them, however, it’s always important to triangulate narratives where appropriate. These projects may help communities critically interpret NGOs narratives not just as a zero-sum game, but also as sometimes excluding the small nuances and counter-narratives which may exist.

Video in the rights toolbox doesn’t always come from an activist or protestor. In some cases, it’s weaponized by NGOs or organisations that have conflicting objectives; for example, between Survival International and the New Tribes Mission in Brazil. These two organisations have very different remits. Survival International looks out for the protection of uncontacted tribes and therefore advocates in Brazil, whereas the New Tribes Mission is an evangelical missionary group (based in the USA, with a presence in Brazil and now rebranded as Ethnos360) who seek to convert uncontacted tribes to Christianity.

The war between the two organisations has been raging for decades, however, the most recent battle this year stems from a promotional video posted by the New Tribes Mission. The video shows an evangelical preacher in front of a newly purchased helicopter saying they could now reach uncontacted tribes, which is illegal and unconstitutional as of 1987 in Brazil.

The video was then repurposed and re-edited by Survival International to reinforce their narrative that Jair Bolsonaro is allowing missionaries to expand into uncontacted tribes (Survival International, 2020). The tactical deployment of a video from an opposing NGO being weaponized against itself, is a relatively new development in terms of NGO strategies to get their narratives heard. Unfortunately, however, it can also be assumed that individuals who follow the New Tribes Mission believe in these values, finding the original video impressive, regardless of its legality or the ethical implications.

Survival International’s claim is ethically hard to argue against when evaluating Bolsonaros rhetoric on indigenous rights, and his appointment of an ex missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias, to the head position of FUNAI in 2019, the indigenous protection agency (Pontel De Souza, 2020). However, now he is no longer in that role as it was considered a conflict of interest by the Brazilian Supreme court. One major ethical concern is the current Covid-19 pandemic, and the effect it could have on indigenous peoples. Theoretically, if the law was upheld, uncontacted tribes would be the most protected individuals on Earth, however, this isn’t the case under Bolsonaro’s administration. Instead, there’s been a growing number of deaths in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory (Phillips, 2020), and Manaus was the epicenter of the virus with the Mayor releasing a Twitter video asking Greta Thunberg for help (Hope, 2020). 

Mayor of Manaus asks Greta Thunberg for help: Poder 360

If the New Tribes Mission pursues their objective to contact these tribes, like the Bandeirantes and Conquistadores before them, they could spread diseases of which indigenous peoples have no immunity to. The repurposing of the video by Survival International is an unapologetic and combative tactic in the fight to use video as a tool in global HR advocacy. 

Attributing this back to the idea of information subsidies and video content in the digital economy, and networked society (Salazar, 2006; Castells, 2010), NGOs no longer need to gain access to traditional media to fight their fight. However, as put forward by Thrall, Stecula, and Sweet (2014), larger NGOs do still have a monopoly in terms of their social media use, due to their already established credibility. Both Witness and Survival International were chosen here because of their outreach and financial liabilities, which places them in the middle threshold of NGOs (Survival International, 2018; Witness, 2018). Larger NGOs are able to leverage more social media due to infrastructure, internal resources, and name credibility such as Amnesty International and HRW. This establishes them as the media gatekeepers, who can overshadow other smaller NGOs trying to get their narratives heard on the human rights stage.

Unfortunately, it’s also hard to use video as evidence in court due to a lack of timestamping and geo-tagging (Aljazeera, 2016). However, the Guardian Project’s CameraV application embeds metadata into the pixels of a phone’s photo or video, including timestamps, geographical locations and device information. This is exceptionally important as this can subsequently be used as evidence. The application also allows the filmmaker to film without the camera settings displaying on the screen, which is good in the context of LAC, where the police frequently grab activists’ phones (ibid). 

Aljazeera A Bigger Brother — Rebel Geeks Two cyber-activists are creating a smartphone app so activists in Rio de Janeiro can securely document police violence

Where these applications aren’t available, Witness teaches techniques to help HRDs film video to make it credible as evidence. For example, in the case of Witness helping the Juba Wajiin Indigenous community in Mexico, they discovered that filming the sun provides a timestamp that can be recognised in court. 

This one-hour online workshop offers practical guidance for Native Americans and Indigenous activists interested in safely, ethically and effectively using video for evidence and advocacy. Copyright: Witness

Yet, with this leap forward comes another impending problem called the Deepfake. These have gained a huge amount of publicity in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially Brazil (Marshall, 2019; Tsavkko Garcia, 2019). Witness has planned for these since 2018 by putting forward recommendations to curb their spread (Paschoal and Gregory, 2019). The main arguments for combatting Deepfakes are advocating for wider regulatory policies from the creation platforms and also using AI networks called GAN’s to spot them, paradoxically weaponizing AI against itself (Marra et al., 2019). The framing of Deepfakes has focused on freedom of expression and democracy, however, little has been said about how they may become detrimental to the credibility of video as evidence. However, video manipulation can consequently help HRDs. For example, the Obscuracam application allows users to blur their faces before posting a video online (Guardian Project & Witness, 2016). This gives HRD’s a sense of amenity and security for using video as a form of evidence (Aljazeera, 2016).

None the less, this technology needs to be made more resilient when it comes to live-streamed videos. Live streaming is broadcasting a video live, and AI algorithms aren’t yet sophisticated enough to blur faces as the video is processed in real-time. Therefore, HRDs and NGOs need to collaborate and create methodologies that account for this constraint. One step could be turning off the DDR settings on the Livestream, which are built into many social media platforms, allowing the video to upload once the recording finishes. The best practices would be to save the video on an encrypted USB or Hard drive where the authorities don’t have access to it, before it’s reuploaded. Today it’s safe to assume authorities monitor Livestreams of demonstrations to provide intelligence to officers at the scene. In theory, officers could seek out live streaming activists and confiscate their devices, so it would thus be advisable for activists to film from a safe distance (Kayylai, 2017). 

These technologies are changing the narrative of legal proceedings and making HRDs feel safer about being able to release videos at a time they feel comfortable. There’ve been various instances where HRDs in LAC have had to either go into hiding, or received hate mail due to videos being posted in the wrong place at the wrong time (Aljazeera, 2016). This aspect of the video-makers’ safety is unfortunately seldom considered by policymakers in the Americas.

This means technologists are becoming important actors in HR, with many working for teams inside social media and video platforms, who collaborate with NGOs (McPherson, Thornton and Mahmoudi, 2020). The ‘technology for good’ sector is also becoming more prolific with the advent of new technologies such as live streaming. However, the domestic court system in some LAC states is slow, and when reacting to the IACHR tends to build further bureaucracy. Yet, Engstrom (2019) does suggest that this could actually be good, making the whole HR system stronger depending on how the domestic institutions are internally structured. Though this may be true, it’s also important to be aware of the pace of technological advances, and domestic institutions should be prepared to evolve quickly and accordingly. All HRDs, Policymakers and NGOs can do is continue lobbying to institutions to keep updating their procedures to ensure the safety of victims and witnesses.

NGOs used to have to lobby to get their cause onto traditional media to be seen by the public and potential donors (Gregory, 2006), but with social media this is no longer the case. Traditional media in the global north today thus tends to frame HR stories around war, with many Journalists having narrow understandings of HR frameworks (ibid). Pitching stories on the nuances of HR then becomes harder for NGOs operating in LAC to make the traditional news cycle. However, they can now rely on getting their stories into the mainstream via social media platforms to target specific donors. Nevertheless, this isn’t to say that their content is reproduced in a form conducive of clarity and authenticity, since much of the internet doesn’t have to meet regulatory frameworks, which in theory are supposed to hold major media outlets to account. This new type of social broadcasting is becoming a different kind of ‘information politics’ (ibid), though linkages to Keck and Sikkink’s (1998) original concept of an NGO’s success being dependent on mobilizing their members is still the same, only now the advocacy takes place online. Therefore, each actor in the HR system still has a sense of their narrative, and video is the perfect tool in which to disseminate those ideals.

However, NGOs can learn to listen more to democratic governments in LAC to broaden their strategies around constructing narratives on important issues. In turn governments, especially neoliberal ones who push for smaller states, should start to see NGOs as a tool to help flag problems which have fallen through the net. The bilateral combative positions NGOs and Governments adopt towards each other as seen in the case of Brazil, may not lead to wider systemic and structural changes for HR. Thus, the use of video as an advocacy tool in this environment where political narratives have to be maintained, becomes an ambivalent one. 

Video in the HR arsenal only works if all parties agree that video is a good method for holding actors accountable, then consequently agree on a narrative that actors should be held accountable. Governments and NGOs will therefore benefit from investing in wider multilateral HR media literacy programs, and educating individuals on how video can be a powerful tool. In turn, this will push its effectiveness and legal credibilities in obtaining rights for some of the most vulnerable individuals and communities across Latin America and the Caribbean.


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