Citizen Witnessing of Human Rights Abuses

Authored by: Stuart Allan

The Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights

Print publication date:  June  2017
Online publication date:  July  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138665545
eBook ISBN: 9781315619835
Adobe ISBN:


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Today’s global mediascape recurrently brings to light incidents where one of the most vital of human rights, the right to bear witness, becomes a site of political contestation. Time and again ordinary individuals have found themselves suddenly asserting this right, most likely generating precipitous forms of crisis reportage using a mobile camera – such as a smartphone – on their person. In the absence of professional journalists on the scene, some are compelled to document, best they are able, what they see, hear and feel for the benefit of distant others. ‘The amount of bystander footage shared online has skyrocketed, becoming a critical aspect of news and human rights reporting’, Madeleine Bair (2016) of WITNESS points out. ‘And yet it seems like every day we are faced with a new dilemma concerning the ethics of watching and sharing footage that is often intimate, horrific, or decontextualized’. She proceeds to pose several questions, which together pinpoint pressing challenges for organisations undertaking to mediate the significance of diverse types of visible evidence:

Does sharing videos by extremist organizations aid their goals of provoking fear and glamorizing violence, or is it a necessary part of reporting? Should eyewitnesses be asked permission before their videos are broadcast by news media, or would that hinder the reporting process? How can investigators and advocates report on abuse caught on camera without violating the privacy or impacting the security of those seen on video?

(Bair 2016)

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