Interviewing torture survivors

Torture is a human rights violation and a crime against humanity. Read the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

The do’s and don’ts of interviewing torture survivors

The following list of practical “do’s and don’ts” for interviewing torture survivors was written by Miron Varouhakis, a journalist with many years’ experience interviewing and interacting with torture survivors and health professionals working to rehabilitate torture survivors. “Interviewing Victims of Torture A Handbook and Guide for Journalists;  Victims & the Media Program” by Miron Varouhakis, Michigan State University (2008)

  • If you are working on a story that will require you to interview a torture survivor, make sure that you go well prepared.
  • Conduct research beforehand about the individual’s case and country of origin. Try to find background information that can help you have some understanding of the details of the story. Each case is different.
  • Prepare your list of questions before the interview. Do not start with the difficult questions, because you may provoke a strong emotional response that may cloud the rest of the interview, or put the interviewee off. Include many open-ended questions that will allow the survivor to tell their story at their own pace.
  • Do not overdress for the interview. Also, make sure that you don’t wear any articles of clothing or jewellery that may raise tension or agitate the torture survivor(s). Many of the survivors have been tortured for their political and religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, nationality, and other reasons. So make sure that your clothing and jewellery do not exhibit national or religious emblems, logos or statements.
  • Ideally, female reporters should interview female torture survivors and male reporters should interview male survivors. If this is not possible, then ask the survivor if being interviewed by a member of the opposite sex would be all right with them before you meet for the interview. Many female victims of torture have been raped and sexually abused by male torturers, which could make it difficult for them to open up to a male interviewer. Males from some cultures are not accustomed to talk about their private affairs with women.
  • Ask permission beforehand if you want to take photographs, audio recordings or video of a torture survivor. Don’t assume that the survivor will have no objection. Many survivors have fled their countries to escape persecution and publishing their photo would expose them to danger. Some torture survivors were forced to make false confessions, so they may fear that an electronic recording of their testimony will be used against them. You may be able to reach a compromise by agreeing to obscure their face or their voice, but you need to negotiate this in advance.
  • Discuss in advance an appropriate location for the interview. You want to make sure that the person feels comfortable. Avoid basements and small windowless rooms. Ask them to suggest appropriate venues.
  • When you meet with a torture survivor, be courteous but avoid making any facial expressions or verbal comments that show pity. Remember that torture survivors have endured and survived some of the most horrible acts you can imagine. The fact that they have survived and that they are willing to share their story with a public audience means that they are strong people. They don’t want pity but they do deserve sensitivity and respect.
  • Before you start the interview, ask the torture survivor what name he or she would like used in the story. Using their real name might put them at risk. Also, ask the interviewee if they would like to be identified as a “torture survivor” or “torture victim” in the story. Some of the survivors may prefer to be identified as a victim.
  • Maintain eye contact throughout the interview and be a good listener. They are trusting you with the most painful moments of their lives, so they deserve to have your full attention.
  • Avoid distractions during the interview. Turn off cell phones, beepers and any other electronic communication devices that you may be carrying with you. Many survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and disruptions could trigger intrusive recollections (flashbacks).
  • Remain calm even when the torture survivor shares gruesome details of their torture. Try to avoid facial expression of horror or grief. Torture survivors will appreciate your empathy and concern, but extreme reactions can make them feel worse. Do not reach out to them or comfort them physically. Do not use expressions that have religious connotation (such as “Oh my God,” “Jesus,” etc.). Do not trivialize their experience (for example, by saying “that must have hurt,” or “that must have been hell.”). Don’t patronize them. Don’t ask invasive questions (“how do you feel?” etc.). Just listen closely and be calm and attentive. If you can’t control your emotions, ask for a brief recess.
  • You should be ready to accept that a torture survivor may feel uncomfortable answering a particular question. Don’t press. You should also be ready to accept the possibility that the person may end the interview at any stage if going further becomes too difficult.