This blog post marks the official launch of WITNESS’s global campaign ‘Right to Record: Protest. Resist. Exist’.

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This blog post is available in Spanish.

Dounya Zayer’s Story

On the night of 29th May 2020, Dounya Zayer, an activist, went to a protest in Brooklyn, New York in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protest, which began peacefully, was soon overrun by stampeding police officers and protesters getting hurt. Dounya took out her phone and began recording the events.

As she was backing up towards the direction the officers were asking the crowd to move towards, Dounya was shoved violently to the ground by an officer, who also knocked her phone off her hands. The incident was captured on several cameras, including in this one, and went viral. The videos also depict officers walking past Dounya, lying in a fetal position on the ground. The recordings eventually led to the suspension of officer D’Andraia. Read more from Dounya’s story here and here.

The WITNESS Stance

When WITNESS talks about the right to record, we are referring to the right to take out a camera or cell phone to film the military and law enforcement officials without fear of arrest, violence, or other retaliation.

The right to record allows us to fortify the truth. Without the right to record, there will be diminished truth. We are quite clear that the veracity of what we film is what takes precedence. This is what motivates us to keep protecting our freedom to film.

As truth-tellers and movement-builders, our work becomes difficult, or even impossible, when documenting wrong-doing has to be done secretly, or when valuable evidentiary film is abruptly erased by law enforcement or taken down by social media platforms. Here, the right to record becomes synonymous with the right to publish.

right to record - decision tree graphic
Choosing to share your footage may some times be the right choice, but other times not so much. Use this decision tree to weigh some of the pros and cons and release your footage in a way that reduces harm and makes a difference.

The Right to Record during Protests

For many community defenders, exercising the freedom of expression regularly involves using a smartphone or camera to film what they witness. As protests around the world show, people rarely ever spill on to the streets of their homelands without a filming device. In most cases, where there have been grievous human rights abuses, their demands to their governments are justified. 

In some countries, the right to record is codified into legal systems, whereas in others it is expressly prohibited. Whether it is making sure the cameras are rolling during elections in Uganda, Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., or during the #NationalStrike in Colombia, the right to record helps expose abuses and the systemic use of violence against demonstrators. Where the right to record has become a part of the constitutional law, it helps hold state actors accountable, as evidenced by the work of long-time WITNESS partner in Brazil, Papa Reto. 

right to record - filming protests graphic
This tip sheet considers safety and ethics for human rights activists, advocates, journalists, filmmakers and others who are filming and conducting interviews at protests and demonstrations for human rights documentation and advocacy.

As the resolution from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council makes clear, the right to record law enforcement, such as the police and military, during public protest and demonstrations, universally, is protected under international human rights law. This inextricably ties the right to record with the freedom of assembly.

The phrase “Right to Record” refers to both the human right protected by international human rights law (and the laws and constitutions of many countries), and to the whole concept of using video to expose human rights abuses and tell stories. Both these legalistic and social justice concepts are important: after all, the legal ‘right’ does not matter if governments do not respect it. 

However, no amount of legal protection can replace the courage, fortitude and risks communities take to exercise and to organize around this right.

Exercising Your Right to Record

Here are some important considerations which take into account safety principles:

  • Research the laws in your country. This can help you make more informed decisions about what risks you are willing to take. 
  • If you are out in the streets filming where police, military or law enforcement officials can see you, whether the right to record is legally recognized or not, keep out of grabbing distance. It will be more difficult for your camera or cell phone to be seized without warning.
  • If an officer orders you to “stop interfering”, comply with the minimum amount possible, and document that you are doing so. For example, if you are asked to back up, you can take a few steps back and say loud enough to be heard on camera, “I’m backing up, officer”.
  • If an officer orders you to stop filming, you may have to comply for your own safety. Secret filming is illegal in many places, but it may be your only option. It would be good to check the laws in your country before you do so.
  • While filming, you may want to have automatic back-up set up so that even if your phone is seized, you will not lose your documentation. Keep in mind though, backing up to a cloud may still keep your data vulnerable to legal requests from authorities.
  • Film landmarks, street signs, clocks or other visual indicators that can help verify the location, time and date the footage was recorded.
  • Please stay safe, and keep in mind that video can be used as evidence against you.

A Movement in the Making

At WITNESS, every aspect of our work underscores the right to record. We try to approach the right to record as a movement to protect our freedom to film. This movement calls to action those who believe in the power of filming to expose human rights violations that lead to justice and accountability. And to empower those who are not yet aware that they can do this.

A right to record consciousness then, can begin to take form. It is a reason to connect filmers who center social justice, an opportunity to strengthen our movements and social justice ecosystems by helping ensure the footage that people often risk their lives to capture makes a tangible impact.

Trust has been a major currency in sustaining our movements. We take the practice and the process of building trust seriously. We work with people we trust. We collaborate with those whom we have had long-standing partnerships with over time. We value these relationships very much, because every action we take is intentional, towards fortifying the truth.

Turning on the camera to shine the spotlight on human beings who deserve the right to dignity, to exist – is a right to record impulse.

A word on campaign design strategy

The conceptual thinking behind this campaign’s design work is inspired by the very nature of protests, where the centrality of body movements and postures are foregrounded, and are juxtaposed with the props and tools that have historically supported the intentionality and agility of moving bodies and the velocity of recording.

To help convey the foresight and necessity of protecting or safeguarding the right to record, as well as all those who resist oppressive forces, the symbol of the sacred spiral, as known by the Guna people of Panamá and Colombia, has been invoked. It has a close affinity to the triskele or triple spiral, a protection symbol well-known in many Indigenous African and Asian cultures rooted in animism, which evokes the idea of eternity or natural cyclical currents.

Spiral patterning across campaign materials done repetitively to create a labyrinth motif is utilized, in this instance, to represent the purposeful notion of recording for a myriad of just reasons, including for long-term preservation or eternity. In other words, documenting for life, for life. Protest. Resist. Exist!

Some key resources:
Follow WITNESS’ regional hubs for multilingual resources:
Partners and allies to support:

TAKE ACTION: Over the next few weeks, we will continue to share tips, tools, and guidance materials to support and affirm your right to record, as well as stories from our partners – help amplify these resources! Share your protest stories with us by emailing engage@witness.org or simply by tweeting or sharing posts using the hashtag #RightToRecord.

AUTHOR: Meghana Bahar is the manager of the Global Digital Engagement program at WITNESS. Prior to this, she helped establish and led regional communications for WITNESS’s Asia-Pacific program. She has over 22 years experience championing transnational and global women’s and human rights movements as a gender and media specialist.

Published 23rd November 2022.

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