Unlocked and downloaded: Cell phone videos are a powerful weapon in Libya

[Updated with new VentureBeat interview]

The images and videos of bloody fighting in Libya can be hard to watch, but they are easy to come by.

“Everyone has stuff like this,” a rebel fighter said to a Reuters reporter in Misrata, as he showed cell phone video of government tanks entering the city and video of what he says was an unarmed doctor shot by Gaddafi troops, bleeding to death in the street.

Cell phones have become a valuable weapon in Libya’s uprising. Mummar Gaddafi’s attempts to shut down rebel forces’ ability to communicate were repeatedly thwarted by cell phones. Not only that, but the phones were capturing evidence of  war crimes. Government soldiers and rebels alike took videos and pictures of fighting.

These will be digital recordings of evidence used in future trials. Any “footage and images to confirm the alleged crimes” was requested by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo back in February when the United Nations Security Council referred the Libyan uprising to the court. While the court filing listed evidence primarily from the media, it also used “unspecified sources.”

Gaddafi’s government has denied charges of crimes against humanity filed by the International Criminal Court. These charges have been filed against Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

Reuters reporter Nick Carey writes from Misrata where rebel-allied lawyers say they have compiled 150 gigabytes of video evidence of Gaddafi forces’ war crimes. They started gathering the video in April 2011, and the videos come from cellphones of civilians, rebel fighters and government fighters captured or killed during fighting. The lawyers say the footage was sometimes hard to collect because of sniper fire. Sometimes they were putting their lives at risk for footage that cannot be used in court.

“To be used as evidence it has to be from a trusted source and it has to be clear what is happening,” explained Omar Abulifa in an interview with Reuters. Abulifa is a former prosecutor and head of the Misrata-based Human Rights Activists Association. What constitutes a “trusted source” isn’t clearly defined, if it can be defined at all.

“If there is a conversation from the defense about certain evidence, it is up to the judges to decide the admissibility of that evidence,” an International Criminal Court official said to Reuters.

Freelance Kelowna journalist Kelly Hayes just returned from a week of reporting in Libya near Benghazi. Hayes, who also covered the Haiti earthquake and war in Afghanistan, shoots with a professional camera or his iPhone, depending on the circumstance. Below we’ve posted a sample of his reporting.

“When you shoot with an iPhone, you blend in with everyone else,” Hayes explained. He said that in certain situations his large camera can become the equivalent of a giant, red target. Crowds of protestors fear videos will be used against them by the government, and they will attack photographers. They can be especially wary of photographers with nice-looking equipment.

Hayes said cell phones equipped with video cameras are so common in Libya, he never stands out in the crowd. The popularity of cell phone videos began with the revolution in Tunesia, and the concept of technology as a weapon “spread like cancer across North Africa.” (For a really great story on Tunesia, revolution and technology, read this article from MIT’s Technology Review.)

“Technology played a massive role in this war,” said Hayes. “The people I witnessed were doing something really productive with it. They weren’t out shooting video of their family beach vacations. That’s nice and all, but these videos are for everyone and they can really tell a story.”

(Image courtesy Reuters)

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