Consent, Privacy and A Video of Sexual Assault from Tahrir Square
Twelve men will be tried this week for their alleged involvement in mass sexual assaults at rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. While the recent sentencing of three journalists to seven years in jail inspires little faith in Egypt’s justice system, we will be watching the trial, as the arrests alone may be thanks to a recent viral video of sexual assault—a video that President Sisi wants taken down, and that presents news media and human rights advocates with an ethical challenge.
As we discuss the ethics of curating citizen video here on the WITNESS blog, this disturbing video provides a timely case to examine issues of privacy and consent when curating citizen video of abuse.
The story begins early this month, when Cairo’s Tahrir Square filled with supporters of Egypt’s newly elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrating his inauguration. Sexual assault has become a common feature of Egypt’s political rallies, and I Saw Sexual Harassment, an Egyptian monitoring group, documented five incidents of sexual assault in Tahrir Square that night, four of which required medical support. But aside from local activists, what drew massive attention to the issue this time around was a video uploaded to YouTube on June 8, inauguration day.
While the amateur footage is shaky and poorly lit, it appears to show a woman stripped naked among a chaotic crowd of men in Tahrir Square. As BBC reporter Dina Aboughazala states in the above report, “What makes this incident really grave is that never before have we seen a woman stripped naked and documented in a video.” It was viewed close to a half a million times before the uploader changed its privacy settings so that it can no longer be seen.
Details about the video remain unclear. While the filmed incident appears to be authentic, the uploader of the video stated on Facebook that he found the video online a few days prior to Sisi’s inauguration. This detail, however, was lost as the footage circulated around the world.
The video was widely reported in local and international coverage of Sisi’s inauguration (see Al Arabiya, Time, New York Times). The following day, seven men were arrested in connection with attacks on women, and later that week Sisi made a very public visit to a sexual assault victim in a hospital.
Consent and Right to Privacy
Aside from uncertainties about when it was filmed, the video raised several ethical questions for the Human Rights Channel and others reporting on and documenting human rights issues.
While the footage puts a spotlight on an issue human rights advocates have long called attention to and pressured Egyptian leaders to address, some versions of the video revealed the victim’s identity and naked body, potentially exposing her to further harm—psychological or otherwise.
In curating citizen videos of abuse, the first principle of the Human Rights Channel is to do no harm. Sexual violence and other forms of abuse are traumatic events that can impact an individual for a lifetime. As WITNESS has learned from decades of work with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, obtaining the consent of victims and survivors is critical step in sharing their stories in a way that can effect positive change. Otherwise, to see oneself violated on a public platform like YouTube can perpetuate trauma and cause further harm due to the stigma of being identified as a survivor of abuse.
But when the video is taken by bystanders or perpetrators of abuse and shared online, it is often impossible to tell if the victim did or would consent to being identified. President Sisi called upon YouTube to remove the video, stating that the request came from the victim herself. However, many Egyptian women’s rights activists are skeptical of his sincerity. Reports that Egyptian prosecutors are investigating the filmer and uploader suggest that the government’s problem is not only with those responsible for the assault, but those who exposed such abuse in the first place.
We applaud YouTube for taking a nuanced stance on this video, understanding its news value and refusing Sisi’s request to remove it outright, while also removing versions that reveal the victim’s face. “We respect an individual’s right to privacy and have always removed videos entirely where there is a privacy complaint and an individual is clearly identifiable,” YouTube said in a statement.
Tools for Curators Sharing Online Video of Abuse
News outlets and human rights advocates took their own approaches. Several news outlets either chose not to embed the video in their reports, or used a blurring tool so that the victim would not be identifiable.
For curators, media outlets, and advocates who want to share a video like this without revealing the identity of an abuse victim, YouTube’s face blurring tool can help protect the privacy of individuals in a video you upload. (See, for instance, this Human Rights Watch video, in which the identity of LGBT abuse victims are kept private by blurring their faces.) However, we offer a note of caution in this approach: the process of scraping and re-uploading a video could lose important metadata about the original footage. It is best to document the original url, uploader, and any other information that may be attached to the original upload such as metadata indicating the date or location of the recording.
For more tools and best practices on the effective and ethical use of citizen footage, see the Verification Handbook and this blog post on protecting yourself, your subjects and your human rights videos on YouTube. For tips on filming and interviewing survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, see this WITNESS guide.
It’s Not an Easy Call
The ethics of sharing videos like this are never easy or straightforward. While the HRC chooses to err on the side of the victim’s right to privacy, one can never predict the response of the victim, or the impact of the video. When the Human Rights Channel featured a video showing abuse of a protester in Ukraine, we only shared it after blurring the face of the victim. Later, he came out publicly decrying his treatment. In Fiji, a video showing authorities torturing prisoners allowed a mother to identify her son among the victims and advocate for his release. However, in a case from Malaysia in 2005, a video taken in prison revealed a woman forced to perform squats naked in a police cell. After the scandal was exposed, the victim issued a statement asking that people stop circulating the video.
What considerations do you use to determine how to make such a judgment call? How would tools, YouTube functions, or public awareness help citizen videos provide an effective and ethical way to expose human rights violations? We want to hear your thoughts. Share comments below, or write us @ythumanrights on Twitter, and continue to follow our series on the ethics of curating citizen video here on the WITNESS blog.
This post was originally written for the Human Rights Channel, which is now the WITNESS Media Lab. Follow @WITNESS_Lab on Twitter for analysis and resources on the verification and contextualization of eyewitness video for human rights.