Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 May 2020

Conflict journalism needs a code of ethics and needs it now

Irresponsible war reporting has led to a string of abuses and even deaths, and it has to end

Journalists and TV crews ride in the back of an Iraqi forces humvee in the Old City of Mosul on June 30, 2017. AFP
Journalists and TV crews ride in the back of an Iraqi forces humvee in the Old City of Mosul on June 30, 2017. AFP

Can journalism be deadly?

Ask the family of Sadou Yehia, a Malian man interviewed by the France 24 network and subsequently murdered last month by militants. The interview, conducted in December, was part of a package about French troops operating in the region. The journalists protected the French soldiers by anonymising their names and obscuring their faces. They did not offer Yehia the same considerations.

Yehia denounced terrorists on air, his face clearly recognisable. Perhaps he was not thinking of the consequences. His family says the terrorists arrived shortly after the programme aired, shot Yehia twice, then threatened the entire village as he lay dying. They issued an ultimatum, ordering Yehia’s family to leave the village within a month.

Yehia’s words cost him his life, and his neighbours were collectively punished.

Did a producer or reporter warn Yehia about when the report would air? Did they tell him that it might be risky? Would he still have done it?

I teach a course in journalism at Yale University. In the first seminar I hold, I tell my students that they must do no harm. They must put their subject first, make them feel safe and keep them safe. For civilians during wartime, or victims of sexual abuse, it is particularly important not to re-traumatise them.

I have worked as a field reporter for nearly three decades. In that time, I have made huge mistakes and wrestled with questions of moral responsibility when pressured by sometimes-overzealous news editors, so I do understand how fast-paced journalism can blur critical thinking. Nevertheless, it should not. Because journalism is often a matter of life and death.

I am also a board member of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, which promotes local journalism. Of primary concern for us is not only the safety of our reporters, but also their sources and contacts. With the rise of global terrorism and the 24-hour news cycle, should there not be an institutionalised, universal and systematic policy of aftercare for subjects in dangerous places?

Relatives attend the funeral for the victims of yesterday’s attack in Kabul, Afghanistan March 7, 2020. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Relatives attend the funeral for the victims of a recent attack in Kabul, Afghanistan March 7, 2020. Reuters

Back in December 2001, during the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, I watched as a group of men accused of being Taliban fighters were brought out of a hidden cave by commanders from the Northern Alliance, a federation of anti-Taliban Afghan fighters.

The men were dragged forward, bedraggled and bewildered. Most of them were very young – teenaged or younger. They were not fighters, but cooks, cleaners and delivery boys.

The international press corps that had gathered in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, however, was ecstatic. Photographers surrounded the group and shoved their cameras in the boys’ faces, hoping for a sound bite.

In that moment, I was ashamed to be a journalist. I quietly made my way to the Afghan commander in charge and told him parading prisoners of war in front of a pack of reporters baying for their blood was a violation of the Geneva Convention.

“Shut up,” said the camera operator of one famous American journalist. He had overheard me grumbling and said I threatened their evening news report.

On another occasion, I showed my students a BBC 3 documentary report in which the presenter repeatedly harasses a young ISIS prisoner.

I learnt long ago that a good story could destroy someone’s life.

Most worrying to me – and to human rights lawyers who contacted me – the prisoner had no legal representation nor a translator. The presenter played to the camera, dramatically repeating: “How many women, how many children have you raped?” and “Tell me what you are thinking when these girls are screaming?”

Worse, the presenter brought in a Yazidi rape victim and paraded her in front of the ISIS captive.

This is deeply worrying for me. Academics and other professions are bound by codes of ethics, with considerable legal or career consequences for violating them. Journalists should operate similarly. But in an era of budget crunches, where more journalists are sent to dangerous assignments without training, very few of them are taught any rules. I do not blame the BBC 3 presenter for her actions as much as I blame her producers and bosses, who think of ratings rather than ethics.

By virtue of their jobs, journalists crash into people’s lives, into humanitarian catastrophes, into family dramas, into war or misery, get the story and leave. We leave the people behind with their same suffering, but we get a story or a film.

It can leave a far reaching, painful legacy.

A study carried out in the aftermath of attacks on Yazidis by ISIS in 2014 showed that many of the subjects were deeply disturbed by their treatment by journalists. One human rights lawyer in residence at American University conducted 90 interviews with Yazidi women about their interactions with the international media.

The findings were staggering: 85 per cent of the women reported that journalists engaged in unethical practices, often pressuring them to speak or failing to protect their privacy adequately.

I learnt long ago that a good story could destroy someone’s life.

During the war in Kosovo, while working on a three-month investigation into mass rape in the country during the Nato bombing campaign, I wrote about a woman who was raped and brutalised by local men.

Although I changed her name, the article was illegally taken from my newspaper, translated and published in Kosovo. Because an incident I described was recognisable – the woman had been involved in a bombing in a café where nearly everyone but her was killed – local people understood immediately who she was.

Although she forgave me because she understood the circumstances – I never really forgave myself.

She was a young woman I had exposed and failed to protect. She had trusted me, and I had hurt her.

It was a most brutal lesson to learn.

Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria

Updated: March 10, 2020 06:41 PM

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