Human Rights: Reporting Without Infringing

Listening, language and realistic expectations all play a role in the difficult task of covering human rights abuses.

This article was translated and edited for English-speaking readers. The complete German-language article can be found on the Dart Center German Programme page.

When journalists and policy analysts write about human rights abuses, it may feel like we are approaching these stories from an aeroplane flying at a thousand feet. Whether the focus is on genocide, honour killings or sexual violence, the language can become technical and remote.

Even the addition of a block quote from a victim in a policy report or a fleeting sound bite in a TV report can still leave us up in the air and feeling semi-detached from the people affected.

Chairing a panel at this year’s Global Media forum in Bonn, Gavin Rees, Director of Dart Centre Europe, suggested that the quick quote as a short flash of journalistic “colour” may leave the reader with troubling questions: How did the journalist approach the victim? What impact did those questions have on her?  What happened to her after the interview?

Speaking at a three-day conference organised by Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the panelists explored how thinking through these questions can not only reduce the potential harm that acts of reporting may cause contributors but also produce more insightful and innovative journalism.

Making the approach 

Jina Moore, a US journalist and former Ochberg Fellow with an extensive background in reporting from Rwanda, Liberia and other African countries affected by conflict, added how important it is for a journalist to know their role, and why they are there.

“When, you go in there don’t tell them that you are going to tell the world about their story,” she said.  Journalists have been turning up to post-conflict zones for decades, dangling the prospect that coverage will bring aid or intervention, “and nothing has changed.”

Local people know this; far better to be realistic. A simple promise to include a link to the site of a local charity can give something of benefit back to the contributor's community. 

Victim or survivor?

Moore also stressed the importance of taking care to think through one’s own assumptions about the status of the person one is about to interview. “A survivor is a person with an entire complex lived life before and after a dramatic experience. A victim is identified by that moment of trauma,” she said.
An individual is likely to embody both statuses to differing degrees at any one time.  “If you are walking into the room without being clear of which person you are writing about,” she suggested, “you will confuse them."

It is hard, then, for anybody to be cast in the role of both a victim and a survivor at the same instant, and catching someone between the two may well cause distress.

Gavin Rees stressed the importance of listening. It may sound simple, but it is a skill that requires effort and dedication to develop, and one that should be at the top of any “how to” advice for journalists covering any kind of trauma.

It was something each panelist in turn underlined and repeated.

“A matter of life and death”

Seventeen years on from the genocide in Rwanda, those events stir up emotions and memories that many are still unable to articulate.

Esther Mujawayo, a psychotherapist and human rights activist, lost her husband and many of her family members, but feels fortunate to have survived with her three children.

It took her ten years before she was able to write about her own experiences in a series of books, which have won numerous human rights awards.

Speaking to the audience with a smile, she drew distinction between being alive and what she described as “alive alive."

In the aftermath of the genocide, mere existence was not much of a life. It meant a deadened feeling, where the future felt foreshortened and the continued presence in the community of perpetrators and collaborators in the killing destroyed trust and connection.

“We wanted not only to be survivors”, she explained, “but alive alive. Now we choose to be alive, in the beginning we were condemned to be alive as we were not killed”.

Mujawayo set up an organisation for widows, called AVEGA (Association des Veuves du Genocide d’Avril).

Mujawayo emphasised the importance for journalists to get the terminology right. It is her conviction that lives would have been saved if the international media had used the word genocide earlier on in a short window of time in 1994 in which 800,000 people were killed. 

The choice of language, was she said, “a matter of life and death.”

Lessons from the genocide in Rwanda

Mujawayo had several practical pointers for journalists working on sexual violence stories in conflict-affected stories.

First, she noted how often even experienced reporters, who had turned up to interview her, had shown a dangerous ignorance of the political realities. She asked the audience to imagine the following situation:

“The rebel movement speaks English. The governmental army speaks French. So, if you as a journalist speak in English to me, and I am surrounded by neighbours and the normal army, I will immediately labeled as accomplice of the rebels… So what do [ I ] do? I say nothing.”

Mujawayo also urged journalists to follow up properly on the aftermath of an atrocity and to not just cover it when it is breaking.

“When we try to get people interested about our work in AVEGA they tell us that there is no more interest in Rwanda — this is cynical.” And it causes hurt.

Eighty percent of AVEGA’s members, she explained, had been raped during the genocide and half of them are HIV-affected. The perpetrators held in UN detention received medication, but not the women.
“There was no provision for the witness. And this is [something] for you [as a] journalist to report.”
Mujawayo, who now works as a psychotherapist at the Psychosocial Center for Refugees (PSZ) in Düsseldorf, advised the journalists in the audience to take care about whom they select for interview and to understand that vulnerable people have limits. 

Working with refugees in Germany, including child soldiers, she and her colleagues sometimes have to block journalists from accessing specific individuals.

As a therapist we also want those stories known to make a difference. But on the other hand we have to refuse because you are exposing someone and the person needs to be stabilised.

We tell clients don’t talk if you do not feel ok. If you are talking to one of our clients, it important that the therapist is there. And if he or she cannot report, let the therapist tell.

Bringing taboos into the light

The final panelist was Rana Husseini, a court reporter for the Jordan Times, who has made honour killings, or what she prefers to call “so-called honour killings,” and the silence around them the centre of her work.

When she started reporting the crime, the topic was taboo. Then, one day in the mid-1990s, she came across a brief item in a paper that just said: “A man killed his sister and police are investigating.” Husseini noted was how news organizations covered the case: ”Either not, or just as a small item.”

Husseini investigated further and found beyond that brief line was the story of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who had been killed by her family, because one of her brothers had raped her. Rather than caring for the pregnant victim, the family had held her responsible for the attack.

That first story, Husseini said, has kept her doing what she does.

She discovered the sentences for those crimes were extraordinarily low: "I went to court cases and I discovered that man got away get only a 3 to 6 months… sentence for these killing. You can write a bad cheque and get a higher sentence than [for taking] someone’s life.”

Journalists in Jordan are barred from using the family name or publishing photographs in such cases, but Husseini puts in as much detail as she can in order to humanise the victims and place them into the forefront of her readers' minds.

To get the details she needs, Husseini approaches people in the community who may be afraid to speak, or who have close connections to the killers and thus even a potential interest in misrepresenting the situation.

She never hides her identity: "I always say that I am a journalist… I am asking people in the streets, [I] go to the neighbours and shops and build up sources and confidence. It is extremely important, and you need to compare the sources. You have to be very smart."

Changes in the law

Husseini has not limited herself to just focusing on victims: In order to explore the background and motives behind the crime, she has also interviewed their killers.

Listening to them without expressing judgment was essential but a personal challenge.

As a result of her work, Husseini has found herself adopting an additional role to just being a journalist: She has also become a well-known human rights activist.

She says this was something that she could not have done without the support of those around her: “My editors and my colleagues believe in human rights and also my family. And that was very important for me. Writing about social stories make a difference in our society — that’s what I believed in."

Indeed Rana Husseini’s reports have led to significant changes to how Jordan’s legal system handles “so-called” honour killings.

Listen to the complete audio from the panel discussion: