A still from the video showing a Sri Lankan soldier about to execute a prisoner. (AFP/Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka)
A still from the video showing a Sri Lankan soldier about to execute a prisoner. (AFP/Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka)

Integrity vs. authenticity in video journalism

Back in November 2010, Britain’s Channel 4 broadcast a leaked video that appears to show men in Sri Lankan military uniforms executing bound prisoners, the camera panning across a series of bodies laid out in a ditch. Family and friends identified one of those bodies as that of Tamil Tiger TV newscaster Shoba, also known as Isaipriya. If authenticated, the video could constitute evidence that Isaipriya was murdered. It would be one step toward accountability in a long string of unsolved murders of journalists in Sri Lanka. It would also be evidence of war crimes that are said to have been committed during the final phases of the 27-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE. But disputes have ensued between the United Nations, which claims the video is authentic, and the Sri Lankan government, which claims that it is fake.

A report from the U.N. Human Rights Council’s 17th session, prepared by special rapporteur Christof Heyns and issued in May 2011, details the forensics reports and formal communications. The case drives home the need for new strategies to balance the sometimes conflicting demands of security and authoritative video journalism. To succeed, journalists must mind the difference between the integrity and the authenticity of a recording. They are not, as you might first think, the same thing.

The disputed role of the encoded date in the Channel 4 video metadata underscores the challenge. The video’s encoded date is long after the depicted events allegedly took place, evidencing editing of the video and obscuring information about the incident itself. The unknown provenance of the recording has limited the options that might be used to verify a date.

But this is not the same as proof that the video is bogus. Possible motives for this alteration may have included security precautions undertaken by the individual who recorded the video, or by those who brought it to global attention. Former U.N. special rapporteur Philip Alston examined a segment of the video during his tenure. In a technical note his office issued in January 2010, contributing forensic analyst Jeff Spivack reported, “The individual who used the device to record these events may have deliberately altered the time and date settings to provide plausible deniability of his/her participation in and/or knowledge of the incident.” While that individual may or may not have had journalistic intentions, security concerns permeate the later transformation of the video into journalism. Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, a group that describes itself as exiled journalists working in Berlin, has reported that it obtained the video on condition of the total anonymity of its source.

Whether or not the encoded date was altered for safety purposes, forensics experts working at the request of both the U.N. and the Sri Lankan government concur that the altered date does not discredit the video’s authenticity. Yet despite this expert agreement, the altered metadata has provided a platform for those seeking to discredit the video. The following comments posted to Groundviews, a Sri Lankan citizen journalism news site, are revealing: “The above question about the date IF given much more careful analysis might invalidate the Video altogether”; “No date, time, who, where? NOTHING!”; “Imaginary fellow changed the phone’s date to a future date … Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!” The metadata alteration has provided fodder for skeptics, even if it may not constitute a flaw in evidence.

Alston’s calls for an independent investigation of the events depicted on the video met with a troubling government response. In a formal communication documented in the U.N. Human Rights Council’s 14th session report, the government of Sri Lanka replied to Alston, “You must give us more details of what specifically we should investigate, by indicating date or place or both.” In a kind of Catch-22, the absence of information in the metadata can itself become justification for government resistance to investigation of any sort. Thus, irregular date and time stamps clearly provide an opportunity to discredit for those who wish to dismiss video evidence.

Journalists concerned that metadata in their photographs or videos might imperil themselves or their sources may scrub it out of their work for security purposes. A case in point is Vice magazine’s failure to do this last week for a photograph of the software pioneer John McAfee, who was on the run from police in Belize after a neighbor was murdered. The photo provided precise information about his location, in Guatemala, and led to his deportation. This PC Magazine piece describes how metadata can be removed. In dangerous circumstances, journalists face a trade-off between the anonymity enabled through metadata erasure, and the possibility that those wishing to discredit their work may exploit such alterations.

This vulnerability highlights an inadequate distinction between the integrity and the authenticity of video. Spivack, working at Alston’s request, writes, “Integrity ensures that the information presented is complete and unaltered … but it cannot demonstrate the veracity of the scene depicted in the image.” In other words, invasion of the Channel 4 video through editing may compromise its integrity, but not necessarily its authenticity.

Yet because the distinction is not carefully maintained, Spivack warns, “The fact that editing in any form has been applied to the recordings submitted for authentication will quite understandably generate skepticism or even suspicion.” An official press release from the Sri Lankan government, also included in the Human Rights Council’s 14th session report, cites this suspicion: “Doctoring of videos in this day and age of modern technology is a common occurrence.” In turn, this suspicion has enabled the Sri Lankan government to decline further investigation into the video, and into the events it allegedly depicts. And then, with the veracity of the video evidence under question, accountability for Isaipriya’s alleged murder, and that of many others, is at stake.

For video journalism to be powerful in the fight against impunity, editing in itself must be clearly separated from questions of authenticity. Better clarification of the distinction between video integrity and authenticity could help to dispel this type of deniability for future video journalism. For instance, the growing acceptance of blurring subjects’ faces to mask their identities might extend to other forms of alteration that don’t compromise the validity of the work. The concept of authenticity itself could also further be clarified. Juridical bodies need to inquire why interventions are made, and not simply use them to discredit brave efforts to produce evidence of war crimes.

Sri Lanka holds the rank of fourth worst country in the world on the latest CPJ Impunity Index, a spotlight on “countries where journalists are slain and killers go free.” Last week, Member of Parliament P. Ariyanenthiran testified to a parliament selective committee that 44 journalists had been murdered in Sri Lanka since January 1990. Although CPJ research has found fewer cases, it’s clear that Sri Lanka has been a highly unsafe place to work, a circumstance exacerbated when killers have impunity. CPJ reports that over the past decade nine murders of Sri Lankan journalists remain unsolved.

I recently returned from working in Sri Lanka as a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar investigating the dynamic between the country’s diverse media groups and post-war national re-formation. I met with journalists and filmmakers who are seeking safety in secrecy, in fortified compounds, and in ideological defenses of neutrality. And I learned that safety and authenticity are often the goals behind video editing such as that evidenced by the alteration of metadata in the Channel 4 videos. Some journalists obscure time and place, making clandestine work exclusively for distribution abroad. Others are in hiding. M.V. Kanamaylnathan, editor of the newspaper Uthayan, told me that he lives inside his newspaper compound in constant fear of assault. He said he has not left its premises in years. He also tries to protect himself by appealing to the convention of journalist neutrality. When armed men came to the newspaper headquarters in the middle of the night saying, “Run our story in the paper,” Kanamaylnathan told me that he responded, “There’s no difference whether you are here, or the LTTE are here, or an army unit. I am a neutral paper. I’m not a party paper. We report to the people what happened yesterday.” The men left.

When integrity is threatened due to such fears, the standard of authenticity has to be all the more strongly maintained, because impunity in the murder of journalists must be stopped. In this leaked video, video journalism has taken on a new role in the struggle for accountability by asking us to consider the reasons why integrity may be breached.

UPDATED: We updated the first paragraph to remove an incorrect reference to Channel 4 being part of the BBC.