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Keynote Speech: Advocacy vs. Objectivity - Media and Human Rights

By Dr. Monika Hauser, medica mondiale e.V.

Dr. Monika Hauser (Founder and Executive Member of the Managing Board of Medica Mondiale)

Dr. Monika Hauser (Founder and Executive Member of the Managing Board of Medica Mondiale)

Dear participants of the Global Media Forum 2011,
Dear media experts on the panel,

It is a great pleasure to be invited to make the keynote speech for today’s plenary session on the topic of “Advocacy vs. Objectivity - Media and Human Rights”. Since I founded the organisation medica mondiale in the year 1993, I have met many women whose human rights were violated one of the worst ways: by rape. Sexualised
violence occurs in all wars in a systematic way. It has nothing to do with sexuality.

Instead, it is a sexualised expression of the power imbalance between men and women. This also leads to massive abuse in what we consider to be “times of peace”. Domestic violence, rape and so-called “honour killings” are present in almost all societies worldwide. And this power imbalance then expresses itself in a very extreme way during wars. In Bosnia or Kosovo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo or currently in Libya – women systematically become victims of rape. They may be carried out on order as part of a “military strategy”. Or it might be that armed men just take what they want because their power over and disdain for the women among their enemies is stronger than at home. Sexualised violence has severe and long-term physical and psychological consequences for the affected girls and women.

The special aspect of the human rights violation “war rape” is that the women involved are given hardly any chance to talk about their traumatic experiences. For this violation, unlike many others, the shame and blame for the act fall on the side of the victims and they are stigmatised and excluded, sometimes even turned into outcasts. The social obligation to remain silent creates even more psychological pain for the women affected. It would be so important for them to be able to talk openly about their experiences in order to process their trauma. So the media have a very special role when it comes to reporting these genderbased human rights violations. Media coverage can make a valuable contribution to breaking the taboo and creating local and international publicity about these common yet suppressed human rights violations on girls and women.

Before I come to the central question of the plenary session “Advocacy vs. Objectivity”, I first want to mention two other aspects which seem important to me when dealing with the issue of the media. First: The language. It is frequently obvious that the reporter is also influenced by patriarchal gender images. In German, for example, one word for rapist is “Frauenschänder”, which translates as “defiler of women”. But surely it is the perpetrator who is “defiled” and should feel shame, not the woman he raped. And if we take a look at a current example from another prominent gender war zone: the alleged rapist Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been called a “sex banker” or even “the man who loves women”. Using such terms shows
that the reporters have not understood anything about the dynamics of sexualised violence. Unfortunately at medica mondiale we experience simply too often that belittlement and falsification are common in reports on the severe human rights violation that rape is.

Another problem we also often have to deal with in our project regions is: How sensitively and respectfully do journalists of both genders treat affected girls and women? The communication with severely traumatised survivors of sexualised wartime violence requires empathy and sensibility, plenty of time, and compliance
with certain rules of behaviour in dealing with trauma victims. Unfortunately our experience in the last 18 years has often been different. From Bosnia in 1993 through to the DRC in 2011, our experience is that women have repeatedly been retraumatised by insensitive interviews and other aspects of a journalism dominated
by voyeurism and sensationalism. How often have I seen camera teams looking for a“good story” forcing their way into a refugee tent and sticking their camera and microphone right in front of a woman’s face without asking! How often have journalists broken their agreements? Including the existentially important promise to respect the anonymity of the interviewees? For this reason, at medica mondiale we published an advisory handout with a code of conduct detailing how to deal with trauma victims. I would like to see all journalists respect these tips, which draw on many years of intense experience. And I would like to see reports that are not dominated by voyeurism and sensationalism but instead show respect for the victims and a will to change the societal conditions which make these sexualised human rights violations of women and girls possible in the first place. This would also mean media coverage after the sensation peak is over, continuing to inform the public about these crimes and their long-term consequences for the affected women, as well as the whole wartime and post-war society.

Every day in the DR Congo women and girls become victims of massive sexualised violence, committed by soldiers from all warring parties. And the conclusion of official peace treaties does not mean peace for the women. In post-war societies they are often exposed to massive violence from the men on their “own side”, who are often
traumatised and brutalised by the war themselves. I would like to see the media report every day from the “battlefields of the worldwide war against women and girls”: sexual slavery, forced prostitution, domestic violence or genital mutilation. However, often, much too often, these human rights violations on women and girls are not recognised. This is the other extreme of voyeuristic and sensational
journalism: they are considered to be some kind of collateral damage and thus ignored or treated as insignificant. Or as a special case.

Please note, this is also true for those who speak up for the survivors. When we attend meetings on human rights we are often the special case in the “women’s corner” instead of being a normal part of the main program. Or sometimes we are simply forgotten completely. For example, in the run-up to this very event my keynote speech simply did not show up on the German website of the “Global Media Forum”. Of course, I would treat this as a fully understandable mistake not worthy of mentioning – if it didn’t happen so often. The affected women and girls, however, need media coverage and they need reports that take sides.

So now I come to the title question of this plenary session: “Advocacy
vs. Objectivity”. And maybe I will surprise you with this statement: I think that treating these two qualities as opposites is artificial – and therefore wrong. The description of this plenary session originally opened with the following paragraph: “Articles about campaigns against the worst human rights violations – child abuse, terrorism, torture and racism – [Here I would like to draw your attention to the fact that human rights violations against women were not even mentioned] have to be checked and verified by journalists like any other story prepared for publishing. Here we are in the midst of
the old dichotomy – advocacy for a good cause versus ‘traditional objective journalism’.”


So I want to ask you: Where is the dichotomy? Articles and reports have to be checked well, carefully and accurately: of course that is true. It is also and especially true for war rapes because we know that they are often instrumentalised by each of the opposing sides to justify their own behaviour. For example, when the US army
marched into Afghanistan the violation of women’s rights was mentioned as an important reason for the intervention. In fact, they have never played a major role in the politics pursued in the country by the “occupiers”. Libya offers another example: It seems somewhat remarkable that just as NATO declared its intention to put an end
to the regime of the Libyan President Gaddafi he is publicly accused of having given the command to his soldiers to rape women in the rebel areas. It is similarly strange to hear the UN Special Representative for Libya, Cherif Bassouni, dismiss these
accusations as “mass hysteria” and even before the facts were clarified. He was the head of a UN expert commission which investigated sexual war crimes in former Yugoslavia. So there is no need to mention that careful journalistic research is indispensable here. And this is particularly true for new media such as blogs, Facebook or Twitter, which on the one hand give women huge possibilities to articulate their life conditions but on the other hand provide new possibilities for abuse and spreading false information.

However: Does all of this really mean that good reporting cannot take sides? I don’t think so. After all, so-called journalistic objectivity does not really exist. Criteria of objectivity only play a limited role in the question of whether a piece of news makes it to the front page, to the comments page or to any page at all. And particularly for the current war zones, how can we talk about “objective” journalism when most of the journalists are “embedded”?

If journalists do independent research in a war zone and if they meet people there – perpetrators and victims – then they will develop an opinion or stance. At least, this is true if they are open. The most important thing is that they are then transparent about this opinion and offer research and facts to justify it. They should not consciously
leave things out or emphasize things other than those which are in contradiction to their findings and facts. This approach is called truthfulness or veracity. And it is this truthfulness that I ask of journalists. In my opinion responsible journalism is committed to this truthfulness. Motivated media coverage of human rights violations
against women and naming the perpetrators makes a contribution to restoring the dignity of these women. In turn, this then contributes to the dignity of journalists.