Human Rights Organizations and New Media -- Natural Partners?

In recent years, global human rights organizations have increasingly implemented new media such as cell phones and the Internet in their work, benefiting from the opportunities they give:
Membership drives are capitalized by the options offered by new technologies, and violations against human rights are increasing reported through photos or videos uploaded online.


New media applications such as cell phones and the Internet can greatly influence political decisions. On August 22, 2008 an American air strike in Afghanistan killed more than 30 civilians. At first, the U.S. military admitted to having killed only five to seven civilians. But additional evidence came to the fore, including cell phone pictures that showed additional bodies, resulting in a new formal investigation to determine the facts.

Human rights organizations have been limited by their lack of data in past decades, but today videos and photos shot by cell phones are easily uploaded on the Internet and used to prove violations against human rights. One of the first – famous – episodes showing how videos are able to protect human rights was the police violence against construction worker Rodney Glen King, who became the reluctant symbol of police brutality in 1991. The episode was videotaped by George Holliday and the clip hit the news media around the world. Afterwards the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) was reformed. The picture shows a snapshot of the video clip, which is available on Youtube.


Amnesty Lifeline A Participating Project

Since 2004, the human rights organization Amnesty International has established a new kind of signature collection in Sweden, Norway and Denmark consisting of petitions,which people can "sign" using their cell phones to protest against specific global cases. The technology is new, but the idea is quite old: The signature from the cell phone is similar to signatures collected in street recruiting.

In Denmark, the signature application is called Amnesty Lifeline. More than 10,000 Danes are affiliated in the project, and every time they choose to sign, a payment of approximately 50 cents (3 Danish Kroner) is charged to their accounts. (According to Morten Jørgensen, consultant for Amnesty Denmark and the coordinator for the Lifeline project, this amount only covers the costs to the telecom company and is not a way of founding Amnesty’s activities.)

When the members of Amnesty Lifeline receive a sms, it may sound like this one:

"Stop the humanitarian crisis in [name of country]!
Sign a letter to the minister of foreign affairs
Per Stig Møller and make him act now.
SMS: APPEL to 1231. Read more: amnesty.dk"

Each year, 25 notification updates are sent from Amnesty Denmark to Danish cell phones, and close to half the numbers of members participate each time. The technology used enhances attention to specific human rights cases, and could come to replace the face-to-face street recruiting for Amnesty Denmark's staff.

The Hub A Way to Prove Human Rights Abuses

Human rights organizations are also using new media to document human rights abuses. One of the best and most developed examples is The Hub, the world’s first participatory media site for human rights, where it is possible to upload video, photos and audio, and to watch, comment on and share the content of the site.

The site is created by the human rights organization Witness and the site is similar to projects like Youtube. However, the uploaded videos have the purpose of demonstrating when human rights are violated, and thus encourage citizens to take action. Witness has existed for 16 years. It operates in 70 countries with 250 partner organizations, and currently some 3,000 hours of video is available on The Hub. Witness' mandate is not just to create a space for video material and advocacy, but also to use and link the material on an appropriate and timely fashion.

Witness cooperates with local video producers. One of its recent videos is a short (4 min.) documentary about resistance against the military junta of Burma: "This is our home Standing for Freedom in Burma". (Viewers should be warned about the violent content in the video.)

Video documentation can also make a significant difference in human rights work. The Egyptian journalist and prominent blogger Wael Abbas is not afraid of posting videos about police abuse from his country on his own blog and on The Hub. Some examples provided evidence that sent the abusers to prison in the following chronology:
  1. Fall 2007: Wael Abbas receives a raw cell phone video clip by e-mail, showing a police officer binding and sodomizing a detainee.
  2. Abbas uploads the video to his blog The Egyptian Awareness and on Youtube.
  3. Local bloggers and human rights activists from Egypt circulate the video on the Internet.
  4. The international blogosphere gets engaged.
  5. A November 2007 trial finds two police officers guilty. The video is an important factor that led to the conviction of the officers, each of them sentenced to three years in prison.

Youtube decided to suspend Wael Abbas' account in November 2007 due to what is called "inappropriate content" (Wael Abbas blog on his Facebook account was suspended November 2, 2008.)
In 2007, Wael Abbas won the Knight International Journalism Award, a prize awarded by the International Center for Journalists.

Gaza-Sderot People Expressing Themselves in a Conflict Area

In general, human rights documentation efforts seldom show positive material. However, a brand new project, broadcast by the French-German television station ARTE, has put an effort into showing the mixed picture which exists in the conflict area between Palestine and Israel. The project is called Gaza-Sderot. Two of the six main characters from the two cities Gaza (Palestine) and Sderot (Israel) are portrayed in short video chronicles each day for two months, suggesting that it is actually possible to achieve understanding and peace-building across borders through humanizing your enemy.

The main goal of the project is to:

"Report on the lives of men, women and children in two cities on the Israeli Palestinian border. Tell about the reality on both sides. Despite many dangers, air bombings and rocket attacks, those people never stop working, loving, and dreaming. Life despite everything ... Every day, one video from Palestine, the other one from Israel. One without the other only would show part of the reality."

On October 25, 2008, the project Gaza-Sderot won a prize for the Best European Emerging Media Project of the Year 2008 at the media festival "Prix Europa" which took place in Berlin.

November 17, 2008, Sderot:

November 17, 2008, Gaza:

Challenges for the Future

There is a missing link between engaging people and gaining results from this engagement. Human rights organizations must ask themselves, now they have succeeded in empowering people at a grassroots level, how will they motivate them to take action? It is one thing to join a protest group on a social network like Facebookor to sign up on Amnesty Lifeline, but it is quite another to actually accomplish something constructive with one's engagement.

Regarding membership drives, some questions are:

When it comes to the video documentation of human rights abuses, one of the biggest problems is the need to protect the security of the persons portrayed and to maintain ethical standards. For example, The Hub is an open space with no verification process for the videos uploaded.

The organizations working with this type of technology also struggle with other questions:

It will be interesting to see how human rights organizations address these challenges and create new norms(questions that are beyond the scope of this project).


New media is a valuable asset to human rights work when it comes to increasing membership drive and offering evidence of abuses that can lead to a trial. However, organizations face new challenges when working with new technologies, and must create new protocols in the years to come.

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