How to make a difference for survivors

How to make a difference in reporting about human rights, doing justice to testimonies and finding the right balance and language was at the core of this years’ Dart Center Europe panel “Reporting about human rights without infringing the rights of those who are reported on” at the Global Media Forum in Bonn.

Whether reporting about survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, documenting killings of women in the so called name of honor or interviewing victims of sexual violence - we as journalists and rapporteurs approach these stories from a thousand feet up talking about justice, human rights and statistics; but sometimes we have space where real testimony emerges into the story and into the narrative, and that invites questions. What happened to the person after she told the interviewer that she was attacked? How was she approached? How did she feel during the interview, how did the journalist herself feel during the interview? What do we do with the information?

Gavin Rees, Director of Dart Center Europe, a journalist and filmmaker himself, who was leading the discussion put those questions to a stunning panel of participants at this years’ Global Media Forum in Bonn - a three days international media conference organized by Germanys’ international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, who was dedicating its topic this year to human rights reporting.

Learning how to listen

Facing the unspeakable of human tragedies, the role of journalists has to be a very balanced one. It starts with an obvious and simple ability which can be the toughest of all, namely how to listen – a skill which one does not learn in a set of a 15 toolbox list but which develops through ones long-time career.
Jina Moore, a US journalist and Dart fellow, who reported throughout her career from many African countries such as Rwanda and Liberia, told the audience what she has learned during her encounters with people who have suffered from violence and suppression.

She emphasized to be clear about your role. Although she found herself, while reporting about memorial services in Rwanda, in a position that people viewed her as being a white journalist, “someone from outside who paid attention”, where the world did not pay any more attention too, 17 years after the genocide, one has to be realistic: “Don’t tell them, you tell the world about the story. People get told this and nothing has changed in years. You cannot change the world but you can do things like adding a link to a charity organization.”

A victims’ or a survivors’ story?

Using the term victim and survivor in reports is often used with less care: “There is a big difference. 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. And if you are walking into the room without being clear of which person you are writing about which are both included in that persons’ identity- you will confuse them, you will not manage that well because these emotions will come up.”

Media decides between life and death

Memories and emotions are, even 17 years after the genocide in Rwanda, hard to bear and sometimes still not spoken about. Esther Mujawayo, who survived the mass killings of Tutsis with her three children but lost her husband and most of her family members, describes herself as being an “alive alive” survivor with a smile explaining: “We wanted not only be survivors, but ‘alive alive’. Now we choose to be alive, in the beginning we were condemned to be alive as we were not killed”.

Mujawayo started a widows organization called AVEGA (Association des Veuves du Genocide d'Avril) (“in order to prevent us getting mad”) and was herself capable of writing about what her experiences only ten years after. Mujawayos books and work have gained wide reputation and human rights awards for her endless commitment to survivors of rape and genocide. The human rights activist emphasized that lives could have been saved if the term “genocide” would have been used earlier in reports, which was crucial when the mass killings in Rwanda of 1994 left nearly a million people killed in a short period of time, “for us it was a matter of life and death”.

Lessons to learn from reporting about the genocide in Rwanda

Apart from advising journalists to avoid using the bureaucracy language from UN authorities and others when human rights are violated, it is obligatory to understand the political background. Esther reported how journalists endangered the survivors’ life in Rwanda just by being accompanied by then killers. “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 neighbors and the normal army I will immediately labeled as accomplice of the rebels. They can expose you just be the way you are talking to you. So what do you do? I say nothing.”

Esther impressively called upon the journalists to report about the aftermath too instead of just being present “when it is happening” as this often makes the difference between life and death too, but “this thing is still going on. 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 from the job and that is hurting. 80 per cent of our members have been raped during the genocide. Half of them are HIV infected. And they need medication. The perpetrators are getting the medication under UN prison, not the women. There was no provision for the witness. And this is for you journalist to report.” 

Esther Mujawayo, who now works as a psychotherapist at the Psychological Center for refugees (PSZ) in Düsseldorf, advised the audience also to know about your boundaries. “You need to know of when not to damage.” Working with refugees in Germany, journalists often turn to her organization to talk to her clients for example former children soldiers. “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 stabilized. 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.”

Sheding light on taboo topics  

Rana Husseini, a court reporter working for the Jordan times for several years, reported about her experiences of what it takes to highlight the personal stories of neglected murdered victims of so called honor crimes and to expose those crimes in media. When Rana took up her job, honor crimes were a taboo topic. One day in the mid 90’s, she came across a small item in a paper: ‘A man killed his sister and police is investigating’. “This is how it was reported about - either not or just as a small item.”

Rana investigated and discovered a story from a 16 year old schoolgirl who was killed by her family because one of her brothers raped her. “The background and the suffering of the girl, as Rana says, kept her “doing what I do until this day." Legal sentences for those crimes were riddiculous low: "I went to court cases and I discovered that man got away get only a 3 to 6 months year old sentence for these killing. You can write a bad cheque and get a higher sentence than to take someone’s live."

Altough journalists in Jordan cannot use family name or photographs in their stories, she put in as much as possible details in her stories to humanize the victim and to give her a presence in peoples mind. "I always say that I am a journalist and not hiding my identity. am asking people in the streets, go to the neighbours and shops and built up sources and confidence. It is extremely important, and you need to compare on the sources. You have to be very smart."

Eventually changing laws by reporting

Rana also conducted interviews with the killers to find out more about backgrounds and motives. Not passing judgement during the interview was a necessary obligation, although a personal challenge. During her career in writing about this particular topic Rana also picked upon another role connected to her journalists' role - the one of a human rights activist. Rana enhanced that her work could only be done with the support of a team: "The newspaper was very important because 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."

Rana Husseinis reports eventually led to a chance in Jordans legal system.  

  • Listen to the full audioplay here:

"Reporting human rights without infringing the rights of those reported on" (Tuesday, 21 June 2011)