Video Activism, Free Software, and Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region

Video Activism, Free Software, and Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific region.

During this week’s class session on Introduction to Civic Media, we invited two guest speakers: Andrew Lowenthal (Co-Founder and Director of Engaged Media) and Professor Fox Harrell (CMS/CSAIL at MIT). The course bagan with Andrew talking about his work with Engaged Media. In addition to our format, we were able to livestream the class using ustream, and welcomed users at large by tweeting the ustream link. The specific reading materials that accompanied this week’s course on Video Activism, Free Software, and Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific region were:

Read & Watch:
Video Chronic, CHAPTER IV. The Crossed Lines of Video Distribution:
Activist video selection from DIY Video 24/7, and Henry Jenkins’ interview series w/Sasha: Part 1:  Part 2: Part 3
Witness. “Cameras Everywhere.”


More of the Video Chronic Report
Papuan Voices

Andrew Lowenthal and Engaged Media

Sasha and Andrew met in 2003, protesting WIPO during the World Summit on the Information Society conference in Geneva. There was a countersummit called “We-Seize” Andrew began by providing context of why exists, and what the cultural and political context of the Asian-Pacific region is. Andrew also outlined how Engagemedia developed, and he went on to discuss current challenges and areas for improvement.

Video Activism, Free Software, and Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific region.

Andrew starts with a short video clip from West Papau, an area that is currently colonized by the Indonesian government (following Dutch rule). The video shown takes place in Keerom, Papua, and is titled: Left to Survive.Andrew also mentionsthe Rajawalli group, (shown in the video displacing small farmers from their lands) and how they are an investor in the Kennedy School. The video can be seen here:

Andres mentiones how Engage grew out of a reactionary time in Australia, when Austrialia was viewed as a European power in what is essentially Asia.There were extreme right wing and xeonophobic parties active at the time. Engage was interested in how to use video to cross broders in a concrete way. How could connections and relationships be developed, networks grown and amplified? Video in particular was explored because of its ability to ideally humanize people. They wanted to rethink identity, and what Australian’ness was about. Not only Australian identity, but regionally, how to get people working more effectively across common issues: Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua, and more.


Engage sees many challenges, such as endemic isses to the region, which include: corruption/climate/human rights.
After the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship in Indonesia (Fall of Suharto), in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was an explosion of video production. A burgenoing growth of access to video technology also occured, but distribution was not well thought out. There’s also a heavy concentration of media as well as internet filtering. There are bandwidth constraints as well. Furthermore, Andrew believes there’s a lack of stratetic approaches/tech knowledge. Engage wanted to explore technologies, and not just thinking about “going viral” on Youtube. Engage wanted to look at engagement, and the incorporation of activism and action. How do you go beyond catharsis, which has value, but push to the next level of action?

Southeast Asia Context:

Andrew describes the stats of internet Access in Southeast Asia :

Indonesia: 22%, 55 million people online, 47 million on FB.
Malaysia – 60%
Singapore – 75%
Phillippines – 32%
Thailland – 30%
East Timor/Burma – 1%
Vietnam ~ 50%
[internet world stats – dec 1 2012]

Our classmates were also able to find additional stats that are related:
Other facebook stats:

One observation that can be made from these stats is hte large disparity between whos online and not, mostly aggregated in urban areas.

Andrew then went on to talk about Malaysia Kini, which is one of the top websites in Malaysia, and has been central in organizing in that country. As a space, the website has been critical of gathering people to speak out against government, and it also suffers less direct censorship. However, they did receive a lot of DDoS attacks, which would occassionally interrupt access. Much of the content is also crowsourced elsewhere, and then brought back into the site. A Berkman Center report on DDOS as a silencing tactic included some coverage of Malaysia: 


EngageMedia is not an independent media producer; they work with people who are taking action around human rights and social justice. They think of themselves as a catalyst between producers and users, especially those who haven’t though thoroughly about how to incorporate video into activism and differnt types of action. They do a lot of face to face work. Training is about half of their work. According to Andrew, face to face is critical, and the most valuable thing for its organizing efforts. They also work on building the Video4Change field, and Andrew is interested in @kanarinka’s work around border crossing and erasure. Engage wants to create spaces outside national identities.

Moreover, Andrew shows a still image about a Papuan man named Kiwo, who was tortured by the Indonesian military. They filmed this themselves. Engage got the video and worked with HUman Rights Watch to build a campaign for accountability. This happens all the time, but because of the lack of evidence, there had not been any prosecutions. In this case the video was used as a central piece of evidence in trials. Andrew also mentions other examples, where police and other officials were implicated in crimes because of video evidence. The point is that witnessing isn’t always enough. If it’s not connected to a campaign, it’s just another example of somethin terrible happening.

Applied Research:

EngageMedia also conducts various kinds of research, including:

  • Freedom of expression online in Indonesia
  • Video4Change Impact
  • Citizen subtitling in the Asia-Pacific

Additionally, Andrew also mentions the VideoKronik project, which looked at video distribution in Indonesia. What are the types of methodoloties that people use when using video? Engage addresses these particualr types of questions with their work. For example, Andrew shows a slide from the Network, a meeting of video activists and free software developers that took place in Sukhabumi, Indonesia. Building networks in the Southeast Asian region is important to EngageMedia in general, who often run events where media practioners and activists are brought together to work on different projects. In terms of the question about political spaces, Engage worked with a variety countries in using Bahasa Melayu a language that is mostly shared across groups that are divided by colonially imposed nation state borders.These types of spaces are important, especially because current technologies often do not take into account such realities. Furtermore, Andrew shows another slide from Camp Sambel.

Free and Open Source Software

EngageMedia also built a free and open source video sharing platform called Plumi, built on top of the popular CMS Plone. Much of these platforms emerge from Engage’s commitment to open source software, mentions Andrew.They also use this to run servers locally in Indonesia, for more rapid delivery. Curation and Engagement was also mentioned as a major category that Engage Media focuses on. Andrew went on to mention how much of the work that they do, and videos produced by their partners, are gathered on the site Users can publish work directly to the Engage website. They also use the Amara (universal subtitles) tool to subtitle their videos in multiple languages so that they can be shown across the region.

Closing Remarks

For closing remarks, Andrew mentioned several key ideas and examples for us to think about. An example ongoing work was Papuan Voices, which is a campaign for which EngageMedia developed a lot of material to engage audiences as active participants in change. The political context for the campaign is important, because international journalists are not allowed in Papua, but also along with that is the ethos of having people expressed their own voices. Andew also mentioned how they curate content for a Television distribution project called EM TV Dispatches. Content is packed into different themes and then distributed to 4 television station partners offline, in order to mix both spaces together.

Finally, some main challenges moving forward were outlines. One challenge related to how scaling F/LOSS video tools is difficult to do. Benjamin Mako Hill has been doing research as to why some open sources projects are successful but others are not. Other areas that Engage is lookin into are: further developing the role of niche spaces; deepining our role as a connector between producers and campaigners/media; funding is always an issue; scaling their methodology is also hard. Andew ended by saying how it can be difficult to get beyond ‘another sad video story’

For more imformation on Engage Media, visit You can also find them on twitter: @engagemedia and


The following section involved a Q & A session regarind Engage Media and other civic video related topics.

Sasha: that is a very rich set or practices that you are engaged with.

Luis: I like the idea of building open source tools for sharing media, but platforms like YouTube are massive. How is the process of building a platform like this and have you built a community of developers?

Andrew: we have developers in Greece. It’s also floss, we’re on github. We have a list that people join. People will periodically contribute back to the code base, but it’s sporadic. We spent a lot of time developing the community, especially at first.This was not developed further because they didn’t see the payoff, and the level of maintenance is high. It’s hard to wrangle people to participate.
Code sprints are better for building relationships rather than acheiving a lot of good code.

Luis: What do you think of Witness’ strategy with the YouTube human rights channel.

Andrew: YouTube needs to change some of its practices. It hasn’t been good at human rights video in the past. Witness is there educating them effectively. We work closely with Witness. They used to run the Human Rights Hub. They ran it for a couple of years but then decided that is was not working for them. They were newer to that culture than we were, so it was a more core part of our mission to have open source platforms and freely licensed. They wanted the platforms to be open to being forked as well. It was easier ten years ago then it is now, which is something to think about for those of us working in these areas.

Aditi: You were talking at the beginning about the video of the Papuan man who was tortured and you linked it to more mainstream networks. How do you find those stories and the material? Do you seek them out or do they find you?

Andrew: through the networks we’ve been building, and people know us. We’ve been building in Indonesia for 5-6 years. The process was cumulative with ground work and outreaching, which was a long investment.

Sasha: One thing that happened at Berkman — lots of people wanted to know about examples of videos that got a lot of viewers and generated lots of policy-level shift. You called it “the Rodney King video,” that many people see and generates huge amounts of interest. However this rarely happens, and most of what happens is the development of a substrate of regular community media production. You talked about building a culture of video production.

Andrew: That model is very well known, because people see the Rodney King vide and the Kony video, but most videos will not go “viral,” which is a problematic term in itself. Most video doesn’t blow up. A few people, 10 people, a thousand people see it. It’s cumulative. This is how social movementts work, with many types of media instead of a single blast that went viral. There’s all this organizing that goes on for decades, so that when something does happen – a vegetable seller sets himself on fire – that’s not the revolution. It’s all that went beforehand to prepare the ground. A lot of what we’re doing is preparing the ground, those networks. We use video on the net, but people may get involved because they are doing other things, like poverty organizing and gender organzing, and it is at these intersections where the work happens.

Catherine: Cultivating audiences for the videos: how do you do that pragmatically, so you’re not just uploading videos into the void? How much of the cultivation of audience is online versus the ground work of getting people together? Are the majority of audiences, which is small audiences, are they also makers? Or do some videos have a specific demographic?

Andrew: Absolutely. It might be to get on a bunch of cinema screens, or a small community screening. We help groups cultivate their own audiences. Whoever makes the video should know what the issues are and what things are about. Sometimes video makers are disconnected from the content that they are producing. In these cases, ground work is needed with people working in different areas to connect the issues to what is actually happening. Strategy and objectives come first.

Katherine: do you work with each person?

Andrew: well some people just upload one video. In that case we might add a bit of metadata. But more through workshops. We also work on specific issue areas. Migrant workers, religiously motivated intolerance, climate as well. We’ve started to focus more on issue areas. The shorter workshops that we were doing were not getting the longer term payoff that we were looking for.

Andre: As you mentioned all these international connections,that the video makers are not aware, with palm oil and climate change or the group connected to the Kennedy School – is it possible to team up with advocacy organizations?

Andrew: that’s the model. People already had the networks. We thought it could be augmented. The idea is entirely to think about how the video connects to a larger ecosystem of social movements that are working on the space. Some documentary makers don’t like that idea, of linking their works to other actors and movements: my video is an art form, whatever happens after that happens. Others think about making a piece that is linked to social movements.

Alex: do you seek out these organizations, or do they seek you out? When face to face training happens, what does that look like?

Andrew: It depends on the group that we are working with. We examine the advatages and disadvatages of platforms, and also cover different technologies and what they can do. Also, we look at thins like licensing, compression, platforms, distribution mechanisms. We produce a video distribution plan together: what are your objectives for the video, what do you want to achieve? Who are the primacry, secondary, and tertiary audiences that we want to reach? What do you want people to do when they see your video? How will you know if you’re successful or not? There’s a group called Working Films who have a great methodology, focused on feature length films. They work with documentary makers around this. They probably have the best model that I have seen.

Anne: We had a massive debate about the Kony 2012 video. I was thinkng about some of the terms that you used, such as engaging people, etc. Another NGO did a presentation, survival international. They’re a production company, with a cause. Thinking about emotional impact, and aesthetic criteria, how do you think about that?

Andrew: Very occasionally will we produce video and content on our websites. We don’t tell other peoples’ stories. There are some commonalities with Invisible Children in terms of distribution and on the ground work, but the work we do is otherwise very different.

Anne: Is there something that is “too slick?”

Catherine: Is something ‘manipulative’ if we don’t agree, ‘persuasive’ if we do?

And: interesting. There is an aesthetic of ‘citizen video.’ It’s grainy, shaky, and so on. The video I showed from Papua, some people thought it was too slick. What should a citizen video look like? Should it be shaky and grainy? These are some of the things that come up in terms of aesthethics. In some cases, videos have been made with purposely with low production values because there is an idea that a citizen video is low budget. We did have people clean clicks and pops and up the ‘production value. There is a grammar of video storytelling that people are familiar with and that they will respond to.There is indeed an aethetic, and these will change as we get new technoogies everywhere, like HD cameras.

Sasha: There is a practice of getting people in actual spaces and getting them to think together about these types of things. We often look at text themselves in terms of identity, but how can we see identity in the production process?

Fox: part of it is the production process, but also, it’s about how identity is built into the technology you’re using. You asked what the name of individual on the screen was. A screen image can be used in a de-individualizing way. You can think of this in terms of social media. What categories are built into those platforms? What identity categories are reproduced there? Do you need to build new platforms, if so? I’m interested in how technologies encode identity categories. How can we build more self expressive technologies? How can we build new technologies that lend themselves to creating real representations

For example, in a MUD called Armageddon, you can build different type of characters, like ‘moles.’ Sterile hybrids of dwarves and men. When you look at how people play out these characters, much of it is already predefined by what is found on the website/platform. If you have some format that is politically expediate, them you could build a model to suit those needs.

Sasha: What is interesting in the context of this class, is that we built models to calculate how much peoples’ content is worth on social media sites. Andrew wrote an article about Free Software vs Free Beer. With some platforms, like plumi, users can potentially modifiy different aspects of how the tool works. Often times we don’t focus on identity and how they intersect with platforms. Much focus is given to social implications and politics, but the actual platforms are also important in how they shape interactions and representations.

Video Exercises

Before ending our class, all students were engaged in two hands on video exercises, which have been included below:

Exercise: Create videos
In groups, record 30sec (max) video describing your final project for this class
Send to Kyle who will edit these together –

Exercise: Amara – Universal Subtitles (
And demos universal subs on (

We practice using Universal Subs:

  • Go to
  • Choose a language that you know, click on BROWSE>LANGUAGES.
  • You don’t have to translate. The first step is actually transcribing.
  • Choose a video.
  • Select the button that says “Subtitle Me.”
  • Click Subtitle Me, select a language that you are writing subtitles in.
  • Type what you hear.
  • Sync.

Andre, subtitles for Ramos Horta video:

if you prefer to translate or transcribe a video from elsewhere: go to
copy/paste the url of the video you want to transcribe/translate into the text box