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EXCLUSIVE-YouTube takes down Xinjiang videos, forces rights group to seek alternative

June 25 (Reuters) - A human rights group that attracted millions of views on YouTube to testimonies from people who say their families have disappeared in China’s Xinjiang region is moving its videos to little-known service Odysee after some were taken down by the Google-owned streaming giant, two sources told Reuters.

Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights’ channel, which published nearly 11,000 videos on YouTube totaling over 120 million views since 2017, was blocked on June 15 after twelve of its videos had been reported for violating its ‘cyberbullying and harassment’ policy.

The channel’s administrators had appealed the blocking of all twelve videos between April and June, with some reinstated - but YouTube did not provide an explanation as to why others were kept out of public view, the administrators told Reuters.

Following inquiries from Reuters as to why the channel was removed, YouTube restored it, explaining that it had received multiple so-called ‘strikes’ for videos which contained people holding up ID cards to prove they were related to the missing, violating a YouTube policy which prohibits personally identifiable information from appearing in its content. They reinstated the channel on June 18 but asked Atajurt to blur the IDs.

Atajurt is hesitant to comply, the channel's administrator said, concerned that doing so would jeopardize the trustworthiness of the videos. Fearing further blocking by YouTube, they decided to back up content to Odysee, a website built on a blockchain protocol called LBRY, designed to give creators more control. About 975 videos odysee.com/@ATAJURT:8 have been moved so far.

Even as administrators were moving content, they received another series of automated messages from YouTube stating that the videos in question had been removed from public view, this time because of concerns that they may promote violent criminal organizations.

“There is another excuse every day. I never trusted YouTube,” Serikzhan Bilash, one of Atajurt’s founders, told Reuters in a phone interview. “But we’re not afraid anymore, because we are backing ourselves up with LBRY. The most important thing is our material’s safety.”

Bilash, who was arrested multiple times in Kazakhstan for his work and threatened with seven years in jail if he did not stop his activism, said Atajurt equipment including hard disks and mobile phones had been confiscated multiple times by authorities - making YouTube the only place where their entire video collection was stored.

The Kazakh activist, born in Xinjiang, fled to Istanbul last year after threats from Kazakh authorities. He said government advisors told him in 2017 to stop using the word “genocide” to describe the situation in Xinjiang, an order he assumed came from pressure from China’s government on Kazakhstan.

YouTube said the messages relating to promoting violent criminal organisations were automated and not related to the creator’s content, but the videos were being kept private to allow administrators to make edits.

‘I FELT I’D LOST EVERYTHING’

U.N. experts and rights groups estimate over a million people, mainly Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in recent years in a vast system of camps in Xinjiang. Many former inmates have said they were subject to ideological training and abuse in the camps. China denies all accusations of abuse.

YouTube in recent years has restricted more content amid increasing scrutiny on online cyberbullying, misinformation and hate speech. The policies have ensnared many channels, including those of far-right commentators, forcing them to seek haven on social media services such as Parler that tout more openness.

But Atajurt representatives fear pro-China groups who deny that human rights abuses exist in Xinjiang are using YouTube’s reporting features to remove their content by reporting it en masse, triggering an automatic block. Representatives shared videos on WhatsApp and Telegram with Reuters which they said described how to report Atajurt’s YouTube videos.

They also pointed to YouTube channels containing videos of Serikzhan Bilash’s face superimposed onto animals like monkeys and pigs which they said were denigrating Bilash’s character and work.

YouTube said channels are always welcome to move to alternatives. Its policies bar directing abusive attention by posting non-public personal information, such as names and addresses.

The service makes exceptions to some rules for videos that are educational, documentary or scientific - but Atajurt’s videos did not meet these requirements to a sufficient level, according to YouTube.

“We welcome responsible efforts to document important human rights cases around the world,” the company said. “We recognize that the intention of these videos was not to maliciously reveal PII ... and are working with Atajurt Kazakh to explain our policies.”

Odysee told Reuters that it welcomes and supports Atajurt.

Bilash, who was arrested multiple times in Kazakhstan for his work with Atajurt and eventually fled to Istanbul, said Atajurt equipment including hard disks and mobile phones had been confiscated multiple times by authorities - making YouTube the only place where their entire video collection was stored.

Atajurt plans to keep uploading to YouTube as long as it can.

“We will never delete it,” Bilash said, citing the importance of the service’s big audience.

“The day YouTube deactivated our channel, I felt I’d lost everything in the world… the new channel does not have so many subscribers,” he said, “but it is safe.”

Reporting by Victoria Waldersee in Lisbon, Paresh Dave in San Francisco; editing by Kenneth Li, Vanessa O’Connell and Nick Zieminski

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