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Human rights gets a new voice, Right Now

In the glut of online media publications, there’s the very real risk that a website might get lost in the ether. Content has to be sharp, current and accessible. Given these requirements, you mightn’t think that “human rights” would have mileage as a source for content but the development of not-for-profit media organisation Right Now is a lesson in socially responsible and creative online publishing.

Founded by Melbourne University law student Henrietta Zeffert in 2005, Right Now was first published in 2007 as a biannual, 1000-copy publication. Its first issues contained the usual fare — opinion pieces on discrimination and government policy; interviews with lawyers and refugees — but complementing this was Right Now’s clear focus on the relationship between human rights and the arts, which revealed a unique mission.

Featured in the second edition, for example, was the artwork of Clifford Charles, a victim of apartheid South Africa, who painted “human rights discourse in a quietly poetic yet evocative manner, prompting [an audience] to consider rights as a community,” wrote Adelaide Rief. This “expressive” engagement with human rights has remained consistent throughout Right Now’s various incarnations as print, broadcast and online media.

It was a fresh perspective that also turned out to also be a valuable one with Right Now being awarded funding through the Legal Services Board Grants program in 2010. Overseen by current editor André Dao, $12,000 was invested to create a website and move the publication’s entire content and presence online.

They really liked our pitch,” says Dao, referring to the LSB’s grant application process. “We showed there was a gap in the kinds of websites that were covering human rights and the arts coverage was a big point of difference. Though there are many sites that focus heavily on human rights they are more for the benefit of lawyers.”

Among its network of student and emerging writers have been several one-off high-profile contributors including former High Court justice Michael Kirby and Julian Burnside QC, who keep one of Right Now’s feet in intellectual human rights discourse. It’s a balance that’s worked well with the website having drawn 30,000 unique visitors since its low-key launch in winter last year. They’re numbers that the team could only have dreamed of four years ago and are proof of the “unexpected” benefits in the online medium.

The big worry in moving from magazine to online, is how people would perceive us if we didn’t have a hard-copy product and whether not we’d become a bit more ephemeral and less noteworthy,” says Dao, speaking on a concern that is not all that unique among print publications and purists, more generally.

He continues: “The most surprising thing is that people are taking us a lot more seriously now because we’ve been able to establish a better web presence and our audience has skyrocketed, which interests more institutional stakeholders like universities and law firms … Also, because we’ve been a lot more active on social media, it’s helped tap into art scenes that are also very involved in social media.”

He’s talking about about online partnerships with events such as the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival as well and its real-time coverage on Right Now, which would have been delayed if featured in a biannual print publication. And then there’s the new partnership with The Centre for Poetics and Justice, an organisation that will curate monthly poetry for Right Now, having launched with streamable audio content from Melbourne-based spoken-word artist Jacky T. He says: “That I can make and break just causes / Come up with deplorable applauses / While she watches crops grow I watch TV cop shows spell out justice in long rows”. It’s nice to know that Right Now is not ignoring the creative fringes — an editorial path they might well have chosen after securing Oscar-winning illustrator Shaun Tan for their inaugural online artistic “exhibition”.

The identity of the artists is somewhat irrelevant, however, because the benefit is in the art itself.

Human rights stories and issues can be pretty negative,” admits Dao. “People don’t really want to engage with things that seem hopeless or consistently negative and the arts is one area that’s vibrant and hopeful.”

As evocative as such art and poetry may be, some of Right Now’s other forays into public discourse have tended to be more provocative. Last year the website drew the ire of current Attorney-General Robert Clark, whose outrage centred around a 3000-word piece of non-fiction that claimed to be based on real events and included the graphic homos-xual r-pe experienced by a trans-xual. His comments were written up in The Australian, in an article to led readers to question the benefit of the LSB funding “political activists,” as Clark put it.

But such high-profile criticism is evidence to the editorial team that it is pushing the right buttons.

A group like Right Now are trying to expand what human rights could be and expand human rights into the arts,” Dao responds to a question about Clark. “We’re trying to think about how human rights interact with other, less obvious parts of people’s lives rather than just the law ….

This type of engagement is still making its way into the mainstream discourse, which is exactly what we would hope for.”

The Australian was a good start for “mainstream” engagement. In a much more positive step towards credibility and mainstream acceptance, some of Right Now’s coverage of the Melbourne Occupy movement will be published by Oxford University Press in an English VCE textbook in 2013. It was also represented at a recent symposium held by RMIT’s Australian Centre for Human Rights Education, which explored the relationship between “rights”, creative expression and education.

Right Now is a media organisation that’s stuck to its founding convictions and has benefited from doing so. In return it’s executed exactly what the LSB grant intended by continuing to fulfil its mission of making human rights “part of everyday conversation”.

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