The West Bank and Gaza challenge the most seasoned reporters. But B’Tselem and its citizen reporters use meticulous context and unwavering integrity to make human rights into headlines.

Editor’s Note: Using citizen video effectively requires significant knowledge both on the part of the journalist, and the citizen journalist. B’Tselem, an Israeli citizen journalism organization, has developed a carefully structured process to maximize communication, trust, and impact. In this edition of Citizen Video for Journalists, the Human Rights Channel’s Madeleine Bair talks with B’Tselem’s Yoav Gross about how to ensure that citizen videos have credibility in a contentious situation.

Madeleine Bair: B’Tselem equips residents of the Palestinian territories with cameras, and trains them to document their lives and the challenges brought about by the occupation. What do these ordinary people capture that the media do not, and why is that?

In the "Six Cameras" project, B’Tselem and the Guardian gave six Palestinians and Israelis cameras to create video diaries of their lives in occupied East Jerusalem.
In the “Six Cameras” project, B’Tselem and the Guardian gave six Palestinians and Israelis cameras to create video diaries of their lives in occupied East Jerusalem.

Yoav Gross: In comparison with other areas on the globe, the West Bank and Gaza might seem to many to be “flooded” with media. This is true in a sense, but it also misses a point. Traditional media, including local outlets, tend to go to the most expected places, and film the familiar shots over and over again. Both Israelis and Palestinians are tired of hearing the same news, and media outlets are less inclined to send crews to film an “occupation.” This leaves a great deal of space for citizen journalists, and the West Bank contains many of them.

Our model of citizen journalism is based on working with the “regular” local population, rather than with activists, and many of the videos we publish are filmed from windows, balconies and roofs rather than by someone involved in the incidents. This, I think, gives the videos a special quality, and helps the Israeli audience see the reality from the eyes, or camera lenses, of ordinary Palestinians. It is also important in terms of access, and allows us to monitor and document incidents that occur daily in Palestinian streets and fields.

MB: B’Tselem has developed a relationship with the media to get the word out about human rights violations in the occupied territories. What role does video play in that relationship?

Yoav Gross: In the last 5 years, video grew to be a central and organic part of our human rights work. We use video daily – from field research and information gathering, to frequent use of videos as evidence in our work with Israeli authorities, to video distribution as a central tool in advocating policy change and accountability.

In July 2008 B’Tselem uncovered a video filmed by a young Palestinian woman from the village of Ni’lin. The video depicted a soldier firing a rubber coated metal bullet at a handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian detainee from a short range, in the presence of a lt. Colonel.
In July 2008 B’Tselem uncovered a video filmed by a young Palestinian woman from the village of Ni’lin. The video depicted a soldier firing a rubber coated metal bullet at a handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian detainee from a short range, in the presence of a lt. Colonel.

Just this week, two cases documented by our camera volunteers were highlighted by Israeli media. In the first, a video that the volunteers shot helped to secure the release of three Palestinians who were unlawfully arrested in Hebron. In the second, our volunteers documented Israeli security forces failing to protect Palestinians from revenge attacks by settlers after an Israeli settler was killed by a Palestinian. In both cases, it is very probable that the story was published and read by hundreds of thousands of Israelis only because there was powerful video evidence to back it up.

Many Israelis are very comfortable with looking away from the human rights violations in the West Bank, and the media is often reluctant to publish these items. Having a strong video helps B’Tselem get stories about this daily reality published, and get the public conversation going.

MB: What have been the challenges and successes in building that relationship?

Yoav Gross: Being an organization that exposes what some would prefer to leave in the shadows has it costs. Many people would like to see our videos discredited, and almost every time we publish a video, it is met with accusations of forgery.

This challenge made us develop a very strict methodology for working with the media, taking extra measures to protect our videos from claims of forgery. We always begin with field research, building a full and reliable picture of the incident and making sure no questions are left unanswered. We publish and send the media all of the relevant footage from the incident, even when it is quite long—we sometimes create long and elaborate playlists that contain all raw clips from an incident. We always accompany the video press release with well researched text to contextualize the video.

Videos that don’t adhere to our strict standards of verification are not published.

MB: How did B’Tselem develop a relationship of trust with the local media?

Yoav Gross: B’Tselem has been around for 24 years, and is quite a recognized name locally. The fact that the video project grew out of an organization respected for its integrity and credibility was, and still is, critical in distributing our videos to the local and international media.

Born in Jerusalem, Yoav Gross is a documentary filmmaker and the Video Department Director at B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Graduating from Tel Aviv University with a B.A in film and television in 2004, Gross has directed and photographed documentaries and TV reports for Israeli TV.

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