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Eyes on the prize

Human Rights

Vanessa Baird receiving the Amnesty International UK award with Helena Drakakis of The Big Issue.

The Journalist
, the magazine of the National Union of Journalists, has published an article by me looking at Amnesty International UK's media awards for human rights reporting.

The article says:

‘From a photographic essay on the Dale Farm travellers to a film uncovering atrocities in Sri Lanka, the 21st Amnesty International UK media awards suggest that human rights reporting is in good health.

‘But there is a warning from award winners that not enough is being done to foster such reporting.

‘Vanessa Baird, co-editor of the New Internationalist, was a winner in the consumer magazine category for an article looking at people fighting back against mining exploitation in Peru.

‘“I think the media would do better at covering human rights if it carried a greater diversity of news, from different parts of the world and on different aspects of human rights,” she says. “Much of the time the various outlets are telling pretty much the same stories - and actually, not very many of them. As a result, we are getting a shockingly narrow and repetitive slice of the world's news from the mainstream media.”’

You can read the rest of the article here. There is a longer interview with Vanessa Baird below.

The piece stemmed from the dissertation I did for my Journalism MA which looked at ten years of the Amnesty awards to see who won, what kind of abuses were covered and which countries featured. The germ of the idea came from reading Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and in particular the passages on how human rights organisations dealt with abuses in Argentina in the 1970s. If you want to get academic on this then you can read When do Opportunities become Trade-offs for Social Movement Organizations? Assessing Media Impact in the Global Human Rights Movement by Kathleen R Rodgers or Transnational Information Politics: NGO Human Rights Reporting by Ron, J, Ramos, H and Rodgers, K.

You can read the full dissertation here and you see a spreadsheet on the results from 2002-2012 broken down by type here.

Let's get it up front first; this is NOT an attack on Amnesty International or on the undoubted quality of those shortlisted. However I think there is a legitimate debate to be had about how the media report human rights stories. Since the Amnesty awards are one of the main ways excellence in this area is rewarded it is fair to consider what constitutes the best in such reporting. What does the awards list say about what the media think of good human rights reporting? What is Amnesty encouraging journalists to see as the best through these awards?

Looking at the last decade, the results showed that a relatively small group of outlets were consistently nominated (Guardian, Channel 4, BBC). They also showed that some parts of the globe appeared more popular than others. African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo were visited regularly South America had largely disappeared. Unsurprisingly, where Western armies tread, human rights stories follow.

While there are 30 articles in the UN Declaration on Human Rights some breaches struggle to trouble the awards list. The right of workers to join a trade union is one. Indeed stories about exploitation often show individuals at the mercy of unfathomable forces, rather than fighting back. The awards seem to favour stories about the abuse involving women and children.

There is a lot in the dissertation (well, it's 14,000 words, what do you expect) and, as ever, more than I could have included in the Journalist article. However I thought it might be useful to put in the full response I got from the New Internationalist's Vanessa Baird because it raises a lot of interesting points. Vanessa picked up an Amnesty award for the magazine's Nature's Defenders edition.

Q: What made you want to cover this issue in particular - what made it stand out?

A: The clash between multinational corporations and indigenous people is being played out in many parts of the world today.

But in Peru, it has been most intense and, at times, violent. Peru's indigenous people are truly on the frontline. They are up against multinational capital and extractive mining industries that are depleting and poisoning the water on which they depend for survival, with cyanide, mercury and other heavy metals. They are up against against big dam hydroelectric projects to create electricity for Brazilian energy corporations that will flood out and destroy the homes and livelihoods of thousands of indigenous Amazonian people.

Occasionally, individual incidents hit the international news - like when more than 30 people died in a fight between indigenous people and police at Bagua, in the Peruvian jungle, in 2009. But from local contacts on the ground I knew that these protests were happening across the country, pretty much all the time, and that the human rights of indigenous protesters and environmental activists were being abused on a daily basis. More than 100 people had died in the last three years as a result of such environmental conflicts and many more had prison sentences hanging over them, simply for protesting.

When I got to Peru and observed some of these confrontations, I found that the clash goes far beyond a tussle over territory or resources. It's a conflict between two diametrically opposed views on how to treat the natural environment and on how to live. On the one hand, the corporations exist to extract as much as possible from it in order to maximize their profits. On the other hand, indigenous communities view nature (or ‘Pacha Mama’ as they call it) as a common good. They believe that you have to protect nature if you want it to protect you, and that means not taking more from it than you need. They call this ‘living well’. They have the support of local environmental groups and scientific organizations that see all too clearly the damage being done by the extractive industries and see in the indigenous approach lessons we could all learn.

So this is a story about human rights but it's also about environmental rights - and, today especially, the two are often indivisible.

Q: Your story raises an issue of concern - does the award help highlight that? If so, how?

A: I think it gives extra media attention to the way in which, for example, the Ashaninka people are, with some success, resisting mega -dam projects and helps garner international support for them.

The organisations that helped me - CARE in Peru and the Rainforest Foundation in Britain – are well aware that adverse international publicity can sometimes have a greater impact on governments and corporations than can be achieved by local or national press. (Indeed, an international company that was to build one of the dams - Odebrecht - actually pulled out because of adverse publicity, saying it was doing so 'out of respect for local people'. The Canadian miner, Bear Creek, saw its share price fall when its clash with local people became international news.)

Q: Are there enough journalists doing human rights stories (and enough places to publish/broadcast them)? Do these awards properly reflect media coverage of human rights? Where could the media do better in covering human rights?

A: My experience as a co-editor of New Internationalist tells me that there are plenty of journalists out there, wanting to write human rights stories. The difficulty is finding enough media outlets. And as times get tougher for independent media the situation is likely get worse. I think we are being let down badly by the major broadcast media, including the BBC, which over the years have been dis-investing in serious journalism and the more complex, slow-burning stories.

I think the Amnesty Awards had some very powerful winners this year and I felt humbled to be included among them. Understandably, given world events, reports from the Middle East and North Africa dominated the field.

But I do wonder what happens to news from other places, when all the media decides to focus so heavily on one area? I think the media would do better at covering human rights if it carried a greater diversity of news, from different parts of the world and on different aspects of human rights. So much of the time the various outlets are telling pretty much the same stories - and actually, not very many of them. As a result, we are getting a shockingly narrow and repetitive slice of the world's news from the mainstream media.

This article is crossposted with permission from Phil Chamberlain’s blog Taking Out The Trash.

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