Videos of atrocities between media opportunism and quest to identify victims

Footage showing the cremation of detainees’ bodies by the Syrian military security, published by the Zaman al-Wasl news website (Enab Baladi)

Footage showing the cremation of detainees’ bodies by the Syrian military security, published by the Zaman al-Wasl news website (Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri

Syrian activists are circulating photos and videos on social media that show crimes and atrocities committed against detainees by the Syrian regime forces or people in military or civilian clothing, claiming that this contributes to archiving crimes against humanity, which helps families of detainees and human rights organizations to identify the victims.

Sharing these photos and clips through social media creates controversy and is met with varying reactions from the Syrians, which have emerged since the publication of Caesar photos in 2020, and recently increased with the publication of The Guardian investigation of the Tadamon massacre perpetrated by members of the Syrian regime forces in 2013, especially that the resolution of these clips is not always high, and the features of people are not always clearly visible.

Some activists and social media users stress the need to publish these clips to hold those involved in the atrocities of murder and torture accountable, while others believe that the publication is done with the aim of attracting views by those in charge of it and human rights reports confirm that the publication has a psychological impact on the families of the victims and detainees.

Harmful and hurtful

Fadel Abdul Ghany, the head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), believes that the matter is not in publishing the photos of the criminals but in publishing the pictures of the victims, which is shocking and harmful to their families, especially if the visibility is inappropriate and the faces are not clear.

The absence of information about the video recordings creates a kind of “uncertainty and terror” for the families of the victims, as they believe that those who appear in them are their sons or relatives without any confirmation, and this matter harms them more than it benefits them, according to what Abdul Ghany said in an interview with Enab Baladi.

“Some parties and newspapers publish pictures and clips of atrocities in an unethical or professional manner, pointing out that faces must be covered and people’s permission must be requested when publishing them,” Abdul Ghany added.

Several people publish with the aim of drawing attention to the publisher and gaining popularity. There are tens of thousands of victims in Syria, and the clips are published without any information about them, such as the date or place, Abdul Ghany said, wondering about the purpose of publishing in this way and the target group.

The SNHR director explained that identifying the victims from these videos goes through a “very complicated” process, as there are matching processes that are carried out through image-matching programs, while information matching is carried out for each person individually, and this is done by several human resources and not by one active person.

Impact on detainees’ families

The Caesar Families Association and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression monitored in a human rights report, “Prison Without Bars,” the impact of publishing videos that include human rights violations in Syria on the families of the victims.

The report speaks for the first time about the families’ opinions about the publication of the pictures of “Caesar” (the Syrian military police officer who leaked more than 55,000 pictures of Syrian detainees who were killed under torture and starvation in 2015) and the re-publishing of them several times, and the psychological effects that the families were exposed to during the identification process, before moving on to researching the family’s right to know the truth, and then the legal, economic, psychological, and social challenges that families experience as a result of losing their children, and the challenges that accompanied the journey of searching for their fate.

The family’s suffering is embodied in sleep disturbances, according to the report, recurring nightmares associated with the deceased, and intense bouts of sadness that may reach sudden bouts of crying, and family members are showing extreme emotion, tension, and anxiety over simple things that did not affect them previously, and the happy moments are no longer complete for them.

When the Caesar torture photos were revealed, and the detainees’ families viewed them, the psychological symptoms varied among the participants in the personal interviews, as some of them expressed severe difficulties in concentrating.

Photos of mass torture and dozens of corpses piled up were forced on many to search and excavate, each looking for the face of their deceased, and they had to endure all the painful feelings and harsh scenes in the displayed pictures for a long time before they verified the victim’s image.

Since they were first published seven years ago, Caesar’s photos have turned into a media material circulated by news pages on social media, “sometimes aimlessly, perhaps with a desire to provoke and attract views,” according to the “Prison Without Bars” report, thus obfuscating the images as documents, which may weaken its argument and value as criminal evidence.

Exposing atrocities is a need

Publishing the visual recordings is a duty and necessary, but it must be carried out in an organized manner by specialized groups that take into account the dignity of the victims, and this requires technical work that produces images that help families identify them and at the same time the images would not cause pain or hurt the feelings of the parents as much as possible, according to Syrian journalist and human rights advocate Mansour al-Omari.

“In the future, we will face many videos and photos that need to be identified in the most appropriate way,” al-Omari said in an interview with Enab Baladi. Therefore, it is very important to take up this issue with the relevant Syrian and international organizations and to work on developing a guide or booklet explaining the best methods.

Family rights

After publishing and getting to know the victims, families have the right to request not to publish, and they can communicate with the publisher and request someone’s photo not to be published or to cover someone’s features in a recording that shows several people, al-Omari added.

The human rights activist considered that failure to publish these clips could amount to complicity in the crime of enforced disappearance, and this is related to the clips in which families need to identify their loved ones.

The dissemination of atrocities and not covering them up can have a major role in influencing public opinion and the search for and access to justice, such as the image of the Vietnamese child or the image of the African child Emmett Till, who was killed by white racists, and whose mother insisted on publishing his image despite its horror to be the spark that made the American civil rights movement the largest human rights group in America, and the atrocity of the image, in particular, led to the granting of rights and the end of racial discrimination, according to al-Omari.

He pointed to the many examples in this, but he believes that there is a failure in the awareness aspect of the Syrians, as the pictures and video recordings and their horror are much more important than years of advocacy, and the press and media should educate people in a specialized manner.

Identifying the victims

In a post on his personal Facebook page, al-Omari reviewed a mechanism for families to identify the victims in the event of video clips.

He pointed out the possibility of developing the mechanism’s proposal to follow a method in dealing with the emergence of any new video, or video or photos previously kept with documentation centers, human rights bodies, or individuals, that show potential detainees or missing persons, according to al-Omari.

This is done by verifying the credibility of the video clip and determining its location and time, if possible, determining the likely time period and the likely place of arrest or detention of the victims, the likely region to which the victims belong, and the likely place of detention.

If there is a proven possibility that publishing the video poses a real danger to its legal value, the necessary alternative is for specialists to extract pictures of the victims showing the face, body, clothes, and any sign that helps identify the victim, al-Omari said.

The real danger should not be invoked by words that are not clear and unconvincing, but rather the danger must be proven to overwhelm the importance of families getting to know the victims, and in any case, the risk of weakening the legal value can be assessed by legal professionals and not by anyone else.

For the use of videos in future trials, it is unreasonable and unacceptable to withhold videos or images derived from them on the grounds of a possible trial in the unknown future.

There must be an ongoing trial to justify the blocking of the video or its images for a specified period of time, not open.

Syrian journalist and human rights defender Mansour al-Omari

These videos, or at least the images extracted from them, must be published (or announced if there are sufficient and confirmed written details of the characteristics of the victims in the video or photos) and circulated on a special website or in cooperation with victims’ associations and Syrian human rights centers, as they have experience in the process of identification and communication with families, including “Caesar” photos and others, in the most appropriate manner in a way that preserves the feelings of the families and reduces the shock of the viewer or information as much as possible.

It is the right of any family to request to watch the video or photos of their loved ones or potential loved ones, and it is the duty of the organization or individuals who keep the videos to meet the families’ request.

No one has the right to withhold the videos of atrocities in Syria and to hide them from families, public opinion, the press, decision-makers, Syrian and international human rights organizations, and academic researchers, according to al-Omari, as these videos are not private property, and blocking them without understandable justifications issued by specialists is considered complicity in concealing the crime and in prolonging the families suffering.

He concluded that this includes videos and photos of detainees and missing persons at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) group, in addition to all warring parties in Syria.


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