Interviewing perpetrators of human rights violations

Interviewing people who are charged with committing (or are accused of committing) human rights violations can be difficult for journalists. But it is still important and necessary to do in order to present more than one side of the story.

Many human rights violations are criminal acts and should never be excused. But interviewing perpetrators may help to present a more complex picture of a situation. The interview may help us understand what drives people to violate the rights of others. If you only interview victims, or people who have suffered human rights violations, you will present a simplistic, one-sided – albeit very important – picture.

Risks of allowing perpetrators to remain anonymous

Because of the risk of prosecution, people accused of perpetrating violations may wish to remain anonymous. As a journalist, you must decide whether to respect their wishes and, in making the decision, you will need to weigh many factors.

One of the main risks of using anonymous sources is that you could be summonsed to appear in court and ordered to disclose the name of your source. If this happens, you will have to decide what to do. If you refuse to name a perpetrator, or an alleged perpetrator, your case will be weaker because the justice system may take the position that “there is no confidence in iniquity” – that is, people accused of wrongdoing should not be protected and information about crimes should be disclosed. (See guidelines for using anonymous sources).

Guidelines for interviewing accused perpetrators

  • Thorough preparation helps build your confidence and stay on topic throughout the interview.
  • Prepare for the interview by researching the interviewee and the circumstances of the crimes s/he is accused of committing.
  • Take necessary safety precautions so you can interview your source without having to worry about your and his/her safety
  • Be open and honest about the fact that you are a journalist; say which newspaper, TV station or radio you are reporting for.
  • Offer the option to remain anonymous; perpetrators who tell the truth are also open to revenge or retribution.
  • Try to interview the alleged perpetrator alone.
  • Never promise favorable coverage, loyalty or understanding in exchange for the interview.
  • Confront the interviewee with the allegation and explain you want to hear his or her response. Say you want to tell both sides of the story.
  • Do not pretend you are asking about something else: this is both unethical and may be dangerous if you are found out.
  • Encourage and allow the interviewee to tell his/her side of the story, but don’t shy away from asking probing questions.
  • Be direct but polite, regardless of how you feel about the crime(s) the person has committed or is accused of committing.
  • Finally, remember that the line between perpetrator and victim is often blurry. Perpetrators of human rights violations may also have suffered similar violations at the hands of someone else in the past. View and treat them as human beings.