[FoRK] [liberationtech] Videre: the secretive group on a mission to film human-rights abuses
eugen at leitl.org
Thu Aug 29 08:59:41 PDT 2013
----- Forwarded message from catchalladdress at nym.hush.com -----
Date: Thu, 29 Aug 2013 15:01:14 +0100
From: catchalladdress at nym.hush.com
To: liberationtech at lists.stanford.edu
Subject: [liberationtech] Videre: the secretive group on a mission to film human-rights abuses
Reply-To: liberationtech <liberationtech at lists.stanford.edu>
Somewhere in Africa, a white man gets up and goes to the bathroom.
He pops up the handle on his wheeled suitcase and pulls it across
the tiled floor and down a set of steps to the urinal. When he has
finished he hauls the case back up the steps to the table and parks
it beside him, within arm's reach. He never lets the object out of
The bag is his life, and it exercises power over many other lives
too. If it fell into the wrong hands there would be consequences --
the contents could cause people to be tortured, or even murdered.
That's why Wired cannot tell you where he is sitting, nor reveal
his identity. Nor can we reveal the country -- except to say that
it's outside Africa -- where he lives with his family. His wife
exists in a state of anxiety when he is not at home and is often
irritated when he is, such are the distractions of his work --
notably the constant interruptions of his nine phones. She is proud
of his work, he says, but angry too. The pair are in counselling.
The phones ring at all hours of the day and night. Often the person
on the other end of the line is thousands of kilometres away, in
fear of his or her life, with no one else to turn to. At that
moment, the man needs to make a decision -- to offer advice or
direction that could make the difference between life and death. He
does not carry that burden lightly.
The man must remain anonymous and, for this story, he has asked to
be known as Carlos. He says that he was brought up in Romania, and
that he served in the army. He is in his thirties, slightly built,
and has a beard to make himself look older. We meet in the spring
of 2013 at an airport in Africa. He asks not to be referred to by
name in front of anyone else, especially colleagues, who know him
by different names. Carlos's colleague, Oren Yakobovich (his real
name), arrives soon afterwards. Yakobovich, 42, is a former Israeli
soldier who still carries himself with a military bearing. He picks
up a hire car and drives us through the city, moving slowly in the
early-morning traffic, and head for the suburbs, to the group's
regional office. He repeatedly checks the rear-view mirror. "We're
not being followed, that's for sure," he says. The secrecy is for
good reason: Yakobovich and Carlos operate a ground-breaking human-
rights organisation that uses video footage -- obtained both openly
and covertly using hidden cameras -- to tell the stories of people
suffering at the hands of oppressive, violent regimes. After
operating in almost total secrecy for the last three years, the two
men have offered wired unprecedented access to the work of their
The NGO's name comes from the Latin "Videre est credere", which
means "to see is to believe". Its mission is to reveal the workings
of violent regimes through a network of activists who film and
record abuses and violations of human rights. When necessary, its
operatives film secretly, tracking the activities of tyrannical
rulers and their cronies like an intelligence service. It operates
in several African countries and has a substantial presence in one
particular troubled nation where state terror and violence are
widespread. Videre taps into a network of 120 human rights workers
(referred to as "researchers") in that country who film -- some of
them at enormous personal risk -- the activities of the state
security services and their political masters, in some
circumstances undercover. Each group operates in a cell structure.
"It's a bit like the network of Al-Qaeda," Carlos explains, and
then wonders at the wisdom of likening his organisation to the
world's most notorious terrorist organisation. Another parallel is
the Provisional IRA, which organised its operatives in small groups
so each was unaware of what the others were up to -- no individual
could give the others away if caught.
As head of operations, Carlos feels personally responsible for the
researchers, as well as the other volunteers and paid staff who
support them. He shuttles back and forth on long-haul flights
between hot spots in Africa, his family and Videre's headquarters
in London. He explains that he's anxious on planes. It's not fear
of flying, but the thought that, while he's in the air, someone in
his network will be in trouble and he won't be available to help
He describes a walk he takes at his home airport from the plane to
passport control: a walk between one world and another. "I often
used to cry on that walk, for the tensions, for the things I've
heard," he says.
Last spring, one activist was caught filming by the security
services of the oppressive regime in question. This led to another
arrest and a Videre operative being subject to torture and violent
interrogation. He was coerced into revealing information about the
organisation. Carlos has since learned that the security services
already knew about him, although they are familiar with only one of
his aliases, and not his real name.
Yakobovich argues that some of the human rights workers are less at
risk with cameras as the authorities know that reprisals will be
recorded. However, some activists are targeted by the authorities,
and some have been captured while filming. Because of this, Carlos
and others are constantly trying to make the cameras more discreet,
but without sacrificing their effectiveness. (Those pictured in
this story are all discontinued.) The devices need to be simple and
easy to use by people in vulnerable circumstances who may not be
adept at surveillance or familiar with technology.
Secret filming devices formerly used by VidereLiam Sharp
Carlos has come to show some of the lead researchers the most
recent hidden-camera designs he's been working on. Videre's covert
operatives largely use Chinese-made spy cameras that resemble
memory sticks. Each has a small, rechargeable battery and records
on to SD cards. The devices can be clipped into shirt pockets, but
the camera lenses must be visible in order for them to be able to
function effectively, which exposes some operatives to danger. The
African state in question knows it is being watched. Political
activists and militia members have delivered stark warnings. Those
attending a rally were recently told: "It is a political meeting.
Is that clear? It's a family affair. No one should record what's
happening here because it's an internal matter. If we catch you
recording us, you will be [in] trouble."
Carlos has been hacking the Chinese spy cameras -- he tears them
apart and uses the components in his prototypes. When he and the
researchers are happy with a design, they produce it in bulk. He
once made a chunky, rubberised crucifix with a camera sealed
inside. At the centre of the cross was a pinhole lens. The device
was dismissed as bulky and conspicuous. Carlos has built new
iterations -- prototypes have been brought to Africa for
consideration by operatives who have travelled to meet him in a
neighbouring country's capital. It's an 18-hour journey on a
crowded bus with long delays at the border. Tonight, in darkness,
Carlos and Yakobovich will cross the city -- observing counter-
surveillance routines designed to thwart anyone following them --
to a secret destination where they will meet the researchers.
Videre was founded in 2008 by two Israelis who, unknown to each
other, had the same idea at a similar time. Yakobovich was raised
in a right-wing Israeli community near Tel Aviv. As a youth he
readily accepted the status quo of fervent Israeli nationalism.
"The Arabs did not exist, they were there but they had no rights
and didn't deserve a country," he says, explaining his former
views, over coffee and hummus in a Marylebone hotel, before the
trip to Africa. He couldn't wait to join the army. He was so
enthusiastic about conscription that he began training before he
started, working on his fitness so he would be a better soldier. He
was quickly promoted to officer. "I had more power at 19 than I
ever had in my whole life before or since," he explains. "It gives
you great skills for life."
Serving in Gaza, he says that he was never close enough to confirm
a kill, but he certainly shot people. "You're up on the Lebanon
border, there are terrorists coming, you're going in, you start
shooting…" he says. Mostly, though, he was involved in gathering
There was no single terrible incident or atrocity that made him
become disillusioned about the Israeli cause or the way the army
treated the Arabs. But he became gradually aware that his
involvement in day-to-day activities, such as checking men, women
and children at checkpoints, was creating more hate, more enemies --
and probably more terrorism too. He says his fellow soldiers
thought of all Arabs as potential enemies, and treated them
accordingly. He noted how ordinary young Israelis could switch from
compassion to cruelty. "I gradually realised there was something
very wrong," he says.
Finally, he refused to go to the West Bank on a guard detail. He
was supposed to be protecting a secret counterterrorist mission,
and disobeying an order made him a refusenik. He says he spent a
month in jail. "I didn't want to do it any more," he says of the
military. Because he was an officer the conditions in prison were
tolerable. He infuriated the prison authorities by climbing on the
roof to salute supporters of the refuseniks on a nearby hill. "But
no one abused me or beat me -- there was time to think," he says.
Videre footage of citizens and security forces, filmed in an
unnamed terror-state in Africa
Having served his time, he was released from the army and,
increasingly aware of the social and political troubles in Israel,
decided to become a film maker. He thought he could change the
world, but also meet girls. "I thought it was a very cool thing to
do... always better than saying you're a banker," he says. He never
went to film school -- he couldn't afford it -- so he took out a
loan, bought a camera and started filming, making a series of
documentaries in the early 2000s that he hoped would stir Israeli
sentiment. There was a film about the Bedouin, another about
education for Palestinians, another about the treatment of
psychiatric patients. He met women too, but nothing really changed
and he became disillusioned with the insular world of film
festivals and screenings.
In 2005, out of frustration and hope, Yakobovich joined the Israeli
human-rights group B'Tselem and gave the organisation's work new
impetus by setting up a video unit and supplying cameras to
families living in areas where they were facing daily conflict with
settlers. The Palestinians filmed openly, not needing to use secret
cameras. (Yakobovich later -- wrongly -- assumed the same approach
would be possible in Africa too.) One sequence, from 2007, became
notorious in Israel, and was also broadcast on the BBC and CNN. At
a Hebron home that became known as "the cage house", a Palestinian
family found itself under verbal attack from settlers. One of them -
- a 16-year-old girl -- filmed herself being abused by an Israeli
woman, who called the teenager a whore.
"Sharmuta Video" - Settler harassment of Palestinians in
"I think it was very shocking for people to see these words coming
from a very religious woman," says Yakobovich, who remains a firm
believer in Israel. "And what was even more shocking was two
soldiers standing there doing nothing to protect the young girl.
They are supposed to be a moral army."
Yakobovich's work generated hate mail and death threats, but he
believes it made a substantial difference by helping to reduce
violence towards Palestinians in the West Bank. "My strongest
belief in the human-rights struggle is you don't have a big fight,
you don't have big wins," he says. "It's the small, uphill battles,
the small wins that bring about change over time." He started to
wonder if the same model might make an impact further afield.
Around the same time, Uri Fruchtmann was thinking along similar
lines. Fruchtmann, who chairs Videre's Board of Trustees, has
followed an unlikely path to human-rights work: a successful
entertainment executive, he has produced several films, among them
Spice World, featuring the Spice Girls. For 12 years he was married
to Annie Lennox, with whom he has two children. Fruchtmann, 58, is
a reflective, easy-going character with powerful connections. (
Brian Eno -- a friend -- hosted a fund-raising party at his studio
in the early days of Videre.) It was through a conversation with
another friend, Terry Gilliam, now a Videre board member, that
Fruchtmann had the idea of exploiting the rapid obsolescence of
equipment in the film industry by buying up old cameras, so that
they could be used to record human-rights abuses. In the 90s, he
had been involved in an environmental campaign in Majorca where he
had helped to make a short film explaining the plight of the black
vulture. The film had raised significant funds for the cause and
made Fruchtmann consider the potential of film as a weapon for
Like Yakobovich, Fruchtmann had made trouble during his own time
serving in the Israeli army. He had been a conscientious objector
in the 70s and had been beaten up by his fellow soldiers for not
observing the rules. According to Fruchtmann, he was called before
a military court eight times -- each occasion led to another month
"I always had a passion for justice, or a passion against
injustice," he says, in a restaurant near London's Baker Street in
May. His parents fled Nazi Germany, losing everything. After the
army, Fruchtmann became a hippy and travelled round Europe, then
worked as a photographer in Israel; eventually, like Yakobovich, he
became a documentary maker -- making two music films, Stir It Up
and The Atlantic Records Story, both released in 1994 -- before
producing his first feature, Spice World, in 1997. He now co-owns
Neither Fruchtmann nor Yakobovich can remember how they met.
Fruchtmann travelled to the West Bank in 2008 looking for partners
for his project. "People told me I should talk to Oren," he says.
"We found each other and went around the West Bank together."
Fruchtmann recalls the filming of the 1991 beating of Rodney King
as a defining moment on the journey to Videre. King, an African-
American, was attacked by five police officers in Los Angeles. As
they assaulted King with their batons, they were filmed by a local
resident. The footage was transmitted around the world. When the
officers were acquitted, there was widespread rioting. Fruchtmann
wondered: if every parking violation is being recorded on film, why
shouldn't human-rights abuses be recorded? He describes the
approach as "little brother turning the cameras on Big Brother".
"I was forced to dance with a man I didn't know. He said he was my
husband for the day. They asked me how it felt. I said it was nice
as I felt I had no choice. I don't even recall the rest who raped
Several staff in Videre's regional office sit at screens reviewing
video footage. Onscreen, ten women who live in a state we can't
name, describe multiple rapes and terrible violence they suffered
at the hands of 25 men. They did not know all of their attackers,
but some still lived in the same communities. One woman speaks of
remembering how a local politician had urged the men to assault her.
"They randomly took us and shared us among themselves... they only
finished at dawn," she says. "I was forced to dance with a man I
didn't know. He said he was my husband for the day. They asked me
how it felt. I said it was nice as I felt I had no choice. I don't
even recall the rest who raped me afterwards."
One woman was pregnant when the men came looking for her husband.
He escaped. "I pleaded for mercy -- they said they didn't care,
it's politics," she says. "After the lashes, I started bleeding,
then passed out." She says she was repeatedly raped while
unconscious. "Later I heard them say it was a boy. I had a
miscarriage. [A villager] took away my baby. I didn't even know
where they dumped it." The woman discovered she was HIV positive.
Ashamed to tell her husband what had happened, she infected him.
She went to the police to report the rape but "they clapped their
hands and laughed". The women are speaking because they want the
perpetrators brought to justice. Videre has used trusted local
contacts to identify the victims and build confidence among them
that it is safe to talk. One day, Videre hopes, there will be
criminal trials. The woman who miscarried says: "It's for us to
live with the culprits, they are still tormenting us."
Data-mining software creates patterns and networks of rights
violations by combing the web and Videre footage
Videre has set up the office in the city of the neutral African
country as a place to collect, process and distribute the footage
its researchers obtain from the terror state. It's smuggled into
the country by Videre operatives riding buses. One of the three
full-time office staff, Eddie (not his real name), meets the
couriers at the bus terminal, often not knowing who they are or how
to find them.
"There are always problems collecting the film," says Eddie, a
bullish, articulate young white man. He sometimes has smooth
handovers, where a hard drive is handed over concealed inside a
newspaper or collected from a dead letter drop but, more often than
not, the courier gets lost, or their phone is dead after the long
bus journey. The Videre staffer will roam the bus station,
sometimes on the phone to Carlos in another continent, trying to
identify the courier.
The Videre office workers know the couriers and researchers only by
code names: Carlos alone knows their real identities and
choreographs the entire operation by phone, email and Skype when he
is away. Every communication is encrypted. Carlos uses HushMail and
Tor. TrueCrypt encrypts and disguises files and can also protect
hard drives. If a hard drive is encrypted and is connected to a
computer that doesn't use TrueCrypt, one click will erase the
material forever. Footage is recorded on SD cards and copied on to
hard drives in the country of origin, where it is disguised as an
MP3 or .mov file and encrypted.
The office contains powerful servers that are stored in a walk-in
safe. The footage is retrieved from the hard drives before being
archived and catalogued using CatDV software. There may be many
hours of tedious, useless footage to screen before there is
anything worth showing to the world. But if Videre is lucky, some
footage will be of usable quality. All too often the image is good
but the sound quality poor, or it's the other way around.
"We have footage of a body in the morgue, beaten, shot -- you can
see bullets still in his body"
The archivist, Sonia (not her real name), is a young woman whose
family comes from the terror state. Her father has been imprisoned
and her uncle was killed by political rivals. For her the material
has special relevance. "I don't just watch the footage, I become
the footage," she says. "We never know who filmed it, I always
imagine it could be my own father or cousin." She is unable to tell
family or friends the nature of her work. It's like gold mining,
she explains: you might sift through 40 hours to find a single
nugget. She and her colleagues give feedback to Carlos, who passes
it on to the researchers in the hope they will supply better
Sonia's colleague Mike (not his real name) edits the footage for
distribution. He too is from the terror state and says that
watching the film can be both depressing and absorbing. Much of the
footage comes from remote areas where abuses and violations are
commonplace. The perpetrators believe they can act with impunity as
they are far from international journalists.
Some researchers are becoming increasingly bold, filming in
prisons, morgues and open-air rallies where intimidation and the
threat of violence prevail. "We have footage of a body in the
morgue, beaten, shot -- you can see bullets still in his body,"
Mike says. "He was a working on a farm where the owners are
mistreating the employees -- and this visual brought the story
Mike recently returned to his home country, intending to do some
filming at a political rally. "But I lost courage and missed the
action because I was so scared. In the end I had to hide behind a
truck and start filming."
He can't think of anything as brave as the researchers risking
their lives. "It makes me sad, man, that something has broken down
in African society," he says. "We are known for hospitality, for
community. We rotate during the famine -- today the whole village
comes to my field, tomorrow to yours. Now people are killing and
harming each other because of politics."
One of Videre's film packages highlights the politicisation of
food, in which supporters of the main party are given sacks of seed
as staple foodstuffs, and opponents are denied food altogether.
"The ethos is not to shock but to effect change and we try to avoid
the usual African stereotypes, the diet of violence"
There is significant emphasis placed on verification of the
footage. The context is analysed, as is the metadata, which is
relayed to a team on the ground which then undertakes further
checks. Translation is done by more than one person to ensure that
all the nuances of the language used in the clips are understood.
If there is any doubt as to the veracity of the material, it won't
Once it has been edited, Videre's footage is released "free to
air", to local and regional media and has also been broadcast in
the US, the UK and elsewhere via the BBC, CNN and other
organisations. The group's approach is to use targeted distribution
in mainstream media and also post material on specific YouTube
channels such as The Human Rights Channel. The content is sometimes
posted anonymously, and supporters are encouraged to tweet links
and post them through the social-media news distributor Storyful.
The organisation has also started using Google and Facebook ads and
to produce content to directly target specific issues. A recent
project, recorded openly, was a short film that aims to end the
practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). One woman describes
how she used to wield a razor on young girls. She is now an anti-
FGM campaigner. Videre's local partners have been taking the film
around villages where Yakobovich says it has been having a
significant impact in combating the practice.
Eddie started work at the regional office last year. On his first
day he watched footage of a man whose testicles had been smashed
with a hammer. Videre would not release the footage. "We call that
kind of extreme violence pornography," says Eddie. "We don't want
it in the media. The ethos is not to shock but to effect change and
we try to avoid the usual African stereotypes, the diet of
Eddie jokes that, when he applied for the job, Yakobovich
repeatedly lied about the true nature of the work. The vague
explanations that he was offered made it seem suspicious. "My
parents thought they were after my kidneys," he says. Now Eddie
"lies profusely", arranging hotels for couriers and others, always
booking in false names and paying cash.
In the charity's office in an neutral African country, Videre
staffers sift operatives' covertly filmed footageLiam Sharp
The same evening, Yakobovich and Carlos are back in the 4x4, tired
following their long day and flights. They negotiate their way
across the city to meet the researchers who have recently arrived
from the neighbouring country. Two have come on the 18-hour bus
ride and a third, known as The Chairman, has flown as he is the
head of the network. Carlos has bought them each a chicken piri
piri takeaway dinner with bottles of water and Coke. We meet at a
neutral hotel -- not where they're staying, not where Wired is
staying. A room has been hired which turns out to be somewhat
larger than needed, as if for a banquet, so we gather at one end of
the long table and Yakobovich puts some music on to prevent the
conversation being overheard or eavesdropped: Hunky Dory by David
Bowie. Carlos shows the three men his new cameras. They appear
underwhelmed by his efforts. One model is a rubber-moulded base on
to which a flag or other image can be added. But it is not the kind
of thing that could be worn in the terror state. It would stand out.
Two of the men are in their thirties and one is in his twenties.
All three have wives and children and face grave risks in
collecting and managing the material and their networks: they have
been spooked by the recent arrest. The Chairman tells how, when a
researcher was caught filming at a rally, he was beaten and issued
with death threats if he failed to disclose his contacts.
"When the manager of the man's network came on his monthly visit to
collect the footage, he too was arrested," he says. "It was
terrible, they held him for days without food, they beat him badly
and then took him to a dam where they threw him in and left him, so
he expected to drown. They pulled him out and said, OK, now talk,
and he did give some information."
Videre used lawyers and local fixers to obtain his release. "He was
very shaken and in pain -- he felt bad about giving the
information. But we said it was OK, it was better to give some
information. He had a wife and children, and I reassured them as
best I could when he went missing. They are brave people -- but the
risks are there."
The Chairman knows that, like Carlos, the security forces are aware
of his identity if not his actual name. He faces arrest too, but
says he is not afraid.
"I haven't been caught yet and I pray it may never happen, I take
every precaution, but if it comes I am ready for them," he says.
"The camera is perfect for us. I believe it is the only way to
achieve democratic change in the country. We do it with passion and
understanding of the risks. I am ready," he says.
The younger man has just had a child. He gave it a name in tribute
to Carlos. In spite of his youth, Carlos is like a father figure to
many of the researchers. He says many have named babies in his
honour. That's just one of the reasons he cares so much about his
work and about the people.
As Videre embarks on a fund-raising campaign in the hope of
expanding its work, the personal cost to Carlos remains high, not
least to his marriage, and could go higher if he is ever arrested.
Finally, he and Yakobovich leave the meeting with the researchers
and head back to their hotel knowing that there is still much work
to be done.
Is it worth it?
"Yes," Carlos says. "But I couldn't live like this forever."
David James Smith is a writer for The Sunday Times Magazine and was
Feature Writer of the Year at the British Press Awards 2012
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