Should You Believe Your Eyes? Allegations of Doctored Video from Sri Lanka

Regions: Southern Asia, Sri Lanka

Issues: Impunity, Violence, War crimes

Tags: ethics, extrajudicial executions, video, video authenticity, war crimes

UPDATE, 7 JANUARY 2010: As groundviews' citizen journalist Sanjana Hattotuwa tells us in the comments field below, the UN has just confirmed the authenticity of the video and called on the Sri Lankan government to take appropriate action.  Read the full press release here (thanks Sanjana!).

UPDATE, 15 DECEMBER: According to an independent investigator specializing in video forensics hired by The Times (UK), the Sri Lanka execution video is indeed authentic. According to the investigator, who is an instructor at the FBI National Academy, the video contains no evidence of editing, digital manipulation, or other special effects, but does contain subtle details consistent with a real shooting, such as smoke coming from gun barrels after shots are fired. Additionally, the expert found strong evidence that actors were not used - at that range, blanks would still cause serious injury or death, and the victims fall backward in a very realistic motion after being shot. The video was also found to have an embedded code matching the software found in Nokia mobile phones (The Sri Lankan government's investigators had claimed the video was shot on a sophisticated camera, not a mobile phone, as Channel 4 News had said).

Also contributing to the mounting evidence against the Sri Lankan government are the statements of retired General Sarath Fonseka, who claims that Sri Lankan Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ordered the army to shoot surrendering Tamil leaders rather than imprison them. Fonseka is currently running for president against Rajapaksa, and has said he is not against a war crimes investigation. 

UPDATE, 26 OCTOBER: Two new claims have been made concerning the veracity of the Sri Lanka video and investigations into its authenticity. Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), a U.S.-based pressure group, sponsored a study of the video by an as yet unnamed U.S.-based forensics company. According to TamilNet, the study found that the video was not tampered with or doctored. The study also cast doubt on the Sri Lankan inquiry that deemed the video fraudulent, stating that the experts had analyzed a second generation video from News Channel 4's Web site, not the original footage.

Also notable is a blog post from News Channel 4 journalist Jonathan Miller, who broke the story of the Sri Lanka video. Miller compares the Sri Lanka video to another video had covered that showed members of the Scorpions, a Serb militia, executing Bosnian Muslims near Srebrenica. Miller discusses the decision to air the Sri Lanka video, criticism of its veracity, and the reasons he believes it is authentic:

"While it’s true that Tamil Tiger insurgents were known to masquerade in government uniforms, what makes the video credible is that telltale casual dialogue between the killers as they dispatch their helpless captives. (...)  In rough provincial Sinhala accents, they jokingly argue over who gets to shoot whom. (...)  They take turns, mockingly play-acting the popular folk game ‘kurupiti gahanawa wage’ – ‘Your Turn, My Turn.'

With different parties coming to different conclusions and with each arguably having its own biases, a definitive statement on the video's veracity cannot yet be made. What is clear however, is that the international community has, in part because of the video, taken an increased interest in alleged human rights abuses committed in Sri Lanka. The U.S. State Department has released a report in which it repeats calls for an independent analysis of the video and an inquiry into crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (Read Miller's take on the report). A U.N. spokesman has raised the possibility of a Gaza-style rights inquiry.


Imagine that you click on a link to a news story or turn on the nightly news to see a video that shows eight men, stripped nude, bound, and blindfolded, coldly executed by soldiers on a muddy field. After shooting one prisoner, a soldier laughs and says, “It’s like he jumped.” Would you accept such a video as evidence of war crimes or be skeptical of its legitimacy? To whom do we turn in making that decision, and how do we incorporate this type of video, often shot by citizen bystanders or perpetrators, into advocacy efforts when the authenticity of footage is in doubt?

In August, the video described above was released by the group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) and broadcast by Channel 4 News in the UK. It apparently shows Sri Lankan soldiers executing Tamils. (The BBC provides a brief history of the conflict as well as a more comprehensive analysis of Sri Lanka.) According to JDS, the footage was apparently shot for fun on a cell phone and circulated by soldiers in January before being smuggled out of Sri Lanka in August. Channel 4 News brought in an external, independent human rights investigator of Sinhalese ethnicity to examine the footage, and he found it to be genuine. Still, Channel Four News cautioned viewers that they could not verify the video's authenticity or veracity. Here's the report they aired on August 25, 2009:

The UN has called for investigations into the video and possible war crimes. Human Rights Watch has stated that while they cannot verify the video’s authenticity, an external expert found nothing with which to dispute its authenticity. HRW has since called for an international inquiry. The Sri Lankan government has denied its military has practiced executions, and their own investigation have determined the video was faked, stating that the video was shot on a camcorder, not a cell phone, that the audio track had been dubbed over, and that digital effects were used. That investigation’s impartiality, however, has been called into question by the UN, whose representatives have said that the experts used by Sri Lanka have close ties to the government there, including two military officers. Meanwhile, the Asian Tribune has reported that another version of the video has surfaced online (an 'original' version), purportedly demonstrating that the military men in the video were actually Tamil Tigers and that a different soundtrack had been dubbed over the original.

How do experts determine if a video is authentic or not? Digital image forensic analysts look carefully for anything out of the ordinary and can use tools to show where images have been blurred or spliced or if other digital effects have been applied to images or video. The technology and expertise available for digital forensics is new, and unfortunately it remains more difficult to authenticate video than still images. (For more information and examples of fake or doctored images and video, Neal Krawetz, an expert in digital image forensics, maintains a very informative blog on the subject.)

A recent study performed by psychologists at the University of Warwick demonstrates that doctored video can induce people to provide false eyewitness evidence. Visual proof, whether real or not, has a significant effect on how we perceive events. Plainly, seeing is indeed believing. But given that video can be faked convincingly using low tech methods such as staging an event for the cameras or doctored using high-tech video editing techniques and CGI (as this example demonstrates), should we always believe our eyes? Perhaps more importantly, what steps can the propagators of human rights video take to ensure that video they receive from external sources is legitimate? This question will become more and more important as video advocacy becomes more open and social media-based and as technology improves and access to it expands.

Maintaining the perceived reality of video will be paramount. But in a web-based world, it would be infeasible for experts to examine every bit of footage that finds its way online. Is it enough to caution, as Channel 4 News did, “We cannot verify the authenticity or veracity of this footage”? Absent concrete means of authentication, perhaps the best advocates and human rights groups can do is to use their in-house expertise to provide context through which to view and understand a given video. On the Hub, WITNESS contacts users who post videos whose authenticity is in question, and also contacts local groups who may be able to contextualize the footage. But still, WITNESS does not vouch for the veracity, accuracy, or authenticity of content uploaded to the Hub, and encourages users to perform their own fact-checking and verification processes. Viewers and advocates alike must be vigilant. Like those surrounding the Sri Lanka video, in an open, technologically advanced landscape, questions about verifying authenticity abound.

I chose to embed the original Channel 4 News report containing the footage in question in this post because it does provide context for the alleged human rights violations seen in the video and because they so clearly caution that they cannot verify the video's authenticity. Also, I wanted you to be able to see the footage for yourself after reading about different groups' thoughts on its veracity. I also included a link to what the Asian Tribune termed the “original” version of the video in the interest of impartiality and because the accompanying article also provides important context.

The video itself has made its way onto YouTube along with videos claiming to disprove the allegations and documenting the Sri Lankan government's response. However, there is little in the way of substantive debate over the video's authenticty in the YouTube commentary beyond name-calling and sniping from both sides. Most comments focus on the conflict between the Tamils and Sri Lankan government in general.

Somewhat obscured by the controversy over the Sri Lankan video's authenticity are the ramifications of the video if it is real. How might the Sri Lankan government respond? Would it acquiesce to international demands for an investigation into war crimes committed during the long war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military or would it stonewall and continue to deny any crimes occurred? In the United Arab Emirates, the release of a video showing a relative of the UAE's crown prince torturing a man has reportedly been detained under house arrest, but his current status is uncertain (more in this post by Masha Medvedkov). Could something similar occur in Sri Lanka?

We want to hear from you:

  • What should advocates do to ensure a video they may use is authentic?
  • What indicators can be used to determine authenticity?
  • What can/should video-sharing sites like the Hub or YouTube do to tackle the issue of fake or doctored video?
  • What other ethical issues does the Sri Lanka video raise – safety concerns, respect for individuals' dignity, etc.?



Reactions to the Video

This post contains good examples of the range of reactions to the video:

If you are familiar with the

If you are familiar with the Tamil Tigers, you will almost instantly recognise their handy work on the video. The video was said to have been shot on a mobile phone.

That was disproved. Sri Lankan experts who carried out a press conference, proved that the audio was recorded several meters away, and the camera was zoomed in. Meaning it was shot on a camcorder.

There is a sinister motive behind this smear campaign on Sri Lanka.

Video's authenticity confirmed by UN

“Reports by three independent experts strongly point to the authenticity of a videotape released by Channel 4 in Britain which appears to show the summary execution of bound, blindfolded, and naked Tamils by Sri Lankan soldiers. This was announced today by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, on the basis of detailed analyses conducted by recognized experts in forensic pathology, forensic video analysis, and firearm evidence.”

Read the full press release here -