Human Rights Journalism: A bite-sized introduction

Human rights are a set of rights that cover almost every sphere of our life, from the right to life and social security to the right to vote, own property and move freely. Those rights are covered in two principle covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights likewise in other international human rights treaties that derive out of those covenants. Being universal and egalitarian, human rights are applicable everywhere and belong to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, class, sexual orientation or race. These rights are protected by international law and national institutions.

Journalistic content covers all these spheres of human lives – politics, social justice, health, business, environment and many more, which makes it inevitable to come across human rights issues. For decades, journalism is considered to serve the role of a “fourth estate”, acting as a watchdog when it comes to the work of the governing elites. Understood like this, it is not a surprise that there is plenty of human rights coverage in the media worldwide. The primary focus of a journalist is to deliver true, uncensored and objective information to the people and to protect and maintain public opinion, while numerous articles in international documents guarantee freedom of expression. In achieving a high level of a democratic society, the establishment of pluralism and information is crucial, and this is even more important in wartime.

Keeping that in mind, human rights journalism is the one that reports on rights abuses, from violation of fundamental rights to the victims of political ferocity. Mass media is inevitably interconnected to human rights, it nourishes the realization of freedom of speech and protects the rights of the people.

Do journalists have a responsibility to report on human rights?

Journalistic profession and human rights should always act on the same side of the spectrum, complementary and independently. The role of a journalist is to communicate truthful and objective information to citizens. Violation and protection of human rights fall under that scope, therefore media reporting and human rights are complementing areas. If journalists don’t take account of human rights it can affect the quality of their work. Media should always point to justice or injustice to others, representing a valuable public service that “feels the pulse” of the society. Journalists are often the first witnesses of human rights abuses, therefore reporting on those issues is a part of their responsibility. Very often media professionals are the ones who mobilize state administration to react since journalistic work triggers state actors to notice human rights violations.

Finally, it must be mentioned that a country is said to respect and protect the fundamental rights of the people if two crucial elements are fulfilled in a democratic order – freedom of the press and unrestricted public opinion, meaning that reporting on human rights conditions is enabled.

Good human rights journalism

There are various ethical, moral and professional codes for journalists, to be specific more than 400 written codes, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). And while they differ in length, comprehensiveness, and quality, there are certain universally recognized elements. Journalism’s “big five” includes the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability. International journalism network agrees that these values should promote open debate, freedom of expression and information and above all, make governments serve their citizens, whether reporting on human rights or not. Whatever the reporting subject is, a journalist should keep high standards and this is especially important if the subject is sensitive or could lead to danger or pitfalls.

Numerous journalistic associations and organizations are active in the area of human rights journalism. International Federation of Journalists state that they “work to protect the human rights of its members and the communities they serve and to help journalists and media improve coverage of human rights issues”. Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) is Canada’s leading media development organization with a mission to train journalists to report on human rights and governance issues in their communities.

Moreover, several associations award exceptional journalistic pieces. Amnesty International Media Awards celebrate excellence in human rights journalism and applaud the courage and determination of journalists and editors who put their lives on the line to tell important human rights stories. The Human Rights Press Awards recognize top rights-related reporting from around Asia. This kind of work that provides outstanding coverage of a particular human rights issue is important because it seeks to highlight the responsibility of those accountable for rights violations.

How to make a newsworthy story?

It may be hard sometimes for a journalist to recognize the right story and turn it into good content. However, linking certain events with the human rights point of view could benefit the story and make it more newsworthy. Of course, the story needs to be relevant to people’s lives and serve the public interest, but choosing a different angle can open new horizons. Just think about the following example: there were cases of severe domestic violence in your community in a short period, but your editor in chief was not interested in covering the story. He simply didn’t find these instances newsworthy and proposed to change the topic. However, if you modify the angle of storytelling by starting with a little research about the ratification of international documents on this matter, your coverage could have a completely new direction. Has your country signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) or Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence? What were the positive steps taken towards combating domestic violence in your community? What are the national laws on this subject? By answering these questions the story all of a sudden becomes more newsworthy, since investigates in-depth the issue of domestic violence and brings is to the higher level by questioning national frameworks. Such coverage at the same time includes the component of raising awareness about what constitutes domestic violence within international law.

There is another interesting way to connect a local story with human rights, by publishing a story on the relevant international day. On the official website, the UN has a calendar of international days and important human rights dates. For example, a story about domestic violence could get into the news on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women or March 8, International Women’s Day. There are a lot of creative ways to incorporate the notion of human rights into a story since the role of media is not only to provide information on news events and ongoing issues but to influence public opinion and make an impact on people’s lives.

The good and the bad sides of human rights reporting

Positive elements of human rights journalism are well known, mass media act as a body that delivers people truth worth information and maintains public opinion. It investigates human rights violations and abuses and publishes information that will be available to a wider audience. Media can also influence governments to integrate rights into national laws and policies. Furthermore, some of the journalists’ storytelling covers housing, poverty, and migration, recognizing them as the new human rights issues. Finally, the development of technology created new ways of transmitting information, so nowadays thanks to social network platforms and mobile phones, reporting about human rights issues is faster and easier.

However, the less bright side of this noble profession is the risk of reporting in certain situations, since human rights reportages are often directed against powerful political and economic interests. Another great threat comes from reporting in conflict and war zones. Because of the high level of abductions and killings, there is a lack of international media representatives on the field and more freelancers instead. What is enabled and provided to them as a protection measure while doing their job? According to Reporters Without Borders, there are security vests, helmets, health insurance and digital survival kit available on the field. These kits are useful and contain encryption software. In partnership with UNESCO, there is a “Handbook for Journalists” as well, which contains the international legal norms that protect freedom of the press in compliance with the practical advice of behavior in the field.

To conclude, journalism is the key profession when it comes to human rights. It acts as a watchdog and raises awareness among people on the violations and abuses. Good human rights stories will always link the events to rights and identify the interests of all concerned parties.

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