We at Pod Bible spoke to the team behind Witness from Amnesty International, a new series about the organization’s Research and Crisis Response teams. These hardworking, dedicated investigators bring listeners powerful stories some of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth.
Where did the idea for Witness from Amnesty International come from?
We wanted to take our listeners behind the scenes on some of the biggest human rights investigations carried out in recent years and show what it really takes to hold human rights abusers to account – particularly in an era of ‘fake news’. People often see the headlines or the news bulletins, but it’s hard to imagine the reality – the months, sometimes years of painstaking detective work required to get to that point.
We thought the best way to do this was through Amnesty’s research and crisis response teams whose investigations take them to some of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth. The work is incredibly complex, high stakes and relies on witness testimony. And this was one of the key motivations behind the series – to emphasise the crucial role of human voices. Our researchers need brave witnesses to share their powerful stories – however harrowing or difficult – in order to get to the truth and hold human rights perpetrators to account. Witness from Amnesty International shows exactly how and why we continue to investigate and champion human rights for everyone, everywhere.
Why is a podcast the right format for Witness?
Podcasts are a fantastic storytelling platform. Witness from Amnesty International is filled with interesting, dramatic, and important stories with a clear story arc. They have twists and turns like any other detective story or true crime series, but the difference here is there is no luxury of an author to get them out of trouble. There is no safety net. And all too sadly, what these witnesses have experienced is shocking reality.
We also found that the podcast format allowed us to tackle some really complex content with flexibility and nuance. The stories told by researchers and the witnesses they meet are incredibly important – but they can also be challenging and emotionally charged. The podcast format allows our listeners to bear witness to what happened, without experiencing it.
Through the voices of our researchers, the voices of the witnesses and the use of music and sound design, you can tell the story sensitively, without it being too overwhelming for the listener. After all, we want listeners to really understand the issues, the experiences of people whose lived reality this is, and feel compelled to do something about it. To do that, they have to keep listening.
Episode one, The Party, is a good example. The episode pieces together the fate of tens of thousands of people ‘disappeared’ during the conflict in Syria. In 2015, Amnesty researcher Nicolette Waldman journeys to find out what is going on inside Saydnaya, a sinister military prison so feared by Syrians it has become folklore. Relying on the memory of those who managed to get out alive, Amnesty International alongside research group Forensic Architecture, used architectural and acoustic modelling, to create a reconstruction of the prison and their experiences of detention. The episode features the sounds of the prison that the survivors so painstakingly remembered, giving listeners a unique insight into their experience, without immersing them too heavily.
How big or small is the team that produces Witness?
The series has been produced by award-winning documentary-maker Cathy FitzGerald, whose work is a regular feature on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. Cathy has won a number of audio awards including Third Coast Audio Festival, Prix Marulic and Whicker’s World. Alongside Cathy, audio producer Sarah Cuddon, who has worked extensively with BBC Radio networks, has been involved in the production process.
It is hosted by Tanya O’Carroll, Director of Amnesty Tech – a specialised team that undertakes investigations, campaigns and advocacy in relation to the human rights impacts of new and frontier technologies.
The production team worked with a number of current and former members of Amnesty International’s research team including Mark Dummett, Nicolette Waldman, Anna Shea, Anya Neistat, Tirana Hassan, Donatella Rovera, Audrey Gaughran, Makmid Kamara, and Danna Ingleton.
How collaborative is their process?
Ensuring the series handled the sensitive, challenging and complex topics with tremendous care, whilst also ensuring we kept listeners engaged was a delicate balancing act that could only really have been achieved with significant collaboration between Cathy as producer and the team at Amnesty. The team also gained insight from industry experts including Stephen Coates, who composed original music for the series.
How important are the voices you hear from in Witness and how are they chosen?
It was really important to bring the investigations to life to ensure the listener could understand the realities of human rights field work and what it takes to uncover the truth, when there are those who would prefer the truth to stay buried. Picking the right contributors for each episode was crucial to this.
The researchers who feature in the series are incredibly committed and passionate about their work and that really comes across in the series. They are animated, compassionate and at times vulnerable. But also, from a practical perspective, they were all very good storytellers and gave a really detailed and colourful picture of what was happening at any given moment. Most importantly, they were able to give life to the amazing witnesses they met along the way and whose stories formed their reports and investigations.