Human Rights

This page is part of a class assignment for Human Rights and the Journalist, taken in Spring 2016.

Blog #10: Citizen Journalism and Syria

Feb. 9, 2012. A Syrian woman stands among the rubble of her house, destroyed by a Syrian Army mortar, in al-Qsair. (Flickr/Freedom House)

Since the conflict in Syria erupted five years ago, the journeys of the country’s displaced have been widely covered in traditional media.

The stories range from those who have left to seek a better life, to those who come to take advantage of and pillage Europe. Or worse, they are terrorists.

But with a widespread lack of journalism training in Syria, there are few left to document the lives of those who have stayed.

This is what inspired Zaina Erhaim to return to her country in 2013. As a project coordinator and trainer with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, she trains citizen journalists in print and TV reporting.

Her writing is unique from a Syrian perspective. Pieces (which have been translated from Arabic) speak to this. Their titles: “Syrians have been oppressed by a dictator & jihadists, bombed by the west, & you call us terrorists,” “Feminine Scenes from the Syrian War,” and “EU/US Syrian Refugees Crisis: a Syrian perspective.”

In the first article, Erhaim writes about the experiences she and other Syrians have lived through. It begins:

At first we didn’t recognise our friend. He had lost more than 10kg and had trouble standing up. His face was the colour of a ripe lemon, his clothes as filthy as if he had just climbed out of a tomb. Could that really be Mohammad?

Mohammad had been captured by ISIS because he was a medic. Erhaim says, “The irony is that while Mohammad is a dangerous secularist in the eyes of Isis, the west sees him as a dangerous Islamist.”

As a Syrian journalist, Erhaim sees both sides of this as well. She writes:

When my flight landed at London’s Heathrow airport last December, police came on to the plane and called for a woman with an Arabic-sounding name. I panicked and started deleting unveiled pictures of myself on my phone. It took a few seconds to remember that I wasn’t at an Isis checkpoint in Syria. So I closed the photo gallery and went on to delete some of the patriotic anthems on the device, in case their Islamic messages could be taken as proof of me being a terrorist. Then another reality check: the name called out wasn’t mine. Later, in the terminal, I cried my eyes out.

Through the perspective of a native, readers become more compassionate. As a journalist, I felt connected to this woman halfway across the world because of her struggles to not only publish, but to simply stay alive.

This is much less evident in mainstream media. Yes, Erhaim’s writing is biased to her perspective, her experience. But does that make it untrue? Mainstream media tends to ignore the voice of the people. Much more often officials are quoted, statistics are used. But the people affected lose their voice.

For example, Fox News’ “Greece begins deporting refugees to Turkey under EU plan” does not quote a single refugee. Who is quoted: Authorities, spokesmen, professionals. Should this not be questioned? Why did Fox not talk with refugees, or at least make an effort? Meanwhile, citizen journalism almost exclusively uses the voice of the people.

Blog #9: The New Journalism: Journalists as Advocates

When do journalists become advocates? When those they are covering no longer have a voice. Here an Iranian migrant wearing a face mask with his lips sewn shut looks on at the “Jungle” migrant camp in the French port city of Calais on March 4, 2016.

Journalism is seeing a change. No longer are journalists always seeking to be impartial on all subjects, but do take a stance on what many view as basic rights. Two examples advocacy journalism: “Born Into Brothels” and “The Box.”

When it comes to many topics, I’m of the opinion that journalists should remain impartial in coverage. It’s one thing to be impartial in covering an event, or a feature. But when it comes to human rights, journalists can and should take a stand. This is not a responsibility not just as journalists, but as human beings. Dan Gillmor said for NiemanLab, “If journalists won’t take a stand for core liberties like free expression — and then be leaders in the campaign to save or restore them — we’ll be fit to call ourselves entertainers, and not much else.”

In regards to the refugee crisis, many journalists have moved to an activist stance. In February, journalists, scholars and activists met at USC Annenberg to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis. Journalists have also begun to call themselves activists, like Wendy Bacon in her Twitter biography.

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A screenshot of the tweet that got CNN reporter Elise Labott suspended. (Credit: Twitter)

Recently, CNN reporter Elise Labott was suspended for two weeks after her tweet regarding a House bill passed that could limit Syrian refugees. The CNN coverage she linked to was not activist, but her response was seen as such. What did she say? “House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees. Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.” As shown, mainstream media is not ready to be seen as biased despite such a tame comment.

Blog #8: How Media Covers Human Rights Issues

Cartoon: Firas Al-Atraqchi

Journalists hold an incredible amount of power in their hands. The power to tell a story can also be the power to create a narrative. Where is journalism lacking? How should journalism change?

It is often too easy to perpetuate the stereotype of “good vs. evil,” especially when covering human rights abuses. Those committed by one side may be played up, while abuses by allies are swept under the rug.

Media coverage is lacking in several areas, which are addressed in “Journalism, Media and the Challenge of Reporting on Human Rights.” First, many journalists are unaware of what human rights actually are and when they are violated. Violations encompass more than what is commonly thought of, whether it is chemical warfare or prison torture. Beyond civil and political rights are social, economic and cultural rights that are often ignored. They do not occur just in the Middle East or South America, but can be right in one’s backyard (page 114-115).

Especially in America, media can be fearful of being accused of having a “bias” or “partisanship,” even if that bias is pro-human rights. Objectivity can be extremely limiting and difficult to achieve. The report says, “There is no contradiction between committed reporting and truthful reporting. To understand and be in favour of human rights, as a media professional, is not to jettison professional standards but to underscore them (page 116).”

So what do journalists do? The report recommends a number of ways in which the situation can be remedied. J-schools could require human rights courses, while media outlets should offer training and programs discussing human rights coverage (page 118). This can be anything from refugee crises, race discrimination or gender discrimination. For example, Media Smarts found that in news coverage, women professionals and athletes are underrepresented and often portrayed stereotypically when they are included.

In 2006, the Association of Women Journalists found that only 17 per cent of stories quote women; one in 14 women was presented as a victim (compared to one in 21 men) and one in five women was shown in the context of her family (compared to one in 16 men). While this is dismaying, it is something that can be easily remedied if media is more cognizant of it.

It is easy to find instances where media has failed in covering the refugee crisis. Breitbart’s “I’ve Found the Perfect Job for All These Poor Jihadist Refugees” opens with:

“Last week I unveiled my plan to settle radical Islamic jihadists — or ‘Syrian refugees,’ as the mainstream media likes to call them — in special facilities located in the heart of upper-class liberal enclaves, such as Rachel Maddow’s back yard.”

Another case: one New York Times article titled, “Spring could bring a fresh surge of refugees. But Europe isn’t ready for them” was reposted by the Drudge Report with the title, “EUROPE ON BRINK OF NEW REFUGEE SWARM.” Note the difference in connotation between the words “surge” and “swarm.”

Governments should safeguard and allow easy access to journalists, though no governments will give this up without difficulty, even democratic ones. Even more, the modern distinction between media and activists has become increasingly blurred (page 119-120).

Human rights organizations can promote media’s role in covering human rights and act as a liaison to make coverage easier. This does not create a bias, but is an outlet for a reliable source or side (page 121).

Blog #7 When to Intervene: What is a Journalist’s Responsibility?

Beaches in Lesvos, Greece covered in life jackets and boats from asylum seekers September 12, 2015. ABC News: Aaron Hollett

Horrific stories have come out of the refugee crisis. Not only have they suffered atrocities in their home countries, but their journeys have been difficult as well. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 3,770 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015.

In reporting this crisis, journalists have bared witness to refugees’ experiences. But does it stop there? Should they actively try to help these people?

Sophie McNeill, the Middle East correspondent for ABC News (Australian), describes one time where she chose to intervene as a journalist. She and her crew were on the Greek island of Lesvos where 25,000 refugees a week were arriving and aid was slow to come in. From the beach, refugees would have to walk 50 kilometers to Mytilini, the island’s main town.

“I can’t count the number of times people begged us for water and food as they walked that horrific journey,” she said.

“Our solution was to fill up the boot each day with as many bottles of water and biscuits as we could and hand it out to the people we saw with small children. If we gave it to everyone who asked, we wouldn’t have had time for any reporting.”

But that’s not all. McNeill spotted one old man sitting alone, sobbing. He had gotten separated from his family and could not make the 50 kilometer trek. So the ABC team decided they would not only help the man, but they would tell his story.

62-year-old Nazieh Abdul Rahman Hussein was from Syria. His only belongings were a copy of the Quran and 50 euros that another refugee had given him. The ABC team drove him to town where they filed a family-tracing case with the Red Cross. His family was later found in Germany.

So: should we have helped him?

Well, I hate to think of what would have happened if we hadn’t helped Nazieh.

I’ve seen pictures on Twitter of bulletin boards in Germany filled with photos of missing men, women and children: families torn apart as they ran from police, climbed frantically over barriers or got squeezed into trains.

Nazieh’s story captured the heartbreak and mayhem of what is going on right now in Europe.

Was it right of ABC to help Nazieh? Were they altering the story, or creating a new one? Do they have a duty to save a life as journalists? This duty is not exclusive to journalists. This is a duty that would be considered by many as a requirement for simply being a human.

Blog #6 “Why does the world hate Syrians?”: challenging refugee stereotypes

A rally organized by the group Stop Islamisation of Europe and backed by far-right politicians. Photo: Samuel Kubani / AFP, Getty Images


Asylum seekers are a drain on the economy. Many refugees are not fleeing real struggles; they just want a better paycheck. They’re trying to skip the line of other immigrants who waited their turn. They’re terrorists or criminals.

All of these are stereotypes that have been exacerbated by media. A 2012 survey found that the words people most associate with coverage of refugees and asylum seekers are “illegal immigrants” and “scroungers.” However, these stereotypes have not always existed. Vanessa Pupavac wrote for the UNHCR that refugees during the Cold War were portrayed as “political heroes and courageous defenders of freedom, not traumatised victims,” due to the political climate.

“Traumatised, scarred, in shock has been the common sympathetic representation of refugees since the end of the Cold War. Thus the refugee as a feminised, traumatised victim has become the prevailing cultural image of the refugee.” This stereotype itself could be why the public has turned from sympathy and, due to compassion fatigue, hardened their view regarding refugees.    

Dick Simon, working with the Karam Foundation, recently visited a class of ninth-grade Syrian boys. He told the group, “In America, we may think of you, as a group, as THEM: far away, not like us, not people we can or really want to understand. And you may think of us Americans as THEM. And I came here from Boston to tell you that this is not true.”

What one boy asked Simon particularly stuck him.

One handsome boy in the front row, Ali, dressed in a pressed white shirt and jeans, looked at me directly while asking, “How can you tell me there is no THEM? I watched THEM hang my uncle from a tree, cutting him with a knife until he bled to death. If America wanted to do something, they would have done it already. Why does everyone hate us?” He looked down at his desk, hiding his tears.

The role of media is not to further hatred or intolerance, but to portray stories accurately. And frankly, while some outlets may be doing this, most aren’t. There’s a reason the public is fearful and angry at refugees — media has given them one.

As the Reuters Handbook of Journalism says, “We must not shy away from painful reality, but we should also seek to minimise any harm to the public through our actions. The people who make the news are vulnerable to the impact of our stories. In extreme cases, their lives or their reputations could depend on our reporting.” It is important to keep this in mind with every story, but particularly with refugees.

Blog #5: How the Media Covers the Refugee Crisis

Migrants from Syria arrive on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, on August 10, 2015.  AFP PHOTO / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS


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Angelos Tzortzinis / Photo credit: Tzortzinis’ website

Because the refugee crisis has only fully caught the attention of the media within the past year or so, recognition of the hard work journalists are doing is limited. In November, Greek photographer Angelos Tzortzinis was honored with TIME’s 2015 Wire Photographer of the Year title for his work with the refugee crisis and Greece’s economic collapse.

Tzortzinis has become so involved in the refugee crisis because it reminded him of his childhood. He said in an interview with TIME, “I grew up in a port neighborhood where dozens of Iraqi migrants had set up their homes. They lived in cramped basement apartments, often five or six in one room, usually in squalid conditions. We’d play basketball in the streets and do the usual things children of that age do, but I always wondered how these people ended up in Greece and what they had left behind – their families, their lives.”

Migrants wait behind a fence to be registered by the police outside a police station on the island of Kos on August 10, 2015.  AFP PHOTO / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS

He is seeking to put a human face on the struggle, as a way of starting a conversation. He said in a blog for AFP, “I don’t like taking shocking pictures. I don’t think that it’s the shocking pictures that change the world… I am not looking to change the world, but to provoke feelings.”

While for the most part mainstream media has neglected to devote more than a few minutes or a few hundred words at a time to the story, there is other high quality journalism attempting to humanize the crisis.

From ‘The Displaced.’ Image courtesy

The New York Times launched a virtual reality app in November, and one portion, called The Displaced, has users follow the story of three migrant children from Ukraine, Syria, and South Sudan. One of the creators, Chris Milk, said, “[Virtual reality] connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media.”

Other stories such as “8 reasons Europe’s refugee crisis is happening now” and “‘Who can blame them?’ Face to face with Europe’s refugee crisis” by the Post have been noted for their attempts to contextualize the crisis for those who lack background knowledge. NPR’s coverage, particularly “A Former Hungarian Leader Hosts Migrants, Despite Government Crackdown” has also worked to humanize.

Blog #4: What it Means to Bear Witness

As Roger Cohen shares, in his piece, “A Journalist’s ‘Actual Responsibility,’” journalists are in a unique position to tell the stories that need to be told. He says, “to be a journalist is to bear witness.”

That’s what journalism is all about. No matter what media platform, the purpose is all the same. Journalists are the watchdogs of the world, and it is their responsibility to bring issues of all kinds to light.

But what does it mean to bear witness? Cohen says, “To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.”

However, I disagree with Cohen’s definition. As Ariana Huffington responds in her piece, “Bearing Witness 2.0: You Can’t Spin 10,000 Tweets and Camera Phone Uploads,” the tools Cohen expresses his disdain for are key to bearing witness.

New technology has allowed conflict coverage by citizens to drastically expand. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

While regimes can choke speech, like China did when riots broke out in Xinjiang, they can’t put a spin on thousands of citizens tweeting or uploading pictures and videos of what’s going on around them.

Huffington argues that new media “played an indispensable part in allowing millions of people around the world to ‘bear witness’ to what was happening in Iran. The truth is, you don’t have to ‘be there’ to bear witness.”

A massive amount of refugees fled before the American public was aware of it. Graphic: MercyCorps

Coverage of the refugee crisis has surged in the past year. Before that, it was hardly on the average American’s radar. But Syrians have been fleeing since 2011, according to MercyCorps.

Refugees need to be humanized before the American public will accept them. Photo: Matt Maisel/WPMT FOX43

While many are angered by the refugees, it is time for journalism to do something it hasn’t quite accomplished yet: put a human face on the crisis. It is easy to persecute a group when we know nothing about them, or they are “others,” just an abstract number. But they need to be humanized in a way that Americans can understand, and feel compassionate about, or nothing will be done.

Blog #3: The Refugee Crisis in Numbers

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Persons of concern globally at the end of 2014. Source: UNHCR

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 54.95 million persons of concern around the world by the end of 2014. The term “persons of concern” includes refugees, asylum-seekers, internationally displaced persons, returnees, and stateless persons.

That year, the United States and Germany had almost identical total numbers of these persons: the U.S. with 455,056, and Germany with 445,440. Greece, a country that only began to see a drastic increase in movement in 2015, only had 42,879 overall.

Source: UNHCR / Graphic Credit: BBC

However, in 2015, that movement skyrocketed. Over one million migrants arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, according to the UNHCR. Of that million, over 850,000 arrived in Greece. This year, of the 54,000 who have traveled by sea, 50,000 have come through Greece.

Souce: Eurostat / Graphic Credit: BBC

According to the U.S. Department of State, the country took in almost 70,000 refugees in 2015. This is a sharp contrast to the EU, who had over 940,000 asylum claims in the same year.

These statistics are not surprising. With the majority of refugees and asylum seekers traveling by land or sea, America is simply out of reach for most. Furthermore, the EU seems more willing to accept them.

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Historically, Americans have been unwilling to accept refugees. Graphic Credit: Pew Research Center

A recent Bloomberg poll shows that 53% of Americans do not want to accept any Syrian refugees into the U.S. Another 11% would only want to accept Christian refugees from Syria. Debate about the refugee crisis intensified after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and many governors came out against their states accepting refugees.

Blog #2: Refugees and Their Rights: A Brief History

Migrants look out of a window in the Facility For Detention Of Foreigners in Bela-Jezova
Migrants look out of a window in the Facility For Detention Of Foreigners in Bela-Jezova, Czech Republic, October 13, 2015. REUTERS/David W Cerny

     Human rights have come a long way in the past century. When one thinks of “human rights,” usually only a few come to mind: freedom of speech, clean drinking water, etc. But, in what has possibly been the greatest leap for human rights, the signing of the Declaration of Human Rights drastically expanded these rights in 1948.

     Currently, no signee of the Declaration has been able to fulfill the document, but the standard to strive for has been set. Even countries with a history of human rights abuses, such as Burma, Argentina, and China, take note of the Declaration.

     One of the protections afforded by the Declaration is to refugees, as seen in Articles 13 and 14. When the Declaration was signed in 1948, this idea of protecting refugees was relatively new. Only one year prior, in 1947, the International Refugee Organization was established to tackle the problem of Europeans displaced in World War II. In 1950, the IRO was replaced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: which now has an annual budget of just under $1 billion and attempts to address the issues of some 22 million refugees.

     Despite organizations in place, there is still a long way to go. In Oct. 2015, the UN human-rights commissioner accused the Czech Republic of “systematic” violations of the rights of migrants and refugees to deter more from entering the country.

     The commissioner said, “the Czech Republic is unique in routinely subjecting these migrants and refugees to detention for 40 days, and reportedly sometimes even longer—up to 90 days—in conditions which have been described as degrading.”

     In order to end violations such as these, refugee scholar Erika Fuller says that the future agenda “must be firmly grounded in consensus around the fact that refugee protection is first and foremost about meeting the needs of vulnerable and threatened individuals, not those of states.”


Blog #1: A Human Rights Look at the Syrian Migration Crisis

The body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach in September 2015. Photo: Reuters

In 2015, more than a million refugees and migrants entered Europe, many fleeing war and persecution. Many others died in an attempt to reach Europe, such as the boy in the image above. For those leaving their homes, the risk of the journey is a better alternative than staying behind.

But once they reach Europe, migrants continue to face persecution. Evidence has risen that in one Hungary camp, migrants were treated “like animals.” Across the EU, refugees have clashed with police in an attempt to travel to more prosperous countries such as Germany.

With the recent Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. attacks, many are fearful of refugees. U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has said that he would ban Syrian refugees from entering the country, and other GOP candidates have agreed.

According to Articles 13 and 14 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” and “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, these rights are currently being infringed for refugees.

These people deserve to have their stories told, and they deserve to be treated like human beings. With the power of journalism, the world can see that they are a scared people looking for safety. Journalists seeking to tell this story may face backlash, just as the journalists in Spotlight did. Some may face pressure from governments who commit injustices against refugees, such as the case in the Hungary camp, or from those who disagree with allowing refugees into their country.

Just as the journalists in “Dying to Tell the Story” risked their lives so that the world was able to understand the plight of those in war-ravaged areas, the same needs to be done for Syrian refugees. The world needs to be shown what motivated these people to do what they have done, the harsh conditions they faced along the way, and the resistance they are continuing to face. If over a million people in a year would risk their lives for this, surely it is a story worth telling.

From Kent to Kabul” tells the story of children who arrived on UK shores alone, hoping to find asylum from Afghanistan. However, once they turned 18, they were deported. Like the stories that came out of Spotlight, this one puts a human face on victims and describes the horrors that they endured. After returning to Afghanistan, they have faced further persecution because they are viewed as Westernized outsiders. The reporters covering this story did just what the journalists in “Dying to Tell a Story” did: they risked their lives to show the world the harsh conditions faced by a group suffering intense persecution.


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