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Ubiquitous witnesses: who creates the evidence and the live(d) experience of human rights violations?

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Contemporary human rights activism and witnessing includes a range of new participants. Their practice operates at the intersection of established and emerging forms of documentation and advocacy. Questions about the roles of ‘citizen witnesses’ and ‘citizen investigators’ parallel concerns in the news-gathering world around ‘citizen journalists’. Two poles of the current paradigm of citizen witnessing manifest how existing professional norms and activist practices are being disrupted. Citizens act as first-hand responders on the scene of human rights violations, documenting for potential evidentiary value. As the volume of videos from a context like Syria depicting potential war crimes reaches half a million, questions arise as to how this citizen documentation relates to current and historical paradigms of human rights and justice documentation. In another context, on-the-scene witnesses in locations such as Brazil livestream video from the sites of violations to others who are co-present, watching those livestreams from other locations as ‘distant witnesses’. Using examples and documented practices from Syria, Brazil as well as the emergent methods of media collectives and human rights groups such as WITNESS, this paper explores the characteristics of these witnessing contexts, how they relate to established ideas of witnessing and human rights practice, and the emergent ‘pain points’ that create tension with those existing norms. Finally, the paper develops a set of speculations on the practical possibilities of a more meaningful image and experience-based solidarity activism at the intersection of trends in live and immersive video, ‘co-presence’ technologies for shared experience at a distance, and task-routing technologies that make use of distributed movements. The paper concludes with the ethical questions around this type of vicarious experience.
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Keywords: citizen journalism; co-presence; evidence; human rights; livestreaming; video; witnessing

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: WITNESS, New York, NY, USA

Publication date: November 2, 2015

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