[FoRK] [liberationtech] Videre: the secretive group on a mission to film human-rights abuses

Gary Stock gstock at nexcerpt.com
Thu Aug 29 11:46:10 PDT 2013


Imagine...

...at least half of US surveillance capacity ending its focus on US 
citizens, and turning toward accomplishing this task:  documenting human 
rights abuses.

...their full, unedited results being released worldwide after the 
minimum period required to document each overall case, but no longer 
(perhaps always within three months of gathering).

That scenario seems likely to make moot Lennon's other verses...

GS



On 8/29/13 11:59 AM, Eugen Leitl wrote:
> ----- 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>
>
> http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/09/features/videre
>
> 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
> his sight.
>
>
> 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
> organisation, Videre.
>
> 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
> them.
>
> 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
> intelligence.
>
> 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
> Hebronbtselem
> "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
> human-rights work.
>
> 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
> in jail.
>
> "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
> Ealing Studios.
>
> 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
> me afterwards."
> 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"
> Mike
> 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
> footage.
>
> 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
> together."
>
>
>
> 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"
> Eddie
> 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
> be released.
>
> 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
> violence."
>
> 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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