Video activists risk everything to film human rights violations. But unverified footage can’t stand in newsrooms or courtrooms, so their efforts may be in vain. How can activists prevent that? Archivist Yvonne Ng explains a few simple steps they can take.

Citizens and activists are using video to document human rights violations like never before. They do so largely because they hope that researchers, journalists, and courts of law will use their videos to hold perpetrators responsible. But it doesn’t always work that way.

Metadata, information about the video, can be critical to verifying a video.
Metadata, information about the video, can be critical to verifying a video.

If a video cannot be proven as authentic, reliable, and accurate in a timely manner then its potential to provide corroboration and context to a situation, to push for an investigation, or to prove a fact is diminished. Journalistic organizations like Storyful, our partner on the Human Rights Channel, employ complex processes to help them determine what they can trust—and what they cannot trust. And sometimes, the length of time needed for the verification process can influence whether or not a video is used. In the first case of the Extraordinary Chamber of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) against “Duch,” the former Chairman of the Khmer Rouge S-21 Security Center, for example, video evidence shot by the Vietnamese Army was excluded because it would have taken too long to determine its reliability (and because it was considered cumulative evidence).

So how can activists and citizen journalists ensure that their videos can serve as credible evidence of violations?

Concepts from the archival world, where I come from, can inform better everyday practices. Creators and collectors can use archival principles of authenticity, provenance, and responsible custody to guide their handling of their own human rights video documentation. While there are no hard-and-fast rules on what researchers, courts, or news media will accept as reliable video evidence, here are some basic practical suggestions adapted from archival thinking:

  • Keep the “original” video file, i.e. an exact bit-for-bit copy of the file created by the camera (no alterations to content or changes to the format or specifications): This is the authentic object. To demonstrate the video’s integrity over time, run periodic fixity checks (e.g. hash functions).
  • Document the creator’s identity: The notion of authenticity is tied to the creator or author. It means that the person represented as the creator is in fact the creator. Document this information in any form that can be associated with the video (e.g. stated or shown in the video, embedded in the file data, a separate text document, a record in a database) to make the process of identification and verification easier.
  • Document the date/time and location of recording: Authenticity also means that a video was in fact created when and where it purports to have been created. Documenting this information also makes the identification and verification process easier. You can also do this in any way that can be associated with the video (see above).
  • Ensuring that your camera is set to accurately record the date and time can be crucial for verification.
    Ensuring that your camera is set to accurately record the date and time can be crucial for verification.

    Document contextual information: Contextual information such as a description of events and how it was recorded helps clarify what is going on in the video. Specific contextual information (e.g. age of a child soldier, affiliation and rank of a perpetrator) helps link your evidence to a particular crime or violation. This information supplements the video, contributing to its sufficiency, completeness, and reliability as a record.

  • Document the chain of custody: The chain of custody is the “paper trail” of who has handled or stored the video file from the moment it was recorded. An unbroken chain of custody is a marker of integrity and authenticity. An unbroken chain of custody can be established with a credible document that shows when and where the file originated, who has handled the file, where is has been stored, and evidence that the file data is intact.

There are a few other elements that are not related to maintaining authenticity and reliability, but also important for making your evidentiary video usable from a technical, legal, and ethical perspective:

  • Make a playable copy if needed: Over time or depending on available technologies, your original video file may be unplayable by your user. While keeping your original video file unaltered and intact, create a copy in another format that can be viewed/used.
  • Document security/privacy restrictions: People depicted in videos may request or require certain restrictions on the use of their identity or likeness in certain contexts. Respecting these wishes is part of being a good, trustworthy custodian. Document this information so you know how a video can be ethically used for evidence or other purposes.
  • Document rights / permissions: Video creators and owners have certain legal rights to their videos. Most news organizations and researchers will want to know if a video has been cleared for use, and legal courts may have discretion to exclude evidence that is not obtained legally. Document the rightsholder’s name and terms of use so you know how you can share your video with others.

In the coming months, we will be exploring some of these elements in more detail in a blog series devoted to archiving and preserving human rights video. Please let us know if you have any questions, comments, or topics you would like to see covered!

Yvonne Ng is the Archivist at WITNESS, where she manages a collection of over 5000 human rights videos shot by our partners around the world.

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