NEWS: Conference to explore the effect of media on human rights

Luciana Gravotta | Contributor

 The Promise of the Media in Halting Mass Atrocities conference will be held in Montreal on October 20th and 21st. The conference, hosted by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS), will delve into topics such as the media’s power to protect human rights and the impact of social media on reporting.  According to the MIGS’s website the conference will also ” mark the 10th Anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect.”

Jonathan Hutson is the spokesperson for the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) and one of the speakers that will attend the conference. The SSP uses satellite images of Sudan as a warning system to prevent civil war between North and South. According to the SSP’s twitter page, they are the anti-genocide paparazzi.

“The SSP is the world’s first early warning system and near real-time visual documentation system for human rights and human security,” said Hutson in an email. “We aim to detect, deter, interdict and document mass atrocities.”

The SSP is a rare collaboration between a university, a commercial satellite firm, a website designer, a group of policymakers and activists, and google. According to Hutson, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative analyzes and writes up reports based on the satellites provided by DigitalGlobe. The Enough Project collects field reports, eyewitness interviews, and material from citizen journalists, and the SSP fact checks. The collection of sources and information is then put out using both traditional and new media.

“We use Tweets, Facebook messages, and SMS text to engage the public in pressuring policy makers to respond more quickly and effectively,” says Hutson.

The conference  will feature sixteen world experts on the promise of media in halting mass atrocities and will have four panel discussions. Among the speakers are  Lt.-General Roméo A. Dallaire, former commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda and author of the award-winning book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, C.J. Chivers, Senior writer for the New York Times, and Paul Martin, Canada’s 21st prime minister.

The ‘From Streets to Tweets: Harnessing the Power of Social Media and Technology’ panel discussion (one of the four at the conference) will tackle the challenges that lie ahead for use of social media and technology in effective communication. According to Frank Chalk, director of the MIGS, the earthquake in Haiti was the first time SMS text messaging and other forms or social media were used to coordinate the rescue of victims and the delivery of relief supplies. “Another amazing development was that NGOs began to use satellite images from Google Earth in real-time to map open roads so that rescuers could follow efficient routes to reach survivors,” said Chalk. But, he added that, “no advance comes without new challenges.”

According to Chalk, the biggest challenge in the case of Haiti was the sheer volume of messages that overwhelmed the rescue workers. The task was not helped by the fact that most did not speak Creole and that as many as two-thirds of the messages received were inaccurate and led rescue workers to the wrong location. These problems need to be addressed to enable the international community to respond more effectively in future crises.

While the process is still developing, platforms and strategies used for responding to mass atrocities are proliferating. Hutson says that Al Jazeera English’s The Stream, is an example of the future of “network news gathering, citizen journalism, and social media to respond to mass atrocities.” According the Al Jazeera English’s website, its mission is to give voice to the voiceless.

So why attend the conference? According to Chalk, “The public needs to be educated about these things, it’s not just for the experts… they’re game-changing developments.”

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