Interviewing NGOs and activists

There are thousands of sources of information about human rights and human rights abuses. The challenge for journalists is often not finding information, but assessing it for accuracy.

Some of the main sources are the UN and the many UN agencies. In general, these organizations and other international organizations like the World Bank can be trusted. They have large staffs deployed to many places.

Similarly, there are well-known NGOs that employ well-qualified and trained field staff in many countries.

Two of the best-known NGOs are Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Both of these NGOs put out regular bulletins highlighting human rights issues and violations. They also conduct in-depth research and analysis.

It is worth going online and registering to receive their bulletins and alerts. It is also worth taking a look at what they say about human rights in your country.

Amnesty International and Human Rights watch take a broad, inclusive approach to human rights. But there are also many other human rights awareness-raising and “watchdog” organizations at international, national and local levels that focus on specific human rights issues.


Local human rights groups are sometimes associated in the public’s mind with opposition political parties. Sometimes the association is real and there are links. But sometimes even independent local human rights groups are perceived to be part of the opposition, especially if they expose government human rights abuses or failure to implement international human rights standards.

Quoting these groups may cause your audience to believe your story is biased. It is important to be clear with your audience. For example:

For an NGO that is not independent, you could say:

Youth for Human Rights, an NGO that has links to the African National Congress, said in a statement...

If you are not sure about the NGOs political links but they are perceived to be politically linked, you could say:

Youth for Human Rights, an NGO that is widely believed to be linked to the African National Congress, said in a statement....

The NGO may respond by denying the links. If this happens, you would have to publish their denial.

For an independent NGO, you could say:

Human Rights Women, an independent NGO, said in a statement....

You could also include short background information on the NGO, saying, for example, where it gets its funding from:

Clarification may not solve the problem of perceived bias, but it will help!

These organizations pump out reports, analyses, bulletins and appeals in the thousands about women’s rights, children’s rights, disappearances, detentions, harassment of journalists, unlawful killings, health rights, rights to water, lesbian, gay and transgender rights, and many other topics. They are extremely useful sources of information.

Many NGOs do good work and often are the most knowledgeable about situations because they are on the ground working directly with human rights issues. But they have agendas. They are activists and they are constantly seeking publicity. Sometimes, they have been accused of sensationalizing reports in order to gain support for campaigns or to impress and attract funders and subscribers.

Some NGOs are funded by governments and have political agendas. Others are funded by philanthropic donors and so seem more independent, but may also have political or religious biases.

Human rights NGOs are normally extremely careful about protecting their sources – understandably, because of the potential risk to the people who give them information. It is essential for the NGO to be careful, but it makes their information difficult to verify and harder for journalists to use.

So, as with any other source, handle information from human rights organizations with care. Try to confirm it elsewhere. UN officials, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are usually willing to share their opinions about the work of local NGOs.

Always make sure you clearly attribute the information to the source, so that your readers and audiences can make up their own minds about the truthfulness of the information.

Don’t dismiss NGOs. In spite of their agendas, they are useful sources of information, especially for background, context and statistics. They will also happily give you lively quotes and comments because they want publicity.

Human rights organizations also create news – organizing rallies, discussion forums, protests, and other events – so it is important to build good contacts in those organizations.

No matter how just or right you think they are and no matter how much you believe in the causes they take up, avoid becoming too closely associated with them or you will be in danger of losing your own independence. There is also the risk to your credibility. If the public associates you too closely with an NGO, your stories will be perceived as biased.

World-renowned human rights watchdogs

Amnesty International

  • Campaigns to end grave abuses of human rights by governments and any other institutions anywhere
  • Experience: started in 1961
  • Membership-based: Has 3 million supporters, members and activists in 150 countries
  • Reports, bulletins, alerts
  • Publishes up-to-date information about human rights issues and individual country assessments and reports.

Human Rights Watch

  • Dedicated to supporting and defending human rights by shedding light on abuses and violations across the globe
  • Experience: started in 1978
  • Deploys fieldworkers in many countries to interview eye-witnesses and victims of human rights abuses, and passes this information on to journalists
  • Reports, bulletins, alerts
  • Publishes up-to-date information about human rights issues and individual country assessments and reports

Do you have their contact details?

Do Amnesty or Human Rights Watch have offices, representatives or staff in your country? Do you know who they are? Write down their details in the Section 2.7 worksheet.