It was an ordinary day of skateboarding dog videos on YouTube last November when a harrowing clip appeared. The grainy shots from Egypt showed police officers beating and sodomizing a man with a nightstick. The clip had been distributed by Egyptian bloggers Wael Abbas and Hossam el-Hamalawy as a call to action against police brutality.
There was one problem. YouTube has strict guidelines against graphic sexual or violent material, and suspended the bloggers’ account. Eventually the story got picked up by other bloggers and the mainstream media, and sparked international outrage that led to the prosecution of the offending officers and the reactivation of Abbas and el-Hamalawy’s YouTube account.
But with thousands of undocumented abuses playing out around the world every day, the episode highlighted the potential for an online-video network devoted to human rights. Filling that void is the Hub (hub.witness.org), a video-sharing Web site launched by ex-rock star Peter Gabriel to empower people to document and publicize unseen atrocities. Now in beta, the Hub allows anyone around the world to submit clips to a central site where its target audience of activists can connect and take action. “It’s a YouTube for human rights,” Gabriel says. And it shows how the dynamics of social networking can be applied in powerful new ways.
The Hub is an offshoot of Witness, the Brooklyn-based human-rights nonprofit that Gabriel started in 1992 after learning the extent of abuses worldwide while headlining a concert tour sponsored by Amnesty International. “What I found extraordinary was that people could suffer in this way and have their stories completely buried,” he says. “But it seemed like whenever there was video evidence, it was very hard to deny and bury and forget.”
For the past 16 years, Witness has provided video cameras to carefully selected activists and community leaders in more than 100 countries. The group has amassed one of the largest existing collections of human-rights-abuse footage and has shown its videos to policy makers and human-rights groups around the world. There have been plenty of success stories as a result, from the arrest of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo for war crimes in the Congo to raising money for land-mine victims in Senegal. Just last year, “Crying Sun,” a Witness video on the impact of war on the community of the North Caucasus mountains, was presented to Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, whose private militia had been widely criticized by human-rights organizations. Afterward, Kadyrov funded the rebuilding of homes, a school, a medical center, and other infrastructure.
Despite Witness’s achievements, though, the logistical challenge of getting citizens equipped and trained has been a major limitation. “Some cameras don’t make it where they’re supposed to go, or people don’t know what way the film goes in,” Gabriel explains. Not to mention it’s simply impossible to get cameras in everyone’s hands. In recent years, however, technology has provided an answer: cell phones. As handset makers began building both still and video cameras into their phones, ordinary people suddenly had the means — and power — to document their lives.
“Once everyone has a camera inside a mobile phone, the issue is about creating a place where people can upload footage safely and make connections with people who might further their cause and their campaigns,” Gabriel says. “That’s the dream for the Hub.” The site also lets users comment on the content and eventually will host discussion groups, online petitions, and interactive maps. As on YouTube or Facebook, users will have their own profile pages with news related to their efforts.
To finance the project, Witness raised $2 million from individual and foundation sources, including Cinereach and Omidyar Network.
The Hub’s executive director, Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, who was previously executive vice president of Joost, has initially focused on establishing a system to screen submitted videos before sending them out to the world. Editors at the Hub review each video for propaganda as well as privacy concerns. They know well that some users could be subject to harassment, arrest, or worse if their identities were revealed. Since launching in December, roughly 1,442 videos have been posted on the Hub.
Eric Tars, the human-rights staff attorney for the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty in Washington, D.C., typifies the Hub’s early adopters. In February, Tars attended a meeting of the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to advocate for issues such as housing rights for domestic-violence victims and affordable housing. While there, Tars caught early word of a UN report condemning the destruction of public housing in New Orleans. Rather than having to wait and hope for the word to trickle down to his constituents in grassroots advocacy groups, he took to the Hub, uploading detailed video blogs about the news. “In the past, we could get maybe a couple of news stories or op-eds; now we have over 6,000 views — from our constituency,” Tars says.
The challenge going forward, says Gabriel, is “to scale up effectively.” YouTube recently launched its own channel of human-rights videos from various sources — including Witness. But so far, there’s no other site that’s cultivating a community around the videos that can translate awareness into action.
“There will be more challenges,” says Thijm, who is working to develop both a mobile version of the site and applications that will run on platforms including Symbian and iPhone. “But it’s up to people to change the world. Technology is a tool. How we use it is what counts.”
Correction: We incorrectly stated the number of human-rights videos that have been uploaded to the Hub as 1,400. The correct number is 1,442. We regret the error.