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Adebayo Okeowo: The Role of Video Evidence in the #EndSARS Movement

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On October 3, a video showing the extra-judicial killing of two civilians by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police sparked outrage on social media. It led to more and more Nigerians sharing videos and personal stories of their brutal encounters with SARS operatives – a unit that became notorious for engaging in all manner of crimes, from armed robberies to unlawful arrests, rape, torture, and murder. The avalanche of video evidence made it impossible to ignore the calls for an end to police brutality in Nigeria, just like we have witnessed in Brazil and the US. Soon, the online outrage spilled onto the streets as protests broke out across the country on October 8, with Nigerians demanding for SARS to be disbanded and the perpetrators held accountable. 

Why you must keep filming

Not only did a video trigger a civic reawakening, we have also continued to see it play a powerful role in galvanizing support for the #EndSARS protests. For instance, video evidence of police violence during the peaceful protests further strengthened the resolve of Nigerians to ensure there is an end to police brutality and impunity. It is ironic that the police decided to deploy brutal tactics as a response to peaceful protests against police brutality. 

Also, thanks to video evidence, young people like Ademola Ojabodu, Treasure Nduka and Felicia Okpara got released after being unlawfully arrested during the protests. Lawyers who have been working hard to provide free legal aid during the protests have reported that the police go as far as denying arresting protesters until they are confronted with video evidence. 

Then, spurred by the mountain of video evidence, the governor of Lagos State announced the commencement of an orderly room trial for police officers who had been engaged in misconduct since the protests began. Also noteworthy is the fact that video has helped present irrefutable evidence of attacks on protesters by law enforcement agents even as there have been many desperate attempts to dub the protesters as being violent in a bid to delegitimize the movement. 

All these point to the remarkable way video evidence has been deployed to expose injustice and seek accountability. This is why the filming must continue, especially now that the Federal Government has instructed all 36 States of the federation to set up judicial panels of inquiry that will investigate the cases of police brutality with a view of delivering justice to the victims. Evidence will be needed during these investigations, therefore the opportunity to present compelling video evidence must not be lost. However, it all starts with effective documentation.

How to film effectively and safely

It is important to remember that for your video to help secure justice and accountability, it should show the crime being committed and by whom it is being committed. However, if a video does not contain both elements (i.e. the who and the what), it does not mean it is worthless. Such video can still be used as corroborating evidence or lead evidence. For example, if you find a video online that claims to confirm that the police fired tear gas canisters at peaceful protesters but all you see in the video are people in respiratory distress, such video does not unilaterally prove the alleged crime. It, however, can serve as corroborating evidence when combined with other pieces of evidence that reveal the police indeed fired tear gas at protesters. Consider it as one giant puzzle, and every video evidence is a piece of that puzzle. 

To increase the trustworthiness of your video footage while filming police brutality during these protests, here are some things to bear in mind:

  • Try to record what took place before the conflict broke out. While it is not easy to anticipate when the police will retaliate against protesters, filming everything happening on the protests grounds ensures that we have footage of what or who may have provoked the conflict. Having this can be useful in dispelling false claims that may seek to accuse the protesters of inciting violence.
  • Do not break your recording. Having a footage that starts and stops at different intervals can increase skepticism around the reliability of the video. It gives people the excuse to dismiss it as having been manipulated. It is, therefore, key to record without interruptions so as to eliminate accusations of ‘filming bias’ and to also ensure that critical pieces of evidence are not missing.
  • Capture the violation but also the violator. Do not forget that to achieve accountability, the perpetrator of a crime as well as their crime have to be established. To this end, make sure you document details of the perpetrator such as their name badge, uniform, type of weapon used, amongst others. If the perpetrator is acting based on orders from a superior on the scene, it is important to capture that too.

Challenges to filming effectively

One of the prevalent challenges to filming police brutality is that witnesses may face retaliation from the police. This can be in the form of confiscation of camera, arrest, and torture of the digital witnesses (like we saw in the case of Nigerian journalist – Kofi Bartels), or targeting of the protesters whose identities were traced using protest videos posted online. To guard against these scenarios, it is best not to film when it is not safe to do so. However, if you do choose to film, here are some of the things you can do:

  • Livestream the event so that whatever violation is occurring can be captured and broadcast in real time. This can help mobilize necessary support should any harm come to you.
  • Set your phone to automatically backup your footage on the cloud in the event that your footage is forcefully deleted.
  • Use apps such as ProofMode or Eyewitness to Atrocities to preserve the integrity of your footage. This becomes essential if your video will be used in court because then the prosecution will need to prove chain of custody.
  • To protect the identity of your fellow protesters, avoid filming their faces. As an alternative, you can film their backs or use a blur tool like ObscuraCam to conceal their identities before publishing your footage online. The goal is to expose the perpetrators for their crimes and not make fellow protesters vulnerable targets for retaliation.
  • An effective strategy around filming police brutality is to ponder on when the best time is to release/publish your video evidence. Publishing at the right time can be the difference between the utility of your evidence and you becoming a target of retaliation yourself. We have seen this play out in the US where Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the killing of Eric Garner, was targeted by the police and eventually imprisoned.

It is encouraging that we have started to see citizen video evidence being used to pursue justice in Nigerian courts, such as in the ALUU 4 case. This is a precursor to what we can anticipate when the volumes of video evidence relating to #EndSARS start making their way into courtroom prosecutions. Hopefully, they will help secure justice for the countless victims of police brutality in Nigeria. 

To find out more about video as evidence, go to vae.witness.org

Adebayo Okeowo is a human rights lawyer with significant experience working around using video evidence to seek justice for international crimes. He is currently the Africa Program Manager at WITNESS - an international organization that empowers people everywhere to leverage the power of video and technology in the defense of human rights Twitter: @AdebayOkeowo

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