Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Covering Human Rights abuses: What happens when journalists are shut out?

Thomson Reuters Human Rights Law Conference

Sydney 22 -23 November 2012

Professor Wendy Bacon, Professor, Australian Centre for Independent Journalism
Kevin Rennie, Citizen Journalist

According to Article 19, journalists being shut out is a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

When the Media Shuts Down

We don’t have to look far from Sydney to know what happens when journalists are locked out. But Nauru, like most things in our modern world, is connected. We all know what happens when the media are shut out. Governments get away with murder, literally. 

When the Sri Lankan civil war neared its horrific final days, the UN, most NGOs and the media left the battle zone. We know the consequences:

"The United Nations has admitted it failed to protect civilians during the final months of the bloody Sri Lankan civil war which ended in 2009." UN admits failure over Sri Lankan civil war 

It is hard to find much online about the impending disaster. The Age got close on 15 May 2009, though you would hardly know it from the headline:

'The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only neutral organisation working in the conflict area, said its staff were "witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe."' Sri Lanka military says rebels 'giving up' fight 

In 1993 controversial journalist John Pilger snuck into Timor Leste. He produced the documentary Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy, which helped to keep the struggle for independence alive. He copped the usual flak from politicians. Gareth Evans’ barb that Pilger "had a track record of distorted sensationalism mixed with sanctimony." would have a familiar ring for Julian Assange.

Letting the World In

We know what happens when the media is shut out. So what can we do to let the world in? Basically the fundamentals haven’t changed:

* Get up close

That’s what the best journalists have always done. Like Australian cameraman Neil Davis, they find different points on the ground from which to view events, and local voices that are not always the usual suspects. Davis would be horrified by the various versions of embedded journalism, not to mention the public relations circus that masquerades as news.

Tim Bowden's biography One Crowded Hour and David Bradbury’s documentary Frontline should be compulsory for journalism students. Davis covered much of the Vietnam war with South Vietnamese troops and spent a lot of time in the hidden war in Cambodia. But more of him later.

* Avoid group think

The stereotypical press corps view from the bar has its modern equivalent as journalists follow the conventional memes.

* Chase the stories

There are more sources than ever, even if some of them may not be English language ones.

They are out there. And they’re more accessible that many think. Even in China, the advent of Weibo has meant that more open discussion and criticism is taking place. If your Mandarin is non-existent like mine, there are websites that have translations for you apart from Global Voices. Try chinaSMACK or the Ministry of Tofu.

* Grasp New Media Tools

Use the latest tools to find and protect sources. Some of the current ones include:


Other P2P Peer-to-Peer



Tactical Tech’s Security in-a-box

Crypto Cat

Advox has more tips.

* Make friends

Not just on Facebook. Find key players and alternative voices on Twitter and other social media sites. Follow people with different languages, cultures and beliefs. Most of the important stuff is unlikely to be In English. Use lists to manage large numbers. Connect with NGOs like Reporters Without BordersHuman Rights Watch,Witness, and let's not forget Amnesty International and Oxfam.

One of the best places to make friends and get the latest stories is Global Voices Online It's an amazing community of authors and translators. Our projects include Advocacy, Threatened Voices, Rising Voices and the Technology for Transparency Network. Incidentally, if you missed Sami Ben Gharbia's presentation at the Castan Centre's Human Rights Law conference, it's a must-see. Sami was Director of Global Voices Advocacy until recently.

Legal Dilemmas

Is it ever justifiable to break the law to expose human rights abuses or defend those rights?

Publishing illegally obtained documents or multi-media? Using hidden cameras? Bugging? Entrapment? Phone tapping/taping/hacking? Entering countries illegally or trespassing?

To save lives? To bring mass murderers and torturers to justice?

* What about Google?

Recent self-censorship by Google was justifiably criticized when it removed Innocence of Muslims from YouTube without government requests. More in Global Voices Advocacy: In Censoring Anti-Islam Video, Did Google Do the Right Thing?

Google publishes a Transparency Report and has a useful Human Rights Youtube channel.

Google is a sponsor of Global Voices but is not spared a grilling when its representative fronts the biennial Summit. The 2012 session was Giants of the Internet: What Roles and Responsibilities?

Researcher and consultant in global digital activism, Mary Joyce, blogged in GV Citizen Media Summit: Public Day 1: Let Me Google That For You:

"...the most contentious panel of the day featured Bob Boorstin of Google (a major GV summit funder) and several activists and academics including Ramzi Jaber and Max Schrems. Internet privacy and corporate responsibility has been a major theme of this conference."

Bob Boorstin defended Google, citing increasing ‘forced compliance’ by governments. They have to obey the law, don’t they? As a business, not a not-for–profit, what should their human rights responsibilities be? Should communications companies do business in countries with strong censorship laws that cover up human rights abuses?

Ethical Reporting

The rights of ‘victims’, and others involved in human rights abuses, need to be respected. This can be especially difficult in crisis situations.

UNICEF's Principles and Guidelines for Ethical Reporting on Children and Young People under 18 years old is a useful document, much of which that can be applied to adults as well.

The International Center for Journalists’ Journalism Ethics: The Global Debate is also an excellent source. You can download it free here.

Credibility 101

As Mark Colvin argued in the 2012 Andrew Olle Lecture:

'Credibility is not just about what you put in the paper, or out on the airwaves, it's about how you get that information, what you do with it, and more broadly, how you conduct yourself as a corporation.'

* Cred 1: Telling the whole truth

What happened to the Arab Spring?

The Arab Spring is not over. But when did you last see stories about Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco? What about Mauritania or Jordan ?


The recent peaceful protest in Amman apparently did not involve tear gas.

That is unusual in MENA (Middle East & North Africa). Twitter hashtag #teargas is a testament to its continual use in places such as Bahrain.


Mainstream media have responsibility for truly global coverage. Not just the sensational stories or the ones that are easier to cover. Just as important is the need to follow up and follow through, rather than just move on to the next tragedy.

The Philippines used to be the big story in the 80s and 90s. Reports from Somalia and the Sudan were ubiquitous.

* Cred 2: News, not views - maintaining objectivity

It’s the old cliché about seeing what you believe. Where opinion fashions the facts or clouds judgment.

Global Mail’s Jess Hill wrote recently about ‘How prominent commentators from the ‘anti-imperialist’ left have twisted the public discourse on Syria and, in the process, provided intellectual cover for the Assad regime’, inAssad’s Useful Idiots

"Syria has been one of the hardest conflicts in living memory to report on, largely because of the extreme restrictions imposed by the Assad regime. Earlier this year, I wrote about how these restrictions were making it immensely difficult for reporters to sort fact from propaganda, and how important it was that we maintain a critical eye on both sides ('Syria's Propaganda War', April 12)."

One of her targets was none other than John Pilger.

* Cred 3: Turn up the bullshit detector (Authentication/Verification)

So how can a journalist distinguish the real stuff from the spin, the PR, the propaganda? Who are the genuine voices on twitter or the blogosphere? How do you identify the sock puppets, the trolls and the false identities? Is it a Labour/Labor staffer or a Mossad agent?

There are plenty of tips around on how to deploy your bullshit detector, such as Best Practices for Social Media Verification.

In the case of images or videos, then a course in using meta-data would come in handy.

Is the requirement for two separate sources passé these days. One way around it is to tell one person’s story. Jess Hill’s powerful profile Going Home, To Aleppo is an example. Sorry Jess, but no good deed should go unpunished.

Dangers & Dilemmas

For the dedicated correspondent, there are lots of risks, especially if trying to follow Google’s advice to ‘do no harm’.

* Myth creation

One is related to the creation of myths. We all know what started the Arab Spring. Or do we? It may seem relatively harmless even if there is Doubt over Tunisian 'martyr' who triggered revolution.

But more concerning are the consequences that may flow from ‘media creations’:

"Previously unpublished statistics seen by the BBC show that, in the year since the revolution, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of people setting themselves alight across Tunisia." Tunisia one year on: New trend of self-immolations

The recent coverage of Tibetan self-immolations also raises issues about whether media reporting may be encouraging these suicides.

* Protecting People

Protecting sources, protecting victims, protecting co-workers, protecting yourself are increasingly difficult tasks. Bill Latch, Neil Davis’ sound recordist, died alongside him on a Bangkok street in 1985.

Journalists are a threatened species in many parts of the world.

Over 150 journalists have been killed since 1986 in the Philippines, with seeming impunity. Iris Gonzales documents this scandal in her post One Death is Too Many.

Fighting impunity is something we can all do. In fact tomorrow is International Day to End Impunity 

Turkey is alleged to be the Number One in Jailing Journalists with 61 locked up in relation to their work.

Finding Business Models

Finally, a world about money, Mark Colvin’s crisis of finance. Good reporting can cost heaps. Being on the ground makes all difference to the quality and cred of the stories. The ABC has one reporter in North Africa and the Middle East and one for the whole of the rest of Africa. Matt Brown and Ginny Stein continue to amaze with their omnipresence. But they are the exceptions these days.

We are seeing the resurgence of Press Agencies such as AAP and AP, who are the ones hiring foreign correspondents. Good as much of it is, it's generic reporting.

Increasingly old media looks to new media for a free ride. Crowd sourcing is just one example of this trend. There are also an increasing number of online sites such as the Global Post, with lots of niche operations likeInternews.

Real investigative work seems beyond the shrinking budgets of much of the print media. Commercial television loves today’s explosion rather than tomorrow’s exposé. The pictures and sound are everything.

It’s not enough to blame the audience as too many media leaders have done recently. We all must take responsibility for making sure that human rights coverage flourishes.

No comments:

Post a Comment