Media and Human Rights Education: Now More than Ever

It is not a crime in journalism for reporters to be human rights advocates –rather we see it as giving clarity to our mission – and it provides us a badge of courage and commitment.

Director, Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project
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Vol. VIII, No. 31, September 7-13, 2008

As we all know, the international tradition of journalist education is to train practitioners to be objective, accurate and impartial reporters of news. Anything that is seen as promoting anything else is traditionally seen to be a wrong and misguided.
And yet at the same time –journalism must reflect the society it is in. Some Western practitioners forget that their societies are pretty well established and stable. They have very strong civil societies, good checks and balances and a sound tradition when it comes to the rule of law.

Not all countries and regions though do – and it is for the media in those countries to help fight for, establish and protect human rights and the rule of law.

Now I don’t come before you today to say that the Western model or reporting is the best –far from it. I think very much that Western media is losing its way. But I do propose that there is an international model of journalism that transcends borders – and that model is very strong on human rights.

Ten years ago nobody talked of global warming or developmental journalism or the global food crisis –now everybody does. Things change –and so does journalism.

So let us go back and address the concerns of the traditionalists who believe human rights have no place in journalism.
I went to school for a while in the US as I am sure some of you here also did. And the US tradition of news reporting is even more stringent as you know than the European or Anglo-Saxon UK model.

Journalists are strongly discouraged to use the first person ‘I’ –even when they are first-hand witnesses to events.
Many journalists believe their job is simply to report in the most balanced and factually-driven way.

I will come back to the issue of facts later –but I wanted to alert those people who have not yet heard about it –to a very interesting case of two Western journalists who had both reported the war in the former Yugoslavia.

They had both witnessed some terrible things – and they were both called to be prosecution witnesses at the trial of a general charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia.

One of the journalists – a European – was more than happy to appear. The other – an American — was not. He was a very senior and respected journalist – and made substantial arguments about why he should not go. All surrounded the issue that it was his job to stay impartial and not to be seen to be taking sides.

He also argued that if he were to testify, it would put all journalists in danger.

On the one hand that is true –but on the other it is not. If somebody does not want you a journalist to be there with your notebook and your cameras they will tell you in no uncertain terms to go away.

The court in The Hague refused to accept his argument and I think they tried to subpoena him –and he sought help to fight the subpoena.
Now I forgot what exactly happened –but I do recall what the European journalist said. And he said in effect he was both honored and duty-bound to testify.

At the end of the day, he said, his job was to bear witness –and his duty as a human being surpassed his duty as a journalist. Ultimately it was his responsibility to help see that justice be done. He said part of him thinks he achieved more in that single court appearance than he did through all his work as a journalist –but of course it was his work as a journalist that saw him bear witness.
As we all know –without justice there is no hope for real peace, development and security.

The International Tribunal for Yugoslavia showed that journalists can play a part in delivering justice after all. But sometimes they have to come off down from this artificial fence to stand and be counted.

I reported the very beginnings of the war in the former Yugoslavia and I pretty much came straight from previously reporting on town hall politics and criminal case reporting.

For those who don’t already know, there is a world of difference between that kind of reporting and the reporting you do in the midst of anarchy with killings and bombings and ethnic cleansing going on.

As I wrote somewhere before, you cannot report a war in the same way as you would report a football match or a political speech. Likewise you cannot always report in a crisis or transitional state in the same way you do in a mature democracy. As a journalist working in the former, you need to be very self aware of your position and always go that extra mile. Often in the absence of a good and engaged media there is nothing save possibly religious organizations for society to fall back on.

I came back from Yugoslavia angry –and angry at the international media in particular for failing to wake up to what was going on. It did, but many months later.

We all use and overuse the phrase ‘the need to be objective’ when in fact there is really no such thing as real objectivity. Reporting is not a science and reporters are not scientists. Journalists are human beings with emotions and subjective views on everything.

As a journalist every decision you make is a subjective one – you choose to go to this place and not that one; you choose to talk to this person and not that one. You use this quote and not that one –your interviewee is actually responding to your questions, and so everything is subjective.

Back in the TV station, your editors use this story and not that one –they use this image and not that one. It goes on.
So the best thing the journalist can be is to be self-aware. To realize that the audience will read, see or hear what you the journalist decide to put in front of them. The journalist then frames every story.

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