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Home / News

Pictures Worth a Thousand Protests

2003-10-28 09:28:03

By Julia Scheeres
Wired News
October 17, 2003
Click here for the full article

The images captured by the amateur video are repulsive: a bound man's throat is hacked repeatedly with a knife until his blood spreads in a dark pool around him.

The real-life snuff film is one of many such clips that the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan published online to document atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists long before extremists flew airplanes into buildings Sept. 11, 2001.

RAWA is part of a modern generation of activists around the world who are relying on new technologies -- from hidden cameras to satellite communication -- to collect evidence of wrongdoing, promote their causes or simply provide an alternative voice to the mainstream press.

In Argentina, forensic anthropologists are usingDNA analysis in an attempt to identify thousands of people who were killed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and whose bodies were dumped in mass or unmarked graves.

In Iraq, several locals have started Internet blogsto provide alternative accounts of the U.S. invasion of their country.

Around the globe, indigenous tribes are mapping their ancestral land boundaries using global satellite positioning systems to guard against depredations by local governments and private companies.

Activists also have become tech innovators. Greenpeace, for example, has developed a solar-powered camera capable of streaming images over the Internet in real time from remote locations, as well as software to send uninterrupted images via satellite.

The Internet has played a key role in these campaigns. Groups like MoveOn.org-- a network of 2 million progressive activists -- use the Web to galvanize members and inform them of key political events.

"The Internet, of course, is a balancing factor right now, and many (activists) are finding ways to get around the mainstream press by publicizing and streaming on the Web," said Jeff Taylor, part of a collective of independent producers called the Video Activist Network, which publishes much of its work online.

The group's most recent work, We Interrupt This Empire, depicts the antiwar movement in San Francisco in the aftermath of the U.S. strikes on Iraq.

And in a world impatient for visual proof of wrongdoing, more and more activists are using images to prove their points.

One of the biggest proponents of this seeing-is-believing philosophy is Witness, a group that has placed video cameras in the hands of human rights groups. Founded by musician Peter Gabriel in 1992, the nonprofit has worked with 150 groups worldwide to expose socials ills ranging from the systematic rape of girls and women during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war to sweatshops in New York.

Gabriel was inspired by the 1991 home video that captured the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles -- imagery that became the crucial evidence in the subsequent police brutality trial. Witness films have been used in legal proceedings, to counteract "official" human rights reports and to force institutional change.

A film the group co-produced with Mental Disability Rights International, for example, recently led to the closure of several abusive psychiatric hospitals in Mexico.

In some instances, the mere presence of a Witness video camera has been enough to ward off violence during confrontations with armed men. On the Philippine island of Mindanao, for example, indigenous activists say their equipment protected them against sugar company thugs trying to drive them off their land.

"In the Philippines, our partners report that the camera is a shield, reminding attackers and officials alike about the possibility of accountability for their actions," said Witness program manager Sam Gregory. "They also talk about the protective potential felt by exposed local groups in knowing that there is a global public who will view images they shoot, and who will act on their behalf."

RAWA members used miniature camcorders hidden under their shroud-like burqas to compile footage of Taliban cruelties, including publicexecutions, amputations andbeatings to generate an international outcry against the fundamentalist regime and to collect funds to build hospitals and schools.

Counterintuitively, the grainy, unpolished images captured by organizations like RAWA may be more damning than the sleek documentaries of more monied groups.

"Video activists have to be conscious that some or all of their media may end up as broadcast mainstream or in international courts, so any attempt to alter will be detected," said Peter Wintonick, whose film Seeing Is Believingexplores the link between technology and activism. "Watermarks are fine, but everything can be hacked. So ethical integrity and trust are the only tools one needs."

Wintonick's film narrates several instances where tech helped instigate social revolutions.

In the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, camcorder evidence was used to convict military leaders for the massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

In the Philippines, text messaging played a key role in the ouster of President Joseph Estrada. When Estrada's impeachment trial on corruption charges was suspended indefinitely in January 2001, outraged citizens messaged each other the news, and within two hours, 150,000 protestors stormed downtown Manila to demand Estrada's resignation. They kept their vigil for four days -- until a new president was sworn in to office.

A mural in Manila memorializes the uprising and the importance of cell phones in sparking the popular revolt.


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