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Journalists have responsibilities when talking to victims of violent conflicts

Reporting gender-based violence in conflict is a metaphorical minefield as well as a literal one. We have also never been more sensitised to the issues of mental health and trauma. Writing about the use of rape as a weapon of war is complex, and not only for the obvious reasons.

When a victim is interviewed on numerous occasions by several different people, it’s understandable that small details of the story may change. Those inconsequential and innocent inconsistencies can render a legal defence invalid. Inadvertent errors can be used by lawyers to discredit the witness because of an accidental mistake in translation. Or the survivor may have a conflicted memory. The brain is trying to cope and process the horror and sometimes has, in part, shut down.

At a recent event at the Frontline Club in London, a panel of journalists and the American architect and film-maker Leslie Thomas discussed the perils of talking to victims of violence; from the Rohingya refugees fleeing over the border into Bangladesh, to those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the lead up to the PSVI (Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative) conference in November.

The relatively new media landscape changes how journalists tell stories of survivors, because the discussion has to ensure the victim understands the repercussions for them as stories go online and viral.

The current narrative is to explain the impact the internet can have. Unlike newspapers, the internet is not only ‘forever’. It is also ‘everywhere’. That means someone in a neighbouring village might see the story and the physical safety of the victim, or their family, could be compromised. Or a future husband could discover that his future bride was a victim of rape. In cultures where shame and stigma are woven into the fabric of society, this could have disastrous effects. It’s the rationale of using sexual violence as a tool of war.

The survivor might never have used the internet and might not comprehend the potential impact – whether that impact comes as reprisals, injustice or revenge. They need to understand that the story online, won’t go away. The journalist needs to be aware that the story could destroy a person’s life, so those possible consequence should take priority. The journalist also needs to seek consent, that’s obvious.

Journalists have conflicting demands with a breaking news story – to meet deadlines, to meet demands from the newsroom, to have visibility and for the story to generate clicks.

The essence of journalism is to inform the world what is happening, and there is nothing more powerful than telling someone’s story.

You need informed consent, but what is informed consent? Who makes that ultimate decision and whose story is it to tell? Is it patronising to assume the survivor doesn’t understand? Whatever ethical entanglements, the victim has to come first. Do No Harm is the underlying ethos.

On the other hand, people often need and want to tell their story. Sometimes they think it will make a difference, although sometimes it doesn’t make a difference in the way they may hope.

The Sunday Times chief foreign correspondent Christina Lamb was also on the panel at the Frontline Club in London. She discussed how NGOs must share part of the blame as they try to push their agenda. They often take journalists to meet a victim, so the NGO can have its name attached to the story. Prominence brings in funds in a crowded field. In one Rohingya camp, Lamb said, there was a line-up of journalists all waiting to interview the same survivor. No wonder the details can get misreported.

While this informed and relevant discussion was ongoing, it made me think of one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century and one of the defining images of the Vietnam War. It was taken by Nick Ut in 1972 and showed nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running naked down the street having been burned by napalm. It is emblematic and eternal, but what scrutiny would we have today in this new landscape?

Ultimately, journalists are not merely voyeurs, and, in cases, responsibility does lie with us, but like everything, it is an ongoing discussion with ever-moving plates.