A still from the video shows a man watching Rohingya homes burn in Burma/Myanmar.

Only six words accompany the video. But they are just enough background needed for the one minute and seven seconds it depicts: “ROHINGYA MUSLIM VILLAGE IN ANDI VILLAGE 2.” Uploaded on July 13, the shaky images reveal a town engulfed in flames. Young men rush past the camera, while a man throws a bucket of water onto a rooftop, and in the distance smoke rises as high as the palm trees. What it lacks in narration it makes up for with images that illustrate the issue human rights observers had been highlighting for weeks: an ethnic cleansing of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims.

Every day at the Human Rights Channel, we watch videos like this one. Videos from regular citizens around the world who choose to point their cameras at what unfolds before their eyes. And presumably, they upload and share their videos because they hope others will bear witness. Others might care.

In May, WITNESS along with our partners at Storyful and YouTube, launched the Human Rights Channel as an effort to ensure that when a concerned individual takes out a camera and presses record, the act is not vain. By providing a dedicated space to curate and contextualize verified citizen video, we help those witnesses find an audience. And we give reporters, concerned citizens, and advocates a window into the experiences of human rights defenders and documenters around the world.

Since we began, we have curated nearly 2,500 videos from 87 countries. Often these videos are the only record of a singular abuse or struggle for rights. In this season of roundups and retrospection, we reflect on 2012 as seen through the raw footage of citizen cameras.

Citizen journalists have never been more important than they are today in Syria

This video shows a stream of cars threading through wreckage on their way out of Damascus.

In a country under siege by its own government, reporters have been banned, kidnapped, and killed. Our ongoing Watching Syria playlist curates footage of the war from the only people left to cover it: Syrians, many of whom never previously picked up a camera.

Their videos have documented the shelling of urban areas, the grim aftermath of air strikes, and the apparent use of chemical weaponsby government forces. While those are critical to exposing and documenting potential crimes of the Syrian regime, the images that linger in memory are not those of destruction but the ones that portray life during wartime.

There is the windowsill view of a caravan of residents leaving bombarded Damascus, or the scene of young children hanging out, unremarkable but for the rubble-strewn street on which they play. The amateur videography of Syrian residents is bringing us the most intimate scenes of life during wartime that outsiders have ever witnessed.

The idea of a “media blackout” may soon be a thing of the past

Repressive governments the world over have tried to stifle protests and hide abuses by banning reporting by independent or foreign media. This is true in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where Omar al-Bashir has forbidden all journalists to travel. Allegations of ethnic persecution by the Sudan Armed Forces could have too easily been refuted if not for Nuba Reports, a collective of community reporters. Their footage tells the stories of thousands of Nubans living in caves after fleeing the Sudanese army, and they are some of the most compelling videos we’ve seen this year, by citizen or professional journalists.

Citizens are breaking the silence on human rights abuses in other repressed societies. Courageous Burmese journalists and citizens are filming discreetly and with the help of exiles to expose abuse the state media won’t cover. And in Zimbabwe, which ranks near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, an NGO helped locals furtively report on the poor state of education in the country, and leaked the video for distribution.

Individuals everywhere are standing up to demand their rights

2012 was the year of austerity and of anti-austerity protests. While the financial woes of Greece and Western Europe captured the attention of U.S. news media, citizen journalists brought us video of protests on every continent. Our Education Protests playlist featured footage from Sri Lanka, Croatia, Chile, and elsewhere, revealing the commonality of citizens’ desire for accessible quality education.

We need more citizen witness video to combat human rights abuses

To be clear, citizen media is quite different than traditional journalism. The videos we curate rarely contain narration, attempts at analysis, or pretenses of objectivity. The Human Rights Channel is one of a growing number of efforts to provide the curation, authentication, and context needed to make sense of the stories they tell, and it is an ever more critical task. As we witnessed this year across the world, videos taken by citizen witnesses are playing an increasingly important role in shaping our contemporary news footage and permanent historical record.

Protesters gather in Zimbabwe, a country that is extremely difficult for mainstream journalists to cover.

The accessibility of cameras and ease of worldwide distribution has exposed more human rights stories than ever before to the media, courts, and international bodies.

But the deluge of raw video should not placate us into believing that every violation of rights is caught by a citizen-cum-witness. There are still countless countries, communities, and institutions where video cameras are confiscated, videographers are attacked, or the state controls distribution of citizen media.

As we look forward to 2013, we hope for a new year of even more citizen video. We will continue to amplify these windows into human rights issues, and will seek better ways to contextualize the content and share it with audiences who can make a difference. I invite you to browse the channel and share your thoughts. What videos resonate with you? What under-covered stories do you want to see more of?

Though our lens gives us a sometimes bloody, and very often disturbing view of current affairs, videos on the Human Rights Channel overall depict a spirit of resilience. Recently, a frequent citizen journalist from the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor shared some of the most compelling footage we’ve added to our Watching Syria playlist. His camera captured the sun setting over the city—a simple and sublime reminder of the peace that Syrians are fighting for, and their determination to enjoy liberty and happiness where and when they can find it, as fleeting as those moments may be.


Madeleine Bair curates the Human Rights Channel a WITNESS project, powered by Storyful, hosted on YouTube. Follow her at @MadBair, and follow the Channel at @ytHumanRights.

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