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“Visibility is the First Stepping Stone For All Our Other Rights”: How WITNESS is Using Video to Fight Abuses in Rio

August 17, 2016

By Joony Moon - Skoll Foundation

Social entrepreneurs aim at the root causes of social problems. For WITNESS, one of the main reasons human rights abuses persist is a lack of visibility. WITNESS empowers citizens to document abuses on video and to leverage the footage effectively to improve accountability.

I recently spoke with Priscila Neri, a senior program manager at WITNESS. She offered insight into their work in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and reminds us that, while the work of social entrepreneurs may at times be overwhelming, it is important to stay focused on the goal of transforming entrenched systems and achieving justice for all.

With the Olympic games taking place this summer in Rio, a lot of international attention has focused on inequality in Brazil, and specifically Rio. What makes this problem so unique?

Priscila: I wish it were a unique problem. It’s actually a recurring pattern whenever there is a major sporting event. The costs of holding the events are socialized, meaning they are funded in large part by public money, but the benefits and the profits are privatized. They don’t return to the public; they are kept in the hands of the few.

The Mayor of Rio [has spoken] about how much he sees the favelas and the poor areas of the city as the solution and not as the problem, but if you look at where the investments have been made and who has paid the price, they have gone to already rich or higher-end neighborhoods to the detriment of much-needed investment in the poor areas.

A few weeks ago, the governor of Rio declared a public “state of calamity,” which is normally something that you reserve for after an earthquake or a natural disaster. The investments that they had promised to deliver, particularly around guaranteeing security for international tourists during the three weeks of the games, had created such a deficit in their budget that Rio was in an actual fiscal state of public calamity. This meant that some hospitals had to be shut down and public [school] teachers were receiving their salaries several months late, if at all. So this has come as a real tragic consequence for the people of Rio.

How does the existing system contribute to the problem?

The Olympics is an opportunity to have a global eye on what are structural, historic, and endemic problems—inequality and injustice. This is not new for Rio, but it is exacerbated under the excuse of creating an Olympic legacy. If you look even at the investments that were being made in the favela communities, one after another, they continuously exclude the local communities and residents in the decision-making about what those investments should go towards.

In Morro da Providência (one of Rio’s favela communities), the government put up cable cars instead of public healthcare centers and public sanitation [like the residents had requested]. Who does that really serve? It has a primarily touristic function that allows people to see the amazing views from the top of the hill. That was not the priority chosen by the community.

If you turn on the Olympics tonight, just take a look at the stands. You’ll see that 95 to 98 percent of Brazilians watching the games are white, which is not a reflection of our population. The majority of the hosts are left out of the party.

How does WITNESS’ work influence systems change?

WITNESS is focused on the role of video as a tool for defending and protecting human rights. For the most part, people all have phones that are able to film—this opens up a whole remarkable and inspiring world of opportunity, but it also brings us new challenges like “how do we know what’s happening in that video?” or “what do we do with all this massive amount of video?” WITNESS is focused more broadly now on how to get this increased amount of video to actually lead to more rights [protections].

For example, last year a boy was shot in the head by police in Complexo do Alemão (a favela neighborhood in Rio). When these extra-judicial killings happen in Brazil—and they’re sadly too common—the first thing the police do is remove the body under the excuse of taking the person to the hospital, thereby tampering with the crime scene and covering up crucial pieces of evidence.

In this case, when ten-year-old Eduardo was killed, our partners were summoned to the scene by neighbors who had witnessed what had happened. The police, noticing the cameras and that this was being reported live, did not remove the body, and the scene was preserved. This may seem very little, but in the context of how these things normally go down, it was quite significant.

We’re seeing these hopeful examples, but the legal systems haven’t caught up with this yet. Many of them don’t yet process citizen-shot video as evidence. We are working in Brazil and globally on the issue of working with activists, lawyers, and frontline documenters to make sure that video can more effectively count as evidence and influence legal processes for justice in cases that involve human rights.

Finally, we’re working towards looking at the platforms through which this information travels, like Facebook, YouTube, cell phone makers, and thinking, “what can those actors do to help people using them for human rights?” Advocacy we did with YouTube has made it easier to blur someone’s identity by creating a little button in the video upload form that you can click if you need to protect identities.


How does WITNESS think about target audiences?

It’s much more about smart- and narrow-casting as opposed to broadcasting. What I mean by that is that the audience is whoever has the obligation or duty to do something about that, like a forensic analyst, a judge who would oversee a case, or a particular advocacy group working to change policies about police control.

It depends on what goal you are trying to achieve, and it’s never a magic wand. You still have to do the petitions, the protests, and the face-to-face meetings. But it’s really about understanding where video can have the greatest impact and significance in that constellation of actions and tactics.

What gives you hope for the future?

There are some very clear gains when you look long-term and think about the impact of all the advocacy that’s been done by everyone over the last several years. One of the great things we have happening right now is that 20 activists from all over Latin America have joined forces with our partners in Rio and are spending the whole month there to document the counter-impacts of the Olympics and what the mainstream news is not covering. This is really inspiring because it shows how you can strengthen the fabric of resistance, which will be important to have in all of our future fights and future advocacy.

I do also think that the critique around the problems of the Olympics has mainstreamed in a way that I don’t think it ever has [before]. More mainstream media outlets and normal people are aware of the real cost of these games (though some coverage is still sadly misleading). That’s not a small victory, and maybe several years from now we can avoid some of these patterns in future host countries.

But it still doesn’t feel like a sufficient reason to celebrate when we think about 70,000 to 100,000 people having lost their homes and almost 3,000 people having been killed by police since Brazil was awarded the games. It’s a tough time to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Any last thoughts?

There’s not yet a full comprehension of the role and potential power of video in our movements. I still think a lot of funders, and even within the movements themselves, see video as a promotional tool or a nice accessory, but we see it as a super transformative tool in terms of who is creating the content and which voices are being heard to lead to justice.

One of my dear friends and closest partners in Brazil often says that visibility is the first stepping stone for all our other rights. We can’t get any of those other rights without visibility. That’s happening through video and social media, so I would really encourage people to think about how access to this technology turns on its head the structures of control, participation, and inclusion, even in our own movements. That’s something to be celebrated, invested in, and strengthened across all issues in my view.

WITNESS is currently running a small-scale pilot of its Mobil-Eyes Us initiative, which aims to help frontline activists share live video content with online supporters, during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Learn more at

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