Video-sharing websites should not be an accessory-after-the-fact, argues Syrian activist, Mansour Omari
With the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, media was one of the first arenas of conflict between Assad regime and Syrians. The regime tried from the beginning to block information and news from Syria, to deny there are demonstrations against it, and to keep the official stance as the only source for news, which were provided by dictations from Syrian intelligence and the Presidential Palace, who had its hands on the media. Any other element was considered “fabrication” and “against the State” by the Syrian regime.
Assad banned the entry of international journalists and organizations and closed media offices that operated in Syria, launched a bloody campaign against all those who used mobile phone to capture and publish news or videos about the demonstrations and the crimes of his intelligence and military forces. Trying to hide the facts in Syria, Assad regime eliminated large numbers of journalists, media and rights activists, by snipers, arrests, murders under torture and executions.
Digital Evidence Deletion
On the other side of the arena, information and rights activists continued their struggle as citizen journalists . And thousands of them paid a high price, and sacrificed all they had to document, save and load evidence of atrocities, trusting their work in video hosting platform like YouTube.
Nevertheless, Assad with the help of his intelligence, and cyber networks, including the Syrian Electronic Army continued their efforts to delete evidence of crimes, through mass flagging, hacking, and disabling the social media accounts of those arrested.
This evidence arena conflict is not over yet, but others have joined it.
The international community has joined forces with its governments and private sectors to combat the anti-human tide, of terrorist propaganda. YouTube was one, and started tightening its policy of hosting videos to fight extremist organizations spreading terrorist propaganda. In 2017, YouTube said it expanded its work against abuse of its platform, including by using “machine learning technology”. At the same time YouTube deleted huge number of videos atrocities in Syria, and YouTube channels of news and documentation main sources, including the Violation Documentation Centre in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Smart News Agency.
Syrian activists and organizations who lacked knowledge of YouTube’s new steps and policies, especially those regarding violent content, fell victims of these policies. YouTube was not reported it make self-efforts to classify and store videos containing evidence of war crimes and abuses, before closing channels and deleting videos, ignoring the efforts and sacrifices made by information and rights activists in Syria. The loss of these videos negatively affects the justice and accountability efforts of the Syrian civil society, organizations and individuals, and their supporters and partners.
In some cases, one video may be the only evidence of a war crime or violation in Syria. YouTube’s deletion of this video is an actual participation in the crime by concealing the evidence, albeit inadvertently, there are enough published information and contact with YouTube, to make it knowing the mistakes it is committing.
YouTube serves as a host for huge visual evidence on crimes, and mass atrocities from around the world.
Knowing this, YouTube should confront its past mistakes and reverse its path of destroying evidence of crimes in Syria. They must avoid being accessory-after-the-fact, by concealing evidence, and should address the unique position it has now, as a platform hosting evidence on mass atrocities including crimes against humanity and violations of IHL, in Syria and from around the world. This would include YouTube establishing a specialized professional unit to analyse and understand videos showing evidence, and allowing full access to stakeholders, like the International, Independent and Impartial Mechanism on Syria, other UN investigation mechanisms, and others, to use these videos. YouTube should also allow full access to stakeholders to review, restore and use the videos and channels that have been deleted since March 2011. This requires great efforts and resources, which YouTube does not lack, as it is one of Google’s subsidiaries, the company whose revenue amounted to 136.22 billion US dollars in 2018. This also goes for Facebook.
This new crisis that threatens evidence and justice for Syrians, has required a lot of effort to try to identify the origins of the problem and communicate with YouTube and try to restore the deleted channels. This is what the Syrian Archive, is trying to do. Established by Syrian activists in 2014, with support from international non-governmental research and rights organizations, the group has been working on this problem for years.
Since its establishment, the Syrian Archive has saved about 1.5 million videos, and has been active in helping Syrian activists and media and rights platforms and to retrieve their YouTube deleted channels.
Khatib, CEO of the Syrian Archive, said they have been able to recover more than 200 thousand videos since 2017, 80% of them deleted due to the publication of violent content, according to Al Jaloud, a researcher in the Syrian Archive.
When you know you are deleting videos that may have evidence on crimes, and keep deleting them, this makes you accomplice in the crime if you don’t make or allow efforts to obtain and save the evidence.