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INTERVIEW-Secretive human rights group fights abuses with military-style precision

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 15 April 2016 16:48 GMT

In this file photo, Videre Est Credere founder, Oren Yakobovich, holds a miniature camera with which he equips human rights defenders to expose abuses on the ground. Videre Photo/Handout via TRF

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Videre's mission is to expose abuses of armies, security forces, militia groups or officials using small cameras

By Astrid Zweynert

OXFORD, England, April 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - "We will kill you!" a militiaman shouts as people run away in fear in the shaky footage from an African country, one of the many videos recorded by human rights defenders on the ground and distributed to media by Oren Yakobovich and his team.

Videre Est Credere, founded by Yakobovich, equips them with cameras - some of them almost as small as a shirt button - and training to expose violence and human rights abuses around the world.

"Our vision is that no human rights violation anywhere should go unnoticed, no matter how remote and dangerous a place is," Yakobovich, a former Israeli army officer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation before being awarded the $1.25 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship at a conference in Oxford this week.

Videre's mission is to reveal abuses of armies, security forces, militia groups or officials through a network of activists who film and record abuses and violations of human rights, often at enormous personal risk.

Since Videre was founded in 2008 it has distributed more than 500 videos to more than 140 media outlets, including major broadcasters such as the BBC and CNN.

"It's great to get something broadcast by a big TV channel but it's most effective when it goes out on local stations - it makes it very clear to the perpetrators that they are being watched - and that's powerful," Yakobovich said.

Footage has also been used in court cases to prosecute corruption and incitement to political violence.

Yakobovich said his own journey to becoming a human rights activist started after he joined the Israeli Defense Forces at the age of 18.

"I spent a lot of the time in the West Bank and it shocked me what we were doing there - checkpoints in crowded areas in the city, raids on Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, scaring small children," the 45-year-old said.

Eventually, he refused to serve in the West Bank, a decision that landed him in jail.

"It gave me time to think and it struck me how powerful information is, but also how little voice those have who are suffering - and how little accurate information we are getting from those places."

He became a documentary filmmaker but said he was not happy spending more time at film festivals than helping people.

"I realised that people who are suffering need to tell their own stories, not the journalists or the filmmakers."

In 2005 Yakobovich joined the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem and set up a video unit. Three years later he co-founded Videre Est Credere - which means "to see is to believe" - with Israeli filmmaker Uri Fruchtmann.

Videre has deployed some 600 people across Africa, the Middle East and Asia and has partnered with organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In-depth research, solid on-the-ground contacts and thorough verification are key for Videre, which is highly secretive about its work to avoid putting human rights activists at risk. No one has been killed as a result of its work but some activists have been arrested.

"The safety of the people we work with is paramount," Yakobovich said, adding that Videre applies a "military-style" precision and security to its operations.

"I'm still a soldier, just not in the army anymore," he said.

(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories)

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