Good human rights reporting is simply good reporting
In general, your normal journalism skills simply need to be at their best.
Be neutral and fair
Being fair means presenting as many sides of a story as possible, or at least trying to. It also means using the same criteria when you report on atrocities, no matter who committed them.
Some media interpret “watchdog” to mean watching only governments and exposing human rights abuses by governments. As a result, journalists may be more lenient when it comes to reporting the violations of government opponents – rebels, protesters, guerrilla groups, insurgents – who are also capable of violating human rights. Many freedom fighters have attacked civilians, intimidated, raped, occupied villages and murdered people.
Is compassion a compromise?
Compassion is a normal human response: we all feel for people who suffer. If you are tempted to help victims, consider carefully whether you are compromising your independence. Try to get someone else to help.
Pay extra attention to details (there is often only one chance to ask)
- Ask everything several times and ask everyone to repeat.
- Be thorough, methodical and detailed in your documentation. Video and photos are good, but you won’t always have a camera. So make very careful notes; describe what you see; writing down what people say, sticking as closely to their words as possible; draw little maps or pictures if necessary.
- Be careful not to disturb physical evidence in situations where there has been violence.
Don't look at rights violations as a national grievance
A human rights violation is not one ethnic or political group complaining about another; it is a human issue. Consider the possibility of – and the ethical issues around – fuelling ethnic tensions.
Remember: just by calling something a "human rights" investigation, you have taken sides in the eyes of many people
- Many opposition groups use human rights conventions as a political tool: watch out for propaganda.
- Human rights perpetrators will resent international conventions and human rights monitoring, and you will be at risk.
- Human rights standards and instruments may contradict national laws. Be aware of this and point out the contradictions in your story.
- Human rights standards and instruments often contradict religious customs, culture and traditions. Be aware of this too, and make sure you accurately present what others believe.
Give extra attention to your own safety in sensitive situations
Always tell colleagues where you are going and when you expect to return. If possible, work in a team.
Be extra careful with your notes and recordings
- Do not let your notes fall into the wrong hands.
- Take care what you write down and record: anonymity and confidentiality may be life and death issues. If someone says “don’t use my name,” evaluate the level of threat to the person. If it is high, don’t even write the name down.
- See the section on Digital security for human rights reporters
Interviewing victims, witnesses and perpetrators
Understand the stress in the interview
- People who have suffered human rights abuses may be traumatized. During the interview, take breaks if possible; offer water or tea if you can.
- People who perpetrate human rights abuses may also be traumatized. Be sensitive to their needs too.
- The story may also be traumatic for you as a journalist. Make sure you seek counseling or other help and support afterwards if you feel you need it.
Try to interview each person alone
- It is difficult to concentrate when too many people are around.
- For broadcast journalists, it may be hard to record interviews and get good quality sound when there is a lot of background noise.
- Human rights abuses cause emotional responses, and group pressure may cause people to change their story or cause interviewees to exaggerate.
- Human rights abuses are political. There may be police spies or others who do not want the story to be exposed in a crowd. This is a risk to the interviewee.
Be extra careful and alert
- If you are in a crowded place, be aware that there may be people present who do not want the information reported, for example, friends or relatives of perpetrators; people from opposing political parties; spies.
- Do not perform the interview in a situation that may put any of the parties at risk of serious harm.
- You may need a translator present. This may be a problem if the interviewee wants to remain anonymous or give you information that is off the record. There are different ways to get around this:
- Avoid asking for sensitive or private information in the presence of a translator, including the interviewee’s name, if necessary.
- Try to find someone who understands the situation and who respects the interviewee – perhaps a friend or relative who will be concerned about the interviewee’s safety and privacy.
- Explain to the translator the risks of divulging in-confidence information and the principles of respect for anonymity and off-the-record information before starting the interview
- Hire a translator in advance and draft a contract committing the translator to confidentiality.
- Be sure that the translator is not someone who might put the interviewee at risk.
- Some victims – especially of sexual crime – may need support before they can bring themselves to speak freely.
- Many traumatized victims of rape or torture will not divulge their experience to
- a stranger. A friend or counselor may be a necessary companion.
- If possible, never interview a child alone. Always be sure a trusted relative, carer, guardian, healthworker, teacher or friend is present.
Clearly identify yourself as a journalist
- Say which newspaper, TV or radio station you are reporting for. Explain what audience the story is likely to reach. Say why you are following up on the story. Explain the context to the interviewee.
- Explain that you are a journalist and that you do not represent a human rights organization or any other organization that might bring redress or help. Be careful not to make any false promises or encourage false hope in the victim. Tell the victim that you cannot ensure any particular outcome from the coverage of the story.
- Never offer payment or compensation of any kind for an interview. This compromises the integrity of the story and the interviewee’s ability to make a rational decision about whether or not to make his/her story public.
Explain why you are covering the story and the risks involved
- Explain that you are covering the story because it is important to expose the abuse or violation, to tell others what has happened (or is happening).
- Explain the risk: there may be revenge or retribution against the interviewee if the story is published or broadcast. Explain this to the interviewee; warn them.
- If the interviewee does not want to be interviewed and have the story published, respect that choice.
Offer the option of remaining anonymous
Ask the interviewee if you can use his or her name. Respect their choice.
- Confirm basic details, for example, the name and age of the interviewee.
- Assume this is the only time you will ever see this person; you have one chance only.
- Be especially careful in situations of war or conflict, as people move around and get moved around a lot in conflict situations.
- Get clear descriptions of places, including the names of all those present when the human rights abuse occurred and positions and ranks of members of the army or police.
- Ask interviewees to describe uniforms perpetrators were wearing or any other identification.
- Ask for descriptions of weapons seen or used.
Ask people to repeat their story. Be especially careful about timing and the sequence of events.
- What was said? By whom? When?
- Allow the interviewee to tell their story as a story, from the beginning to the end. It may be both easier for the interviewee and easier for you to tell the story afterwards.
- Ask them to describe the incident or incidents from the beginning.
- Ask them to repeat the story so that you can be clear about events.
- Avoid leading questions that put words into the interviewee’s mouth.
- Avoid questions that suggest answers or look for confirmation of other information.
- In addition to the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of good journalism, there are two very useful open-ended questions for journalists working on stories about human rights violations.
- How do you know?
- What happened next?
- Go to different sources, especially if the allegations are serious. Do not rely on one source. Is there anyone else who saw what happened?
- If someone has died as a result of a beating or shooting, check with the mortuary and try to get an autopsy report. There may be other public records.
- Think critically: victims and perpetrators will have agendas and interests when they tell you the story.
Think about your source’s motives
Witnesses, victims and perpetrators may have been offered money to lie, or they or their families may have been threatened with punishment if they tell the truth. They may have political motivations. Witnesses and victims may be tempted to exaggerate to ensure the perpetrator is punished or to emphasise their own innocence.