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April 2001

COVERING HUMAN RIGHTS STORIES

by Anthony Collings

Antony Collings
Anthony Collings
For journalists, human rights stories are both easy and difficult to report. They are easy in the sense that there is always strong interest in the subject. In a democracy, we are concerned about human rights as a fundamental value of our system. Any story about encroachments on those rights is certain to be followed with great interest, and reporters do not have to do a great selling job convincing their editors to do this type of story. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of material.

Human rights stories are difficult to cover in the sense that journalists put themselves at risk of attack by those whose human rights violations they report about. Reporters can be arrested, tortured, beaten, threatened and sometimes killed for doing these stories. I am completing a book, Words of Fire, about attacks on journalists around the world, and my research indicates that stories about human rights violations are among the most dangerous to cover. 

In 1999, 34 journalists were killed throughout the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, including six who lost their lives in Latin America (one in Argentina and five in Colombia). Since 1986, more than 50 reporters, TV correspondents, publishers or other journalists have been killed in Colombia, making it one of the most dangerous countries for the press; many of those deaths were due to reporting on human rights violations.

For example, political satirist Jaime Garzón, host of a daily morning show on the Bogotá station Radionet and contributor to a television news program called Caracol Noticias, was killed in August 1999 in Bogotá. According to press reports, he was shot dead in his car by two men on a motorcycle. Garzón had campaigned for the release of the victims of kidnappings by guerrillas in Colombia‚s civil war.

As another indication of how dangerous it is in Colombia, Reuters‚ photographer Henry Romero was freed near the town of Suárez after being held by guerrillas of the Colombian National Liberation Army. He had been kidnapped as punishment for publishing a picture of a rebel commander‚s unmasked face, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. His release came two days after the release of seven other journalists kidnapped by the largest leftist guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Often the violators of human rights in Latin America are military, paramilitary or criminal organizations that are not reluctant to use force against journalists who expose their misdeeds. These attacks on journalists and threats against them occur in democracies, and the difficulty becomes even greater in a dictatorship such as Cuba. Not only do they risk physical assault by military and other organizations, but also face other forms of attack such as criminal libel lawsuits, economic pressures such as government threats to withdraw advertising, and smear and intimidation campaigns, such as one in Peru, apparently by agents of the Fujimori regime.

Ethics, Victims, and Objectivity

Another problem for journalists is ethics: the difficulty of achieving objectivity, fairness and balance in reporting on human rights issues when most information comes from alleged victims. It is difficult to confirm their stories independently and also difficult to avoid taking sides when journalists receive most of their information from the alleged victim. It is only human to feel sympathy for someone brutalized by the military, and it may seem cold and callous to remain cautiously skeptical about unproven claims. But a journalist who aspires to credibility must strive to be objective and that requires a neutral, detached approach. That means the journalist reports that so-and-so is an „alleged victimš of human rights abuses and also reports, if possible, that the accused violator denies the allegations.

Yet another difficulty in covering human rights is that if the violators belong to military forces, journalists reporting allegations against them risk appearing unpatriotic by casting aspersions on their own defense forces. This was seen in the United States when the Pentagon accused journalists of being „un-Americanš for reporting serious misdeeds by the military.

For example, some critics and officials pilloried Peter Arnett for his Associated Press reports from Vietnam and CNN reports from Baghdad about the bombing of civilians during the Gulf War. Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times came under similar criticism for reports on the U.S. bombing of civilians in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked a journalist: „Whose side are you on?š The question implied a lack of patriotism for taking a critical view of military policy. More recently, an AP story on GIs attacking civilians during the Korean War and a New York Times story about the apparent GI looting of Nazi gold in Hungary after World War II ran the same risk of being seen by militant supporters of the Pentagon as unpatriotic.

Yet for all these difficulties, human rights stories are among the most important and valuable works of journalism possible. Human rights are fundamental to democracy around the world, including Latin America. Human rights violations attack one of the pillars of a democratic system, and for the violators to escape with impunity because their crimes go unreported would be a great failing of journalism. This implies a duty of ethical journalists to be vigilant and aggressive in reporting on human rights, while recognizing the limits of what is realistically possible.


Anthony Collings is a lecturer in Communication Studies at the University of Michigan and has extensive experience as national and foreign correspondent for print and broadcast media. He spend 16 years at CNN, where he served as Rome bureau chief, and was the Newsweek bureau chief in Bonn and London.


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