Fellow of the Month

Oren Yakobovich

OREN YAKOBOVICH

United Kingdom,

Human rights abuses remain unseen every day - with victims in hard-to reach areas left with no means to hold their perpetrators to account. Oren Yakobovich founded Videre in 2008 to empower oppressed communities to capture violations on video as they occur, and to expose them through a newly created, credible information channel in order to make it impossible for people to act with impunity. 

This profile below was prepared when Oren Yakobovich was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

INTRODUCTION

Human rights abuses remain unseen every day - with victims in hard-to reach areas left with no means to hold their perpetrators to account. Oren Yakobovich founded Videre in 2008 to empower oppressed communities to capture violations on video as they occur, and to expose them through a newly created, credible information channel in order to make it impossible for people to act with impunity. 




THE NEW IDEA

Oren Yakobovich is exposing human rights abuses in remote areas, bringing justice to victims who would otherwise remain unheard, and distributing trusted information in order to prevent perpetrators from acting with impunity. Through Videre, Oren is building networks of local human rights activists proactively capturing human rights abuses on video, allowing patterns of abuse and violence to be detected.  Videre then distributes footage to the most relevant stakeholders in order to bring about change.  Oren applies his methodology to areas where traditional media can’t or won’t go, combining the rigor of traditional journalism with the efficiency of new media technology. Videre is building a unique and powerful media type, which sits between citizen journalism on the one hand, where information flows are unregulated, and therefore often of low impact, and traditional media on the other hand, which is controlled by outsiders who have limited and biased information of real conditions on the ground. By putting cutting edge technology into the hands of those who can benefit most from its use – oppressed communities and minorities in remote areas – Oren is creating a trusted communication channel bridging to decision-makers and other stakeholders to affect lasting change.

Although a range of NGOs encourage citizen journalism, the footage they produce is reactive and scattered, lacking the strength to truly change abusive practices. Oren’s innovation lies in building constant, grassroots monitoring networks of local activists, who proactively gather unique insights and information. Videre’s work is grounded on the principle of constant 2-way communication.  Videre partners with local citizens, existing community activists and trusted NGOs, to build anonymized and sometimes undercover networks of local human rights defenders who have constant first-hand access to people and situations on the ground. Videre provides them with training, support and continuous feedback, and equips them with cutting edge technology.  Where human rights activists previously took great risks to their personal safety, Oren is putting security first, providing extensive training, data encryption and counter-surveillance techniques.

Unlike human rights documentaries and campaign groups whose “shock factor” footage fails to create systemic change, Oren’s strategy achieves specific, measurable outcomes, including decreasing election manipulation, political intimidation and violence against women. In order to choose which areas and issues to focus on, Videre has developed a process for rigorous research involving continuous dialogue with local activists and in-depth understanding of the geo-political environment. Once the relevant footage is gathered, Videre then acts as a strategic curator to distribute this on-the-ground information most effectively. Videre never compromises on the verification of their material, using only raw footage and involving local peer networks to translate, analyze and verify all videos. Known for being scrupulous about verification and authenticity has secured Videre’s place as a trusted source of information for the highest levels of decision-making and the media, with distribution to over one hundred media outlets in 2013 alone, including content on the BBC and CNN as well as national media outlets reaching local communities directly. Oren’s mission, however, is not simply to affect media coverage but to revolutionize the flow of information to every key decision-maker. Accordingly, Oren has built relationships to a range of distribution channels, from local civil society and radio to policy-makers, international media, NGOs and the courts. To date, Videre have trained over 500 local activists in four African countries and aims to expand their unique method internationally. Ultimately, Oren is cultivating vital information flows between communities who are overlooked, and the power-holders who can affect preventative, long-term change in protecting human rights.




THE PROBLEM

Where there are no reliable accountability structures in place, religious, ethnic and political minorities are at the mercy of individuals in positions of power.  Human rights violations can occur unrestrained where mainstream media, for example, does not function as an independent force, or where policemen are complicit with oppressive regimes.  In remote areas in particular, human rights abuses often remain untold, and there may not be appropriate structures in place to seek justice or prevent further abuses. Victims are stripped of their credibility and are left with no means to collect evidence of the crimes that have been committed against them. 

International media can play a role in these situations, but face a number of challenges that can distort the true picture. Foreign journalists come in as outsiders, unable to capture reality without distortion. Without the capacity to listen in to the local conversation, reporting is retroactive, anecdotal and reactionary. Media access in whole areas can be hindered by difficult terrain, sparse populations, a lack of infrastructure, and personal safety risks. Limited by strict demands from their newsrooms about what defines news they sometimes come in only after a crisis, and cannot afford to observe developments over the long term. Similarly, global human rights organizations are trying to fill the gap using human rights advocacy as a means for change. However, with reports largely written by foreign investigators, their work is often heavily criticized at the local level for lacking cultural understanding and context. Limited to what such workers witness accidentally or are told by victims retrospectively, reporting remains passive and opportunistic. At the same time, their lengthy written reports lack the power of immediacy, fail to reach large audiences and remain prone to interpretation.

At the other end of the spectrum, citizen journalism is heralded as a way for citizens to become international broadcasters. Although powerful, it often lacks the coordination needed to be effective. Without a narrative and self-regulation, the citizen journalism sector including organizations like Witness does not have structures in place to make sense of random information flows and largely fails to effectively bring about lasting change. Difficulties around quality of footage and its verification aggravate the problem and compromise the potential of footage to be used by mainstream media, or as legal evidence. Therefore, local citizens and grassroots NGOs offer a powerful alternative voice to expose the truth they see or experience themselves. However, they face challenges in their work to self-organize effectively, connect with power-holders, purchase technical equipment, and protect their personal safety. With human rights activists being threatened and persecuted, changemakers on the ground lack the tools and connectivity to make their voices heard or affect long term change in difficult and dangerous environments. 

International media can play a role in these situations, but face a number of challenges that can distort the true picture. Foreign journalists come in as outsiders, unable to capture reality without distortion. Without the capacity to listen in to the local conversation, reporting is retroactive, anecdotal and reactionary. Media access in whole areas can be hindered by difficult terrain, sparse populations, a lack of infrastructure, and personal safety risks. Limited by strict demands from their newsrooms about what defines news they sometimes come in only after a crisis, and cannot afford to observe developments over the long term. Similarly, global human rights organizations are trying to fill the gap using human rights advocacy as a means for change. However, with reports largely written by foreign investigators, their work is often heavily criticized at the local level for lacking cultural understanding and context. Limited to what such workers witness accidentally or are told by victims retrospectively, reporting remains passive and opportunistic. At the same time, their lengthy written reports lack the power of immediacy, fail to reach large audiences and remain prone to interpretation.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, citizen journalism is heralded as a way for citizens to become international broadcasters. Although powerful, it often lacks the coordination needed to be effective. Without a narrative and self-regulation, the citizen journalism sector including organizations like Witness does not have structures in place to make sense of random information flows and largely fails to effectively bring about lasting change. Difficulties around quality of footage and its verification aggravate the problem and compromise the potential of footage to be used by mainstream media, or as legal evidence. Therefore, local citizens and grassroots NGOs offer a powerful alternative voice to expose the truth they see or experience themselves. However, they face challenges in their work to self-organize effectively, connect with power-holders, purchase technical equipment, and protect their personal safety. With human rights activists being threatened and persecuted, changemakers on the ground lack the tools and connectivity to make their voices heard or affect long term change in difficult and dangerous environments. 




THE STRATEGY

Oren’s vision is to ensure that no human rights violations remain unseen and untreated. His ultimate aim is to empower those experiencing human rights abuses to hold perpetrators to account, and create lasting behavior change on the ground. To fulfill this ambition, Oren is creating new information channels which will correct the imbalance between those in power and those without power, through a three-stage approach: leveraging local resources by training human rights activists in professionalized filming; carefully developing reliable content and tailoring operations to cultural and geo-political environments; and distributing information to the relevant stakeholders. 

Responding to the shortcomings of both traditional media and citizen journalism, the first part of Oren’s strategy is to ensure footage is high-quality, credible, and collected systematically on the ground, with material being filmed only by local partners and not by Videre staff. Videre carefully identifies trusted partners who have the willingness to disrupt a system and the accessibility needed to do so.  Building undercover networks – or open networks, if security allows – Videre works with people able to listen to the conversation from within. To ensure the resilience of each operation, which can last from 3 months to 3 years, Videre gives partners ongoing support, equipping researchers with customized tools and extensive security training, including thorough security analysis, emergency contingency plans and the identification of lawyers in each country that commit to rapid response. Oren’s strategy is to keep his central staff team very lean, with operation leaders being trained locally and managing daily network operations, and international Videre staff serving as 24-hour on-call advisors.  To ensure the sustainability of the approach, Videre’s methodology builds on a train-the-trainer model: during each operation, appointed team leaders train the most talented researchers to establish and lead further activist groups to increase coverage, leverage resources and ultimately enable self-sufficiency within the network. 

The second part of Oren’s strategy is to gather material in a way that pre-empts the problem of randomness and contingency citizen journalism faces. Once footage is collected through the established network, it undergoes a rigorous selection procedure carried out by Videre staff and local partners, to decide how the materials can best be used to create the desired change. Most importantly, all footage undergoes a strict and rigorous verification process.  Oren is aware that all his work relies on credibility. The Videre team therefore uses the latest technology, such as GPS locators, and crucially the help of local people, who verify geographical locations, situations, language and dialects. Following verification, while all material is archived in a centralized database, not all material is suitable to spark systemic change. Pictures of torture remain unpublished if their release would provoke only shock, but not behavior change. The process is designed to find the delicate balance between what they call ‘violence pornography’, adverse effects and information overload on the one hand, and effective content distribution on the other. Using their materials collected over a period of time and looked at from different angles and perspectives, with large numbers of people filming simultaneously and independently across a region, Videre is able to recognize patterns, forecast trends and locate sources of violence, rather than respond to crises in a reactive way like most news channels and existing video advocacy organizations. 

The strategic distribution of the video material is the final step of Oren’s approach. Oren knew that to create change, material needed to reach relevant stakeholders through credible and popular information channels. Over the years he therefore gained the trust of over 150 local and international media outlets, institutions and NGOs. Material is distributed free of charge and Videre does not take public credit. Videre has rapidly become a respected source of information – and in many regions has been the exclusive provider of information to the outside world. Through these relationships, Videre can now channel information and insights to previously unaware decision-makers, revealing realities that would otherwise stay unrecognized.  While media is one outlet, Oren recognizes that sometimes it is not the most effective.  For example, in their campaign against FGM, for example, Videre equipped local community activists to conduct grassroots advocacy, educating practicing women and slowly initiating cultural change. Oren also knows that it may be best for  footage to remain unpublished until it has been used as legal evidence in national or international criminal courts. To date, Videre has collected over 2,000 hours of footage.

Unlocking information, Oren’s work thus creates change on several systemic levels, leaving activists with greater capacity to expose and advocate for human rights, installing and alerting systems of accountability and ultimately creating new incentives for human rights to be respected on the ground. Having established sustainable networks, Videre closes projects by leaving highly trained elite groups of activists in place. In the long term, Oren believes his methodology for grassroots information-gathering could be adapted to other areas such as healthcare, government transparency, and the extractive industries, building channels of information that create real change, informing decision-makers and empowering changemakers on the ground.




THE PERSON

Oren grew up in a family setting deeply affected by memories of the Holocaust: his grandparents were the only surviving members of their families. Oren’s mother and father emigrated from Eastern Europe to Israel, fleeing anti-Semitic sentiment.  They settled in an impoverished, right-wing community outside Tel Aviv.  They worked long hours, leaving Oren with much time alone as he grew up, struggling to make sense of his place in society.  He had to grow up quickly and became a resilient young man. As a child he took Israeli nationalism as normality and dreamed of being a soldier. Age 18, Oren joined the army – a source of pride for him and his family. He quickly climbed the military ladder and became an officer at age 19. Serving in Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza, Oren was very much part of the ongoing war between Israelis and Palestinians, experiencing open fire on the boarders as well as working in intelligence role for the Israeli army. 

Gradually, Oren began to realize how his actions and duties in the army serving the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza created increasing hatred, and in turn fuelled terrorism. He witnessed ordinary young Israelis turning from compassionate to cruel souls, and treating all Arabs as enemies. From his first-hand experience on the front he also realized the extent to which much of the information coming from the front and entering the public domain was not accurate information, but propaganda hiding the real story. Disillusioned by the reality of military service he finally resolved not to be part of this system, and was jailed as a result.  

After serving his time, Oren left prison determined to expose the injustice he had seen, Oren decided to become a filmmaker. Unable to afford equipment and without ever attending film school, Oren took out a loan, bought a camera and started filming. He worked as a waiter and psychiatric health worker, where he was consistently assigned the most challenging cases of suicidal patients. Oren started by making on-the-ground documentaries about the Bedouin, education for Palestinians, and the treatment of psychiatric patients, and spent almost ten years gaining increasing success.  However, Oren began to realize that after his documentaries were released, attention quickly declined again and nothing was changing on the ground. He had done much to alleviate the suffering of the people he got to know through filming, and became disillusioned with the inward-looking world of film festivals and screenings. 

Oren therefore joined the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem to leverage his skills, established a still-thriving video unit, and launched a new program to gather and expose on-the-ground visual information on human rights abuses. He supplied Palestinians on the front lineswith cameras and asked them to film what they experienced on a daily basis. Footage showed daily abuses, such as  Palestinians being abused by settlers in front of watching soldiers, Palestinians being beaten by settlers, and some abusive  behavior by soliders. Oren received death threats and hate mail, but resolved to keep up his work. He was thrilled to find out this “Camera project in B’Tselem” had led to a reduction in violence amongst citizens and soldiers, who now knew that they were being watched. . Acknowledging that the model worked and aware that there were many abuses around the world that were  unseen or under reported, he decided to leave B’Tselem and to take his model to the next scale, starting to develop what is now the Videre method. He connected with Uri Fruchtmann, a professional film producer, who helped co-found Videre as an independent organization in 2008 and start working at the international level. While operating under-cover and anonymously for years, Oren recently decided to come out as the public face of Videre in 2013, to help scale their methodology and partnerships. However, the identities of many staff and partners and the identities of all field researchers remain hidden for security reasons.