The Signal and the Noise of Human Rights

Friday’s presentation of “Media, Democracy and Technology” spanned the world, touching on government’s surveillance of human rights activists and opposition leaders in Ethiopia, Iran’s use of social media to try and find protestors and the United States, whose leadership role the four presenters stressed time and time again. Presenters walked a fine line of showing how surveillance is widespread while trying to emphasize that the public can’t normalize it. In the words of Danny O’Brien, international director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “It’s important to not only take the details here.” O’Brien is worried that the “drip, drip, of these stories would normalize it.”

Panelists in the March 6 conference explored what it means to live in a world where the tools of surveillance have become “cheaper, more accessible and universally applied,” in the words of O’Brien. Teddy Workneh, a journalism instructor at UO, said that when economic interests interfere “we have reached a point where international law is meaningless in a geopolitical context.”

Ethiopia was used a central example of the interaction between the world landscape interacting with a national government which is cracking down. Workneh criticized the United States for allowing Ethiopia to get away with many of its human rights violations. Ethiopia has consciously “projected” an image of anti-terrorism to the United States. Anti-terrorism laws “tend to borrow from one another” according to Workneh, which gives Ethiopia perceived legitimacy and has led to “no real meaningful engagement” between the two governments about human rights. Workneh spoke to the worldwide shift in laws and norms after 9/11, and how Ethiopia took advantage of these norms by showing the wider trends and comparing them point by point to the Ethiopian anti-terror laws.

The role of journalism in this surveillance filled world was a matter of debate as well. Speaking about journalists who cover governments, O’Brien said that “you end up being friends with government sources,” and that journalists must watch their deference to government authority. “It’s about allegiances,” O’Brien said in regards to the responsibility of journalism. Madeleine Bair, a program manager for the Human Rights Channel, which is sponsored by WITNESS, a non-profit focusing on using new tools to document human rights abuses, also spoke. Bair said that despite the fact that she works in Brooklyn, she has better access to human rights abuse information in Columbia than when she was covering the country in Bogota. However, many journalists don’t take the precautions with the videos that they would have in the old media environment, as YouTube is seen as a public website, and not a source to be protected.

The line between professional journalists and eyewitnesses showed both the changing face of human rights and of journalism. Bair listed best practices that bystanders can follow when documenting human rights abuses, as well as the perils that putting those abuses on YouTube can lead to.

Bair said that the challenge of people who document footage is “not only to expose abuse but also get it to a broader audience… The road to justice is often a very long one, you need to make sure your video lasts that long,” and to make sure that this happens they must work to archive and have verifiable facts about their footage. Despite all of the awareness that these videos have led to, she also focused on the risks, such as the fact that videos often get re-uploaded and shared with incorrect information, or that the video’s intention was to humiliate the victims, so by sharing them the injustice is unwittingly propagated.

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