By Caiti Goodman
In March, videos from Togo began popping up as I monitored the Human Rights Channel’s twitter list of citizen journalists. Few international news outlets pay much attention to the small West African nation. The Human Rights Channel had featured videos from Togo last year, but it had not been on our radar since then. But these videos, which pertained largely to the country’s upcoming elections, were calling for our attention.
The first videos captured protests regarding charges against the opposition political party leader, Jean-Pierre Fabre. Men and women took to the streets, banging pots and garbage can lids outside the courthouse. Togolese police using tear gas, rubber bullets and brute force against the protesters. Other videos revealed reporters rallying against a proposed media censorship law, as well as testimony by journalists, more clashes with the police, and injuries that many protesters sustained.
In collaboration with our partners at Storyful, we verified that the videos were authentic, and curated a video playlist on the crackdown on the press and opposition in the run-up to Togo’s election.
Throughout the spring, two Togolese accounts became dominant sources of reliable video: @UnTogoVI and @TogoVisions. These two groups put out three or four videos per day on Twitter, and it became clear that their efforts were not haphazard. These citizen reporters were working hard to capture the political upheaval, corruption, and repression of free expression the country was experiencing.
The Human Rights Channel reached out to these organizations, to better understand and support the Togolese video activist network. Phil, one of the founders of TogoVisions, explained that the roots of the organization began with civic discontent.
In 2010, the YouTube video of a French army colonel threatening a photojournalist, went viral in less than a day and caught international attention. BBC News reported the incident, and French defense officials demanded an investigation. The day that video emerged, Phil and two others realized what it took to receive media attention for “what is hidden, [and to give] a voice to those who are silenced.” For years, Togolese civil society had faced repression by a ruling dynasty—and this video shone a spotlight on that repression, illuminating an area that had gone unnoticed by the international community for decades.
Beginning with one small camera, the group started filming footage and testimony on topics such as corruption, freedom of expression, and police brutality. In the past two and a half years, TogoVisions has gained trust and popularity within their community and from opposition political parties, human rights organizations, and online news outlets. Their digital arsenal has expanded to include several cameras, laptops, and other equipment.
Togo Visions, which Phil says includes approximately 10 citizen reporters, did not expect the violence that was soon directed at them. Reporters have been shot in the face by rubber bullets, and suffocated from tear gas—events that can be seen in some videos on the playlist. Some have been harassed and beaten by the local police because of the association with the group.
According to Phil, this has not stopped Togolese citizen journalists, and some of the videos could be used to support human rights investigations. In one case, the Committee to Protect Journalists called for an investigation of a deliberate hit-and-run of a Togolese journalist after seeing a video that documented his injuries.
Phil explained that the Togolese government used to deny human rights violations, “but today they can’t anymore when our videos are used as evidence.”
Caiti Goodman was a Human Rights Channel Social Media Intern in spring 2013.