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The Human Rights System 101: The Role of Media and Civil Society


The search for a series of rules, principles, and regulations capable of organizing and safeguarding those fundamental rights and provisions inherent to the human character has represented, since the dawn of time, a primary interest of humanity as a whole. Human rights emerged from an institutional standpoint with the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted after the atrocities of the Second World War to make amends for the crimes committed during the conflict, but their roots predate the 1900s and their character has evolved and morphed drastically since the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Indeed, questions concerning their ontology, scope of action, enforceability, and overall efficacy have characterized the debate surrounding the human rights system since its onset, sparking countless chances for debate and development.

This series entails 6 articles, each presenting a different question that emerged in the definition and implementation of the current human rights system, with the aim to analyze the historical and political developments that characterized this mechanism. Such analysis is fundamental in order to properly frame the current human rights system and its provisions but, given the mutable character of this notion and its different interpretations according to the geographical area and the socio-cultural background taken into consideration, the process is still subjected to constant questioning and development.

The Human Rights System 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

The Human Rights System 101: The role of media and civil society

The introductory paragraph of the Charter of the United Nations (UN) recalls the necessity for the international community to “promote social progress and better standards of life”, underlining the willingness to broadcast human rights at a supranational level (United Nations, 1945). Therefore, it is not surprising how, from its very onset, the human rights regime has attempted to engender the wide diffusion of human rights in its agenda by promoting long-term cooperation with the press and the media (Winston & Pollock, 2016). Indeed, since 1945, the media has constituted a fundamental partner for the human rights movement, which has often exploited the echo chamber of media institutions to orient the attention of civil society toward specific human rights violations. The same Amnesty International, a world-embracing movement working for the protection of human rights, embodies this perspective because, since its first steps, it has exploited established forms of media to broadcast its fight (Nobel Peace Prize Committee, 2019). One of the earliest efforts of Amnesty International was in fact that of raising awareness of the human rights violations committed by the right-wing military dictatorship that imposed its power over Greece during the 1960s (Powers, 2016). In that context, framing the actions of the dictatorship from a human rights perspective was fundamental in capturing the attention of established European media and favoring its isolation from the Council of Europe (Clark 2001).

Nonetheless, news and the media evolved greatly and the digital revolution that impacted the field of information between the 1990s and the early 2000s drastically changed the relationship between the human rights movement and the media. Indeed, the advent of the web and accessible technology has opened nearly-infinite avenues for individuals to be directly engaged in human rights reporting. By exploiting personal technology and social media platforms, individuals became capable of raising global awareness of potential violations of fundamental rights (Winston & Pollock, 2016). Social media modified the original paradigm that explained the relationship between the human rights movement and the media as characterized by a dialogue between institutions and the press. In the novel context created by the advent of free news, human rights Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and directly-engaged individuals started to substitute established media in broadcasting human rights (Powers, 2016). Such a changing environment promoted wider accessibility of human rights matters by the general public, but it also sparked debate on how these “novel” forms of human rights reporting relate to the institutionalized human rights system.

Figure 1: United Nations flags being prepared for UN General Assembly General Debate (United Nations, 2017).

Understanding what media is and how it connects to the cause of human rights is crucial in order to fully realize why media and human rights organizations have always encouraged a process of partnership. Media has been identified by British sociologist John Thompson as the actors involved in the production and exchange of information and symbolic content (Livingstone & Thompson, 1997). According to Thompson, it is natural for human beings to engage in this process because it is through the sharing of information that individuals create social relations and communities. Still, through a series of institutional developments like the invention of serial printing, the production, storage, and circulation of the aforementioned information has progressively been appropriated by media institutions (Livingstone & Thompson, 1997). Such developments allowed news organizations to progressively acquire the role of gatekeepers with the capacity to decide which of the countless issues arising could reach wider audiences, based on commodity and profit (Winston & Pollock, 2016). In this context, the human rights movement was heavily reliant on those established news organizations to raise awareness and it had to strategically define its narratives to obtain the favor of the press before engaging with civil society itself. Such a process has been defined by Keck and Sikkink (1998) as “information politics” – a behavioral approach that advocacy groups adopted to pursue the mainstreaming of human rights. “Information politics” refers mainly to “the ability to quickly and credibly generate politically usable information”, and it describes how the media represented a necessary partner in the expansion of the networks of activists (Keck & Sikkink, 1998).

Such strict relations between the human rights movement and news organizations created a paradigm in which the process of human rights reporting was constricted by the necessities of the press. This condition fundamentally limited the number of actors allowed to impact the human rights regime to a reduced group of established institutions covering issues whose character was newsworthy and profitable (Thrall et al. 2014). In this context, small groups and areas of interest tended to be excluded from mainstream coverage when they did not align with the interpretation of human rights embodied by the leading information channels. According to the contribution of Trevor Thrall for the International Journal of Press and Politics, the attention cycles of media in such a paradigm tended to focus on specific and grave cases of violations of human rights. This fundamentally allowed many issues to never emerge in the public eye and therefore, deprived them of the news attention that would permit any possible improvement of the human rights conditions (Thrall et al. 2014). In this sense, Thrall’s contribution is crucial to understand how the disparity in coverage between Western and non-Western countries in global news media fundamentally hindered the possibilities of the human rights regime to thoroughly embody its global perspective. This limitation forced human rights actors in less-visible areas to struggle to see their efforts gain traction because of the lack of attention awarded to their cause (Thrall et al. 2014). Therefore, such a paradigm tended to exclude a great variety of actors, issues, and contexts, creating a situation in which the coverage of human rights issues depended on the consumability of the facts and their framing in a newsworthy perspective (Powers, 2016).

Figure 2: Men in orange jackets filming a Black Lives Matter protest (Dumlao, 2020).

Nonetheless, such paradigms, which became popular during the age of print, endured a progressive change in their contours and identifying characters with the advent of modernity. Indeed, with the emergence of the internet and social media, the relationship between the human rights movement and established media started to morph to embrace novel aspects of human rights reporting (Powers, 2016). This change could be identified firstly in the ever-increasing number of NGOs and their growing influence in the process of human rights reporting. Indeed, the growing presence of these actors in the international setting gave them a prominent role in the promotion of human rights reporting through the progressive professionalization and institutionalization of their structures (Powers, 2016). According to Matthew Powers, an associate professor at New York University, the progressive employment of photographers and videographers by NGOs is a phenomenon that reflects such professionalization. More and more NGOs expanded their scope of action from mere research, advocacy, and awareness-building to the promotion of semi-journalistic functions and approaches (Powers, 2016). These functions are often identified in the creation of reports, press releases, and data that NGOs like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International promote regularly to play a more involved part in the identification of which human rights violations to mainstream to the public and of the means to guarantee redress (Bogert, 2010).

Further, modernity allowed individuals to employ novel forms of information technologies, like smartphones and recording devices, which created new avenues for the direct involvement of civil society in the production and distribution of human rights news (Land, 2009). The relatively-affordable information technology available to the wider public allowed more individual activists to record and mainstream human rights abuses. Furthermore, the rapid development of social media platforms provided activists with the fora to attract a great number of supporters without necessarily passing through traditional forms of media (Chadwick, 2017). Papo Reto, a group of activists who use cell phones to report police violence in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a clear example of how the commodification of information technology opened new avenues for human rights reporting (Witness International, 2017). The activists part of the collective disseminate recordings of human rights violations through social media channels for the safety of the residents, but also to attract international attention. Since the early 2010s, the echo generated by Papo Reto has led many international NGOs to partner with the collective. These efforts institutionalized the documentation process and further underlined how the professionalization of NGOs and the emergence of civil society reporting often go hand in hand (Powers, 2016).

Figure 3: Riocinha Favela - Rio de Janeiro Brazil (Berkowitz, D 2010).

The aforementioned developments fundamentally altered the initial relationship between the human rights movement and institutionalized media – creating the possibility for more actors to insert themselves in the process of information production on human rights. These technological and institutional changes sparked a novel development of the paradigm because they created the avenue to potentially pursue the universality of human rights through a perspective inclusive of a growing number of actors (Winston & Pollock, 2016). Nonetheless, the growing collaboration between institutions, NGOs and civil society presents a considerable level of uncertainty. This mainly concerns the veracity of the information gathered and the relation of these news developments with established mechanisms of human rights reporting (Powers, 2016).

Concerning the potential verification issues arising from the direct involvement of civil society in human rights reporting, it is important to understand that individuals have the freedom to distort their reports. This element of uncertainty, therefore, requires further verification mechanisms to constitute valuable tools for the promotion of human rights (Roberts, 2018). Since the credibility of sources represents a fundamental tool in the mobilization of audiences, the practice of many NGOs is oriented toward the safeguarding of this notion (McPherson, 2016). To pursue credibility, many NGOs that employ input coming from civil society put in place verification mechanisms that merge the information-gathering power of new media with the necessity to verify the credibility of sources. Since 1992, Witness, an international NGO working alongside local communities to harness the power of video and technology in the fight for justice, has sought to develop and maintain verification practices for its activism (Witness International, 2017). Among these practices, the verifiability of Witness reporting has been particularly improved by the promotion of training aimed at equipping those utilizing eyewitness videos with the skills necessary to promote accurate, and objective forms of reporting (Ristovska, 2016). As a result, numerous NGOs like Witness are not only advocating new strategies for reporting on human rights issues but are also addressing the demand for credibility by creating cutting-edge standards and tools for verification.

Figure 4: Amnesty International Demonstration in Baltimore (USA) (Amnesty International USA, 2012).

Finally, the opening of human rights activities to civil society and individual activists through modern technologies and communication channels poses the question of how to balance these novel forms of human rights reporting with their established counterparts. In this context, new media and citizen participation could potentially expand the range of violations tackled and of the audiences engaged (Powers, 2016). Nonetheless, despite the growing availability of channels of communication, institutional mechanisms like the professional press can still embody the figure of watchdogs whose controlling role could still be essential in the digital media age (Lamer, 2016). Indeed, in the highly fragmented environment of digital media, the professional press still represents an effective way not only to reach a mass audience but also to safeguard the veracity of which facts eventually morph into headlines (Winston & Pollock, 2016). Therefore, while the rise of citizen journalism and activism through new media is undoubtedly a phenomenon capable of equating traditional media in the echo generated, it should still not dismiss the important verification role that institutionalized press can play in the promotion of human rights (Lamer, 2016).

In conclusion, the progressive development of communication technologies and new media has led to a progressively-increasing involvement of NGOs and civil society in the process of human rights reporting. This could, potentially, question the monopoly that institutionalized mechanisms held until the advent of the digital age. Nonetheless, while this evolving environment has allowed the regime to pursue a wider range of topics, issues, and areas, it has also created the premises for uncertainty on the need to balance these novel mechanisms with the preexisting institutional structure. The involvement of civil society and new media in human rights reporting could indeed represent a fundamental asset in the advancement of the human rights movement, but such engagement should not deny the role of “traditional” actors like the press, media, and institutions. In order to seek the genuine universality of human rights values, it is essential to approach these new forms of technology and interaction with caution, reviewing the procedures to ensure their exploitation in ways that are grounded in the concepts of credibility and impartiality.

Bibliographical References

Bogert, Carroll. (2010) Similar paths, different missions. Nieman Reports, 64(2), 59–61.

Chadwick, A. (2017). The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.

Clark, Ann Marie. (2001) Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

Keck, M. E., & Sikkink, K. (1998). Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Foreign Affairs, 77(4), 123.

Lamer, W. (2016). Promoting the people’s surrogate: The case for press freedom as a distinct human right. Journal of Human Rights, 15(3), 361–382.

Land, M. B. (2009). Peer Producing Human Rights. Alberta Law Review, 46(4), 1115.

Livingstone, S., & Thompson, J. (1997). The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media. The British Journal of Sociology, 48(1), 164.

McPherson, E. (2016). Source credibility as “information subsidy”: Strategies for successful NGO journalism at Mexican human rights NGOs. Journal of Human Rights, 15(3), 330–346.

Nobel Peace Prize Committee. (2019). The nobel peace prize 1977.

Powers, M. (2016). A new era of human rights news? Contrasting two paradigms of human rights news-making. Journal of Human Rights, 15(3), 314–329.

Ristovska, S. (2016). Human Rights Through The Lens: A Study of the Institutionalization and Professionalization of Video Activism. Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations.

Roberts, T. (2018). ASSESSING THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY IN VIOLENCE REPORTING. Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, 10(2), 9.

Thrall, A. T., Stecula, D., & Sweet, D. (2014). May We Have Your Attention Please? Human-Rights NGOs and the Problem of Global Communication. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 19(2), 135–159.

United Nations. (1945). Charter of the United Nations Statute.

Winston, M. E., & Pollock, J. C. (2016). Human rights in the news: Balancing new media participation with the authority of journalists and human rights professionals. Journal of Human Rights, 15(3), 307–313.

Witness. (2017). Our Story. WITNESS.

Witness International. (2017, September 26). Coletivo Papo Reto: Combating Police Violence in Brazil. WITNESS.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Dumlao, N (2020). Human Rights Demonstration. Available at:

Figure 1: United Nations, (2017). United Nations flags being prepared for UN General Assembly General Debate. Available at:

Figure 2: Dumlao, N. (2020). Men in orange jackets filming a Black Lives Matter protest. Available at:

Figure 3: Berkowitz, D. (2010). Riocinha Favela - Rio de Janeiro Brazil. Available at:

Figure 4: Amnesty International USA (2012). Amnesty International Demonstration in Baltimore (USA). Available at:

Author Photo

Niccolò Fantin

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