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Gore site LiveLeak bans Steven Sotloff beheading video

A militant stands next to war correspondent Steven Sotloff in a video distributed on the Internet Tuesday. (Photo: Handout)
A militant stands next to war correspondent Steven Sotloff in a video distributed on the Internet Tuesday. (Photo: Handout)

The operator of one of the Internet’s largest gore websites announced this week it will not host a video purporting to show the beheading of a journalist in Iraq.

Hayden Hewitt, the co-founder of the shock site LiveLeak, said in an online chat on Tuesday that the website had decided not to allow the publication of a video filmed and produced by Islamic militants that appears to show the beheading of freelance war correspondent Steven Sotloff.

The decision appears to apply to all videos produced by militants associated with the Islamic State (IS), an insurgent group with a presence in Iraq and Syria. LiveLeak’s decision to withhold publication of IS-produced propaganda videos was made after the website hosted a video showing the execution of American journalist James Foley two weeks earlier.

“We’ve shown the world the true horror of this form of execution more than once in the past and we cannot find any compelling reason to even be thought of as promoting the actions of this group,” Hayden wrote in a statement published on LiveLeak.

In an online conversation with the LiveLeak community, Hayden called the IS-produced videos “advertisements” that are “aimed at (broadcasting) the IS message directly to the west.”

“These videos are shot, edited and polished in Iraq…then distributed to western media outlets,” Hayden wrote. “Our stance was not based solely on this video but on the very real possibility IS will be releasing similar videos in the near future.”

The video, a copy of which was reviewed by The Desk, shows a man identified as Sotloff kneeling before a camera in an undisclosed desert location that is believed to be Iraq. Sotloff, dressed in an orange jumpsuit that resembles prison garb, reads a statement directed at U.S. President Barack Obama in which he expresses disapproval for America’s recent military involvement in Iraq.

“Obama, your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be for the preservation of American lives and interests,” Sotloff says in the video message. “So why is it that I’m having to pay the price of your interference with my life?”

A masked man dressed from head to toe in black then appears on the tape. The militant, whose voice is disguised, blames Obama for the impending death of another IS hostage.

“Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knives will continue to strike the necks of your people,” the man says.

When he finishes his statement, the man is shown bringing the blade of his knife to Sotloff’s throat, then slicing into it. As the video fades to black, Sotloff brings his knee up in a possible attempt to flee his captor. Later, an image of Sotloff’s bloody corpse is shown, his severed head resting in an upright position on his lifeless torso.

Before the video could be authenticated by government officials, Sotloff’s family issued a statement on Tuesday saying they believed the man had died. Early Wednesday morning, officials confirmed the video was genuine.

For LiveLeak, the decision not to publish the Sotloff video after the website redistributed the Foley execution tape two weeks earlier drew ire from some of the site’s users, while others commended the site for “not giving these murderous people a platform to advertise their barbaric acts,” as one commenter wrote.

LiveLeak came to prominence in the early 2000s when the site, then known as Ogrish, quietly gained a reputation as a repository for graphic images and videos. Its cult following was mainly attributed to shock videos bearing the “Ogrish” watermark being redistributed on other website and through file sharing services like KaZaA and LimeWire. Other videos hosted by site included stabbings, shootings and suicide attempts caught on camera; footage of people jumping from the towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 were among the site’s most-popular and most-redistributed video clips.

The site gained widespread popularity in 2004 when it hosted several execution videos filmed by Islamic militants in Iraq and Afghanistan. For years, the gore site was one of several that distributed a video purporting to show the execution of Nicholas Berg, an American captive who was beheaded by a jihadist group in Iraq in response to U.S.-led abuses at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

“Back in ’04, ’05 was when most of the beheadings happened, it and never ben really seen before like that and we felt an obligation to show it. And it was dreadful, it was a brutal time,” Hayden said.

When Ogrish relaunched as LiveLeak in October 2006, it attempted to move away from the reputation of being a shock-and-gore website to one where citizen journalism thrived without boundaries. Currently, the site hosts news clips and original footage on a variety of topics, yet it is the blood-and-guts media captured from surveillance videos and cell phones that still generates the most interest.

Hayden says the LiveLeak team doesn’t want to return to a time when beheading videos were a regular occurrence, thanks in part to the redistribution efforts of sites like Ogrish and others ten years ago.

“We didn’t want to go through that again, the ones that had been through it before,” Hayden said. “We know the kind of problems that comes with that, the kind of pressures that come with that, the never-ending pressure.”

Hayden said LiveLeak’s edict on the IS-produced videos is not new for the site. “We’ve never shown everything that was uploaded, that’s not what we’ve ever done…but we will show a lot of graphic material,” he says. But the graphic material must contain “sufficient factual background information and/or media that contains news value,” according to the LiveLeak’s FAQ page.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).