Yvette Alberdingk Thijm is the executive director of WITNESS. Founded in 1992, WITNESS is a nonprofit organization that partners with more than 300 on the ground activist groups in over 80 countries by providing cutting-edge technology and media resources to promote justice and policy reform. Prior to her role at WITNESS, Ms. Alberdingk Thijm worked in the technology startup sector at JOOST, under the Skype founders, and at MTV Networks.
BPR: How does WITNESS go about understanding the cultural nuances and diverse understandings of what constitutes a breach of human rights?
YA: Those dynamics are definitely there – I don’t want to deny that. The first thing is, we’ll identify and work with groups in Malaysia with a Malaysian activist. So by becoming more of a global network and by relying on people who are part of the community, I think you’re really listening first to what the activists themselves are saying are important issues. You have to take your cues from local activists, who know their own cultural setting and political setting. They know how much risk they can take, they may know what moment is good to expose a certain abuse. You don’t know that if you were to come in from the outside.
For example, we work with a lot of groups in Mexico and throughout Latin America, and they will have their own sense of timing. When mining companies come in and get licenses to take over indigenous land, then it’s really the group [and] the community whose land it is who determines the course of action that they want to follow. But then, for us, it’s very helpful to say “these are some of the tactics of people who were forcibly evicted from their land in other countries” or “this is the way to tell your story and stay safe” or “this is how you can use video to push a local government to pressure to not grant these kind of licenses.” You’re coming in from an expertise perspective.
BPR: How can the media focus on human rights issues without having people become apathetic and unresponsive to an overload of images and content?
YA: Everything is contextual. You need to take your cues from a community. You need to make sure that ethically, when these stories are being shared, that that is what the community and the immediate family would want to know. Alan Kurdi is a very good example. Are there ways to share videos that ethically would be an acceptable way of doing it without violating privacy or without co-opting a story that is not your story? If you are sharing a video of a gay person in Russia being beaten up, can you do that without re-victimizing the person? On one hand, it’s really important that people know about this and that it can be used by advocacy groups. On the other hand, if you were to blur that person’s face, then that person themselves might be less re-victimized when that video is shared millions of times.
There are two things that we do about that. One is called the Technology Advocacy Program, where we look at very specific case studies in any particular country. We bring it back to Silicon Valley, and we say to them, “to promote freedom of expression, sometimes it’s important to disguise your real name or blur your face.” For example, we advocated for YouTube to include custom blur tool in their video editor.
The second thing is the WITNESS Media Lab, which is a project that very specifically looks at eyewitness videos and how we can make sure people use eyewitness videos better for human rights change. Also, we go back to the technology companies and say, “what is it about your policy that allows this direct abuse, stuff that directly incites or depicts violence, to stay on your platforms for this long?” We work with the technology companies to make sure that as they create new functionalities, the policies better take into account the kinds of abuses people are making on their platform.
BPR: How do you weigh the media content of a nonprofit organization like WITNESS against major media productions? Do you think that one type of outlet or the other is more effective in bringing issues to the public?
YA: We sit very much on the advocacy side of things. When we engage with people, there are people, concerned citizens, citizen journalists, media collectives, or human rights organizations all turning to video and technology, but they’re doing it to have an impact. We really believe that sometimes you just need to reach a small audience in order for very concrete change to actually happen. Sometimes it may even be a very small audience like a lawmaker, judge, or specific community that has discriminatory practices. We tend to be more focused on that.
I do think that there is a role for the media companies. Look at the new Snowden movie. If people were to see that movie and then could walk away from that with better understanding that the government can’t just take your data without telling you what they’re actually doing, that would be a win. But the reverse is also true. When Facebook shuts down the account of a woman who is live-streaming an act of police violence, Facebook is very much fulfilling a media role. When tech companies start to become the arbiters of free speech, it’s really important for all of us engaged to make sure that they’ll also play by the rules of society. I don’t think you can ever just trust private companies to act on behalf of citizens. My bet is on the people. My bet is probably not on the private companies, though technology companies play an important role in creating an environment in which people participate.