Media and Human Rights Education: Now More than Ever

Director, Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project
Posted by Bulatlat
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.

To balance –what does balance mean? Does it mean to always include the opinions of the most powerful people –warlords, presidents and generals — some of who might disagree with each other?

Because you get the commanders of opposing sides in your story, does that make a story balanced?

Maybe balance can mean something more. Maybe balance means showing the real impact and effect of something – the effect of a policy.

In fact I often think our media is far too concerned with statements on policy and not the actual impact –or non-impact of that policy.
In this way, maybe our media is unbalanced in its choices and treatment of stories.

And sometimes if you are too balanced – the audience is left feeling confused. Take the recent Philippine annual report to the new Human Rights Council in Geneva. A lot of media reports had the government saying that Geneva and the international community were very, very, satisfied with the government’s report on human rights in the Philippines this year. At the same time, these media reports also said that the NGO groups here called the report a whitewash.

So the stories were balanced. But what was the truth? Is the government right or are the NGOs right? The public is left feeling confused. So sometimes the media has to call it. We the audience sometimes need more – a lot more.

I wish I could really talk about the media and human rights monitoring as there is much to do be done on that score –but time is short. Suffice to say, people interested should come talk to me and engage with our website and project. One thing, for example I would love to see is a commonly agreed list of names of people who have been summarily killed or disappeared. NGO figures on the one hand are distrusted by many – and the PNP’s own figures are likewise rejected by many.

The media I think has a role here in dispassionately and objectively coming together to determine a list – and then to seek justice for them.

And I think it is important too that media doesn’t always turn to the powerful and in so doing make them even more powerful to the extent that ordinary people are always shut out and ignored or only ever presented when they are victims. People don’t want pity – they want justice – they want the rule of law and they want a fair platform.

A good journalist should know how to choose, frame and balance a story that actually means and says something new and doesn’t simply give the platform to the same old politician and leaders saying the same old things.

The fact is we validate fools by always going back to them –and in that way new people and new ideas and new thinking is shut out. We need to be more creative.

When I first came to the Philippines to work last year, I was surprised and a little disappointed to learn that pretty much all coverage was determined by the beat system of reporting.

A lot of people told me how they would love to do more human rights reporting –only it didn’t fit in anywhere.
There is the political or city hall beat, the police or crime beat and maybe the business beat. But there is no time or space for a human rights beat.

But nor does there need to be –so long as journalists understand better human rights. In part it is about training –but in part it is about good old fashioned common sense.

As an example, a few days ago I wrote a blog on our website saying that all journalists covering the Mindanao crisis should take some time to visit a particular website so they know when to recognize and report a crime of war. Correctly calling something a crime of war is the first step in helping to prevent a repetition.

Somebody here once suggested that better observance and reporting of human rights is a luxury that the Philippines cannot yet afford. There were too many other pressing problems that take precedence he said.

Now to be honest but blunt I think that view is silly. Human rights pervade through virtually everything. They are not just about crisis or conflict. Moreover, awareness and protection of human rights is what makes a society a society.

It is only human rights and the adherence to laws and the delivery of justice that separates us from anarchy and the jungle. The day we say human rights are not for us –or at least not right now – is the day we all give up and succumb.

The family of human rights and human rights laws equally relate to socio-economic, cultural and developmental rights. This is why we focus a lot in our project on issues like poverty, the right to education; employment laws, domestic violence and land rights.

These are every day issues here in the Philippines that the media have a moral obligation to understand and cover.

This is why the person who told me that human rights are a luxury that the Philippines cannot afford is, I believe, quite simply wrong.
In travelling around the country I meet local journalists –some of whom have complained that everything is appalling and that it is no use and there are lots of covenants, declarations and laws about human rights –but that in reality here there are none.

To that I said and I say human rights are not delivered from the back of a truck or from on high.

They are fought for every day. The entire history of mainstreaming human rights has been a battle. For those who don’t already know it you should read up on how one solitary Polish lawyer battled for decades to get the term genocide introduced, understood and accepted by the international community.

One thing we all need to agree on is that the issue of human rights is not a Leftist one any more than it is a Christian concept. Observance and protection of human rights is the bedrock of any civilized society and relate to the child the mother, the marginalised and dispossessed – but equally to the worker, to the civil servant, the policeman and soldier. We all have rights. And we are all responsible for defending and improving them individually and collectively.

And so back to the role of the media — and to the jobs of many here as media educators:

In many countries and customs – I forget which, couples when they get married – they symbolically jump over something, fire, a line or something. I’ve seen it on TV so it must be true….

I would like to see us symbolically agree to do something similar here today. I would like us to agree that if there ever was a line that divided media and human rights, we decide to jump over it today.

We agree that 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.

After all –lest we forget – modern journalism evolved out of the pamphleteers –people who wrote leaflets and papers which came out against what they saw as unjust laws in the 18th and 19th centuries.

So human rights advocates and journalists in fact share the same heritage. Likewise the best remembered journalists are those who wrote with their heart on their sleeve –from James Cameron to Ed Munro. Similarly, some of the best Philippine journalists are those who have moved in and out of the NGO community.

Sadly today, if you read the papers, listen to the radio and watch TV you sometimes get a sense of despair –not least with the political leadership.

I have written about the botched MOA and how it was apparently so badly handled by Manila on our project website –but that is only one instance of many that serves to lower people’s trust and confidence in the current political system.
At times like these, society looks around to try and find moral compass points to help them make sense of things in a crazy world – religious authority is one obviously –so too is the media.

And I would conclude that just as the media has to be committed and engaged when reporting crisis and conflict –so it has to be engaged and self-aware when reporting on more mundane things.

Speaking to journalists, editors and trainers over recent months I have heard it said that few young people want to go into journalism any more. Those who study communications, do so simply to get a better paid job in marketing, PR, or even in a call center.

These jobs are both better paid and there is far less of a chance of ending up dead.

But I would end now by saying that it is our job and your job in particular to try and inspire the new generation of journalists. And the way to do it is by showing how now, more than ever, the media and in particular human rights journalism is one of the best ways to serve, protect and strengthen society.

There is a saying that societies get the political systems they deserve – yet as the key facilitators for communication, dialogue and debate, the media has a critical role to play in challenging the status quo.

In saying that I don’t mean it should be working to bring down a government or to support a new leader. I mean instead the media has instead to consider a possible paradigm shift: It has to think up new ways of working that might include campaigns, alliances, linkages, ongoing narratives and different ways of framing stories and issues. It needs to platform new voices, new ideas and new thinking. We have to platform and empower people and groups we have not yet heard from.

One key linkage and continuing we need to make is the link between corruption, political nepotism, pork barrel politics and human rights.
And so – as journalism educators -rightly or wrongly- I believe a great deal of responsibility is now down to many of you here today:
It is for you to inspire and train the next generation of media professionals –those who understand and appreciate that human rights awareness and reporting lies at the very heart of their being as Filipino journalists and citizens.

In these very trying and testing days, we need them – and you — now more than ever. Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project/Posted by Bulatlat

*The author gave this keynote speech at the Asian Congress for Media and Communication International Conference on August 21-23, 2008 at the Ateneo de Davao in Davao City. The conference held the theme “Media in Asia: A Tool for Human Rights Education and Monitoring” to focus on the role of the media and the academe in reporting human rights.

Bulatlat is posting this speech minus the introduction and salutations. The full text of the speech can be read at…


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