Inside the Group That Secretly Helps Expose Human Rights Violations

Oren Yakobovich’s organization equips local activists with technology and training to safely capture evidence.
(Photo: Skoll Foundation)
Apr 11, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

This profile is part of TakePart’s series highlighting the six winners of the Skoll Foundation’s Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, announced ahead of the Skoll World Forum, which takes place April 13–15. The award distinguishes leaders who are committed to driving large-scale change; each of the awardees’ organizations receives a $1.25 million investment to scale its work and increase its impact. Jeff Skoll is the founder and chairman of the Skoll Foundation and the founder of Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.

Growing up in Israel in a right-wing family, Oren Yakobovich said he waited for the day to be “dropped into the army” so he could protect his country. When he turned 18 in 1989, he was called up for mandatory service and joined the Israeli Defense Forces—a journey that would quickly alter his worldview.

“While I was in the army, I realized something was wrong in the way we were treating the Palestinians and what was happening in occupied territories,” he tells TakePart. “For me, it was an ongoing human rights violation, and I didn’t want to be a part of it.”

The eye-opening experience showed Yakobovich just how limited—and in his view, manipulated—the information he received from news outlets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be.

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“I was shocked because I consider myself a smart person, but I still didn’t get all the information [about the occupation],” he says of his early days in the IDF.

Oren Yakobovich. (Photo: Skoll Foundation)

At the time, there was no internet access or smartphones to help Yakobovich seek out independent sources, which made his experiences on the ground even more jarring. Growing up, he was told Israel occupied the territories to keep the nation safe. But once he saw the areas for himself, he realized the scale of the human rights violations. During his time in the military, he witnessed everything from physical violence to the restricted movement of those living in the territories, but he says he was most affected by having to search the homes of Palestinians.

“The hardest for me was when we went into houses to conduct a search or sometimes to intimidate Palestinian families, many times in the middle of the night,” he says. “We checked the rooms of kids, and to see the look on their faces when we turned the house upside down was very hard to take after a while, especially because many times it was just random houses.”

The experience underscored for him the power of information, Yakobovich says, and most important, how vital it is to have unbiased sources. “I decided to refuse to serve in the occupied territories, and after I was released from the army, to do something to bring the information as I saw it and understood it to my people.”

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Yakobovich, now 45, became a documentary filmmaker, but he realized he was spending more time at film festivals than helping others.

“I decided to change my way of working,” he says. “Instead of me going around to film, I decided to give the people a voice so they can document what’s happening to them.”

In 2008, Yakobovich founded Videre, an international organization that provides local activists with the equipment and training needed to safely capture video evidence of human rights violations. To date, Videre has trained more than 600 people across Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East and has partnered with organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The violations captured on-camera range from government corruption to female genital mutilation. Today, the Skoll Foundation named Yakobovich one of the six winners of the 2016 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, which comes with a $1.25 million investment in each awardee’s organization.

There’s a catch to all the attention: While Yakobovich can speak broadly about the issues his organization addresses, he doesn’t give specifics about any of the projects the organization takes on, such as the location or the people involved. All of Videre’s work is done covertly—with hidden cameras, undercover networks, and strict security training—to help keep citizen participants safe.

“In some areas, you can’t just go out with cameras. They’ll kill you,” he says. “You can’t just take a phone out. They’re going to chop [off] your hand.”

Yakobovich describes the Videre team as “the commandos of human rights,” infiltrating an area and silently equipping local activists with recording devices to document what’s really going on. The group then passes the information on to larger organizations, which have the international reach and resources to effect substantive change.

“We are completely behind the scenes and never take any credit—this is part of our success,” he says. “If we start talking about what we are doing, then they are going to shut us up and hunt us.”

In addition to allowing him to continue his efforts, the Skoll Foundation grant provides something even more meaningful: connections.

“The money is great, but it’s the community,” he says. “Social entrepreneurs usually feel they’re walking alone in the world, but this is an opportunity to meet others and learn from them. This is almost like accelerating the way to success.”

Visit the Videre website to learn more about the organization and support its work.