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making the whole world a witness

What would happen if the victims of human rights abuses could tell their own stories to the world? Could they win some level of safety and peace?
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San Salvador—As the midmorning sun beats down and the humidity traps the fumes and exhaust from buses and cars, a group of young Salvadorans set up cameras among the people and pigeons in a public park. As they work, they attract a lot of attention from bystanders, including the police, who don't stop them, but continue to watch with suspicious eyes.

Learning how to film that suspicion is the reason the group is there. They are setting up their cameras under the leadership of Sam Gregory, the program coordinator for a group called Witness that is providing film training for Entre Amigos (“Between Friends”), an organization of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people in El Salvador. The group plans to document the discrimination and abuse its members suffer from authorities as part of a campaign for reforms. But before any of that can happen, they have to learn how to make videos, which is where Gregory and Witness come in. Gregory knows that effective training requires practice in public where circumstances aren't as easily controlled as they are in the backyard where the training sessions began.

Witness is a nonprofit organization that uses video and other communications technology to promote and defend human rights. Over the course of 10 years it has trained 150 partner organizations in more than 50 countries. The groups vary by cause as well as location, ranging from a South America-based group of scientists who solve human rights crimes to a U.S.-based group focusing on juvenile incarceration.

The scope of Witness's work hasn't always been so broad. It was founded in 1992 by the British musician Peter Gabriel, after an amateur photographer videotaped the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and drew international attention to human rights abuses in the United States. If a video recorded by chance could have so powerful an effect, Gabriel thought, why not record international abuses more purposefully? He joined with the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation to start Witness. It began with two staff members, a budget of $150,000, and a primary concentration on providing cameras. Today Witness is an independent organization with 11 full-time staff members and eight on-site volunteers who work from a large loft in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, and camera training is only part of their work.

In 1996 Witness helped its partners at the Global Survival Network produce “Bought and Sold,” a documentary based on an undercover investigation of the Russian mafia's involvement in trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union. Footage from the film was picked up by ABC News, BBC and CNN and was the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times.

The media attention produced results: President Clinton issued an executive order allocating $10 million to fight violence against women, with special emphasis on trafficking. The issue received more attention after Madeleine Albright put it on the agenda in her meetings with heads of state, and in 2000 the United Nations passed a transnational protocol to prevent trafficking. That year, the U.S. Congress also passed the Trafficking Victims Protections Act.

Following the success of the “Bought and Sold” campaign, Witness hired Gillian Caldwell, who had participated in the trafficking investigation as co-director of Global Survival Network, to be its first executive director. Under Caldwell's watch, Witness installed a full-time production and editing facility on site and the number of its in-house productions increased from three to 30 in two years.

She also led the group to make greater use of the Internet. Besides explaining the work of the organization and its partners, the Witness website (www.Witness.org) features “Rights Alert,” webcasts that highlight footage from partner organizations with accompanying narratives and suggestions for action.

“We were one of the first nonprofit organizations with sophisticated Web broadcasting on the Net,” Caldwell says. “It was getting about a hundred hits a month in 1998. We get over 1.5 million hits a month now.”

As it has grown, Witness has won the attention of media celebrities and government officials. Actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins serve on the board of directors, and films are narrated by performers such as Q-Tip, a rap artist. As the group's visibility has increased, the number of Witness partners has increased by more than 40 in the past four years, and the applications continue to come in. The group has expanded its focus from civil rights to include social, economic, and cultural rights as well.

Witness is also beginning to train some of its long-term partners to do video and editing training themselves. Joey Lozano, a freelance journalist from the Philippines, first became interested in the role of the media when he noticed the lack of reporting on human rights abuses during the Marcos dictatorship. Working with Witness, Lozano began training groups in rural areas in basic journalism and broadcasting. One group was Nakamata, a coalition of 10 indigenous peoples organizations working to secure land rights on the island of Mindanao. After three indigenous leaders were murdered in 2001, Lozano and Nakamata documented the crime in a video that Witness broadcast on its website. A Philippines investigative news program also aired the footage. Because of the local and international attention, the National Bureau of Investigation conducted an inquiry that led to the indictment of three people for murder. A film featuring Lozano and Nakamata recently won the Abraham Award at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

Sandrine Isambert, a former video editor for Witness, also helped train partners. “Once partners see the process of editing, they understand shooting and scripting better,” she says. Isambert worked closely with the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team), one of the world's premier groups of scientists involved in human rights work. The team combines clues from interviews, exhumation of human remains, and laboratory analyses to solve crimes, identify victims, and return their remains to their families. Testifying before courts and international tribunals, E.A.A.F. has been instrumental in bringing to justice government officials from places like Argentina and Haiti for abuses committed during the 1980s and 90s. Witness helped the group produce and distribute a video, “When Bones Talk,” explaining its work in layman's terms for representatives of governments and nongovernmental organizations.

Gregory, who has a background in both commercial film production and human rights activism and is fluent in Spanish, is the primary contact and instructor for Witness's Latin American partners.

In 2002, Gregory conducted a monthlong training program in Central America. He spent two weeks in villages on the northern coast of Honduras working with the Comité de Emergencia Garífuna de Honduras (Garífuna Emergency Committee of Honduras). An indigenous group working on sustainable development, the Comité has faced arson and death threats from wealthy developers in local communities. Gregory helped the group film and edit footage of abuses committed recently in various Garífuna villages. He also spent time in Guatemala, working with Jesus Tecú Osorio, a survivor of Guatemala's civil war, who has been documenting the effects of the war on its victims and survivors. And Gregory conducted the training in El Salvador for Entre Amigos, a new Witness partner.

Because the clientele of Entre Amigos is primarily working class and poorly educated, the first challenge the group faces with new members is to help them understand their rights. Another challenge facing Entre Amigos is getting the government to enforce these rights. In El Salvador 75,000 people disappeared or were killed during a 12-year civil war that ended only 10 years ago. Although a democratic system has been in place since 1994, effects of the war linger—there is an extremely high poverty and crime rate and such a proliferation of guns that supermarkets post signs asking customers to check their weapons before shopping. Since El Salvador is still in the process of establishing basic rule of law and civil rights, addressing discrimination based on sexual orientation is not a priority.

At the initial training session last July, even before the cameras were brought in, Gregory encouraged the group to clarify its goals for the use of video.

In El Salvador, ordinances originally designed to fine lewd behavior in public are turning into excuses for illegal detainment and harassment of gays and transsexuals openly displaying affection. Abuses are common in the prison system, with guards harassing homosexual and transgender inmates and placing them with others who are openly homophobic. So Gregory discussed different ways to record and document such abuses.

The second day focused on technical camera training. Gregory explained that Entre Amigos would be using digital hand-held cameras and passed two of them around the group. Then he showed a video on how to use the cameras, stopping the tape to demonstrate each time it introduced a new topic. He made sure everyone in the room handled a camera and tried the techniques.

The group then moved outside to practice in the backyard, where they immediately faced lighting and sound challenges. Next they practiced filming in public, staging an interview with one of the Entre Amigos members, who pointed out where last year's gay pride parade took place.

The last day of the training focused on editing. Like a television cook who prepares different parts of a meal in advance, Gregory worked at night on his computer, logging and editing footage shot that day so that the group could see the various stages of the process. Almost all of the Entre Amigos participants see the process of editing as the link to everything they learned. With an understanding of editing, members of the group say, they see how future footage can be tailored to fit their goals and advance their cause.

William Hernández, the director of Entre Amigos, remarks that what the group has learned during the week will permanently change the nature of its work. Joaquín Cáceres, Entre Amigos' director of educational programming, agrees, emphasizing that Gregory has provided more than just camera training; he has given the group a strategy. “It's a tool we will utilize as much as possible to help spur people into action.”


This article originally appeared in FFR, the Ford Foundation Report, Winter 2003. Dana Hughes is a staff writer for FFR.

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