For Archives Month 2020, WITNESS Africa hosted a Twitter chat on archiving for the promotion and protection of human rights. In the chat, pertinent questions regarding the importance, practicalities and challenges to human rights archiving were put to Ayanda K of VIDERE and Yvonne Ng of WITNESS.

Here is a recap of the chat on October 29, 2020, 2pm GMT:

@witness_africa: Welcome and thanks for joining us for today’s tweet chat on archiving for human rights with Ayanda K of (@_Videre) and @ng_yvonne of (@witnessorg).

Before we proceed, we would like to briefly introduce Ayanda and Yvonne.


Ayanda serves as an Archiving Coordinator for VIDERE. She has over a decade of experience in cataloguing, storing & preserving visual human rights documentation. Additionally, she has collaborated with various stakeholders to ensure human rights documentation has impact both in the short & long term. Ayanda holds a Master’s degree in Human Rights and has additional training in security and visual analysis.

Yvonne Ng is an audiovisual archivist and has been part of the WITNESS team since 2009. In collaboration with WITNESS regional leads, she trains and supports partners on collecting, managing, and preserving video documentation for human rights advocacy and evidence.

@witness_africa: Q1: What is human rights archiving and why is it important? #HumanRightsArchiving

Ayanda (@_Videre): Archiving for human rights allows one to see patterns of abuses, enables future use of the evidence, and safeguards against denial or corruption of the truth!

Archiving promotes accountability; supports prosecutions and legal redress through the preservation of evidence; ensures historical memory; and enables and guarantees the right to know.

Archiving can also preserve diversity by actively protecting the stories and experiences of people across the economic, political and social spectrum, and not just those with economic or political power.

#HumanRightsArchiving is the collection, storage and preservation of evidence of human rights violations.

At Videre, this mostly means visual evidence but can include non-visual documentation too.

Put simply, archiving allows defenders of human rights to counter future revisionist histories, protect historical memory, and to amplify justice!

@ng_yvonne: Yes! To re-iterate what Ayanda said, #HumanRightsArchiving refers to the work people do to collect and preserve documentation that can be used to protect rights, ensure accountability, and prevent future violations.

Everyone can play a role in human rights archiving– documenters, activists and movements, NGOs, institutions. States have a responsibility too.

#HumanRightsArchiving is important for preserving evidence of violations especially when authorities seek to deny, as we saw w security force violence against #ENDSARS movement. Archiving strengthens integrity and authenticity of evidence so it can stand up against those denials.

As example, @AdebayOkeowo spoke with Christof Heyns from UN HR Com’tee about how video was used in investigations in Sri Lanka 2009 and Burundi 2016, and how important it was that those videos could be authenticated and verified.

#HumanRightsArchiving is also important for community memory, helping us remember and hopefully not repeat the past – for example, work of @SAHAnews or @Kigali_Memorial –I’d love to learn more about other human rights and community-based archiving efforts in the region.

@witness_africa: Q2: On a practical level, what does human rights archiving involve? #HumanRightsArchiving

Ayanda K (@_Videre): First of all, it is important to note that #HumanRightsArchiving ​​​​​​​systems vary from one organisation/person to another. However, all differing systems should consider the following key practicalities:

Saving: saving all the original material, and as far as possible preserving the metadata, such as the date and location that the material was captured.

Organizing & cataloguing: having an agreed tagging system that aids searches later on. This can be a simple file naming system or for bigger archives, can be done through technological solutions which can make this process easier and more searchable.

As we deal primarily with video at Videre, we use a media asset management tool CatDV by SquareBox

Maintenance: too often the storage of human rights documentation is not built for longevity.

Social media platforms are businesses with no guarantees of public interest actions. Most NGOs are not meant to be permanent institutions. Courts and UN mechanisms have narrow prosecutorial remits and limited archival and historical memory mandates.

Archiving therefore involves making sure that this documentation is accessible for the future. Protecting its digital and physical accessibility in the long term while taking into account rapid technological changes.

Security: The digital security of the archive directly impacts the physical security of the victims, activists, and bystanders etc. whether it be because the evidence is lost or because it falls into the wrong hands.

Encryption and multiple backups are the main ways in which storage considerations can be addressed.

Access: it is important that the gatekeepers of human rights archives are as close to the affected communities as possible.

We should seek to avoid historical documentation suffering a similar fate to antiquities: where personal histories ended up in distant museums inaccessible to those whose history they formed

Controlling and sharing access is one of the trickiest parts of archiving as it involves a host of ethical and technological considerations relating to custody, funding, ownership, security, access, privacy, and sustainability

@ng_yvonne: Great responses! To follow up I’d say the first step is planning, i.e. what are you going to collect, who/what is your archive for, what relationships do you have with the movement, how will you sustain the archive over time? This short video might help:

As Ayanda said, you’ll need some method to obtain/collect the materials, ideally in ways that maintains the integrity, completeness, and chain of custody, i.e.  get as close to the original files, without alterations, as possible.

To enter the materials into your collection – you’ll need to package/organize (e.g. into folders) in ways that make sense for you and that preserve original order, name/label packages consistently, and file in storage. This applies to both physical and electronic materials.

You’ll need secure storage space for your materials – consider who/what you need to protect  from. For digital materials, you also need secure backup. We advise 3-2-1 storage principle:

Description, aka metadata, is essential for materials to be identifiable, understandable, searchable. Metadata can be created by a cataloger, collected from a source, or extracted from an object. Put the info somewhere like a spreadsheet or database.

Finally, consider who should have access and how. And importantly, how also are you going to prevent unwanted access and secure your collection. Our Activists Guide to Archiving Video walks through these steps in this thread in more detail:

@witness:africa: Q3: What are some key considerations (e.g. ethical, security, practical, etc) to keep in mind when archiving human rights materials?

Ayanda (@_Videre): #HumanRightsArchiving key considerations: Ethical: public interest vs. individual privacy, particularly for bystanders – issues of consent are particularly difficult in fast-moving protest/HR violation settings.

#HumanRightsArchiving key considerations: Ethical: public interest vs. individual privacy, particularly for bystanders – issues of consent are particularly difficult in fast-moving protest/HR violation settings.

Security: protection vs accessibility – keeping the materials safe while also facilitating access for those who need to use them, and getting firm agreements to ensure that any partner organisation fulfils its obligations to protect sources and victims’ identities.

It’s important to agree on accurate and relevant themes, tags, place names and key persons for each incident, especially if multiple languages are in use. This plays an important role in ensuring that data is not lost in the database due to different spellings of names.

It’s important to agree on accurate and relevant themes, tags, place names and key persons for each incident, especially if multiple languages are in use. This plays an important role in ensuring that data is not lost in the database due to different spellings of names.

Documenting HOW you archive something and the process you use is important – particularly if it is used in future legal proceedings.

@ng_yvonne: Yes! I would re-iterate, prioritize the safety, security, privacy of people who are documented, and the people who create documentation (e.g. filmers, livestreamers). Getting informed consent is one key approach:

In situations, e.g. mass protests, informed consent might not always be possible. So do a risk assessment and use your judgement. Consider whether to collect at all or whether you should redact the content in some way.

Uploaders sometimes delete their content for their own safety, so consider the risk you may introduce by preserving it. What will you do, for example, if law enforcement demands the materials? @documentnow has a useful paper on ethical considerations:

Remember that archives aren’t neutral – they’re always designed to serve some purpose or audience. So let’s build archives that serve communities and promote human rights! Archivists Against History Repeating Itself has a great reading list:

#HumanRightsArchiving can also impact archivists and users of the materials. Be aware of vicarious trauma and consider mitigation strategies. Eyewitness Media Hub has a good report with recommendations:

@witness_africa: We are now approaching the end of the chat and this brings us to our second last question.

Q4: We are noting that video & social media are increasingly being used to document human rights abuse. What are some of the biggest challenges to archiving these new forms of human rights documentation? #HumanRightsArchiving

Ayanda (@_Videre): Social media platforms are increasingly being used as the primary channel by which human rights violations are first shared with the world. This means they are often the main tool by which human rights abuses are documented and hence archived.

However, social media platforms are NOT archives and will often remove valuable human rights documentation. Vital Human Rights Evidence in Syria is Disappearing from YouTube

There are increasingly calls for over-stretched and under-resourced NGOs to identify, scrape and archive human rights documentation appearing on social media before it disappears. This becomes a game of speed.

It’s also possible that algorithms used by social media platforms to prevent violent and/or hateful content take down important content before it is ever posted.

Groups like @syrian_archive​​​​​​​,@witnessorg,@hrcberkeley , @hrw, @amnesty ‘s Digital Verification Corps​​​​​​​ and @bellingcat are good examples of organizations who work against the clock to safeguard materials

Along with takedowns, when monitoring and researching social media in #HumanRightsArchiving, one big challenge is verifying these materials before the decision is made to add to the archive.

@ng_yvonne: Absolutely, as Ayanda said, social media content is so precarious. Human rights video, especially, has been removed due to content moderation policies, poor automation, or targeted campaigns. See, for ex:

Some social media platforms also make it hard for people to download and collect. You often need external tools like #youtube-dl, which can then be targeted by corporate copyright holders, as @samdubberley noted earlier. See recent news:

Social media misinformation and video deepfakes are also a growing concern. We have to be careful to properly contextualize misinfo when archiving and providing access to ensure we do not contribute to its spread.

It’s also harder to discover, identify, and verify content from social media or chat apps b/c there is so much, and it’s so easy to re-share/re-upload, and files are re-compressed. Shout outs @amnesty Citizen Evidence Lab, @syrian_archive @bellingcat for their innovations in this

@witness_africa: The challenges you have both enumerated relate a lot to the recent #ENDSARS protests in Nigeria where the gov’t has denounced the volumes of video showing army officers shooting at peaceful protesters and committing other violations against them.

Such denials by authorities also underscore the need for archiving evidence of violations which can be relied on later to demand accountability and justice.

And to our last question.

Q5: In a situation where documentation is in danger of disappearing, what are some immediate steps that activists can take to preserve it?

Ayanda(@_Videre): #HumanRightsArchiving BACK UP back up back up! Create secure, off-site backups of the evidence.

For online materials: Web pages are often pulled down for old or sensitive content, it’s important to download and preserve original stories or videos using tools such as Internet Archive / Wayback Machine  @samdubberley

If not that, a screenshot is better than nothing!

Use security features in your storage facilities. If the materials are on hard drives and servers, you need to encrypt them, and use firewalls, to protect evidence from illegal access and destruction @EFF has more insight

Use strong password protection for all computers and related equipment – check out @EFF’ s resources

Identify and label vital records clearly so they can be retrieved immediately in an emergency.

With physical storage, ensure all storage containers for hard drives or other records are strong, stable, and non-flammable.

Make use of surge protectors and backup systems to protect computers during power outages.

@ng_yvonne: Yes, I’d say start with a risk assessm’t and then capture/download ASAP. You can use specialized tools like youtube-dl or @webrecorder_io, but even a screenshot (for text/photos) can be useful (try Firefox for easy full-page captures). Collaborate with others to maximize efforts.

If you are in contact with documenters, encourage them to capture/share impt details like time, date, location so that others can verify more easily later.  This video has some tips: What Is Video Metadata?

@ng_yvonne: As Ayanda said, store yr downloads somewhere that will keep you, others, and the materials safe (will depend on what your threats are) and back it up. Keep track of key chain of custody information, like where you downloaded from and when, and who downloaded if working in a team.

Finally, PAUSE and consider before sharing or making the collection public. Consult with activists, advocacy groups or lawyers. There may be good strategic or security reasons to keep the collection private for a time.

@witness_africa: Thank you both, finally there is this question from @samdubberley, @ng_yvonne will you kindly take it?

@ng_yvonne: Great question. I think advocacy to the tech co’s to understand how documenters are using the platforms and what role they play, advocating to them directly to re-instate are a couple avenues…

With YT-DL, it is very unfortunate. But it’s still downloadable and usable, replicated in many places. hopefully there will be a resolution so that developers can keep up great work.

@witness_africa: Thanks Ayanda (@_Videre) and @ng_yvonne for these invaluable nuggets you have shared today.

If we the people document and preserve our own stories of resistance, they won’t be able to be forgotten or denied or erased.


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