An uncertain future for human rights reporting

14th March 2014

News, Student news, Alumni news

Journalist and campaigner Katharine Quarmby spoke at the Wadham Human Rights Forum on: 'Reporting human rights: Rwanda, Dale Farm and disability hate crime’. 

Play Katharine Quarmby

When working as an assistant producer for BBC Panorama from Rwanda in 1997, some three years after the genocide, a production team including Katharine Quarmby and the correspondent Fergal Keane, visited a 14 year old girl, Valentina, who had seen her family brutally murdered in the church where they were seeking sanctuary. (Fergal Keane had previously met Valentina shortly after the genocide, in 1994, also for Panorama). The subsequent documentary, which was called Valentina’s Story, went on to win a BAFTA award, and also donations from the British public for Valentina’s education (and some for the village from where she came).

Despite the uncertain political atmosphere in Rwanda, this journalism was what Katharine describes as ‘conventional’ human rights reporting; fully funded, (with an armed escort to protect the journalists in 1997) and with the ethics and safety of those involved well thought out. The human rights outcomes of this and a further follow up programme about the genocide on BBC Newsnight, in 1999, were good; evidence gathered on another massacre during the genocide was given to the Arusha War Crimes Tribunal, assisting the Tribunal in the arrest and conviction of one war criminal.

According to Katharine, human rights journalism is essentially journalism that seeks to uphold the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. And it is dangerous work. In 2013, 70 journalists and four media workers were killed in the line of duty – around half were engaged in human rights journalism.

Not only can the work be dangerous, in the age of the Internet, finding funding to research and produce human rights news stories can be very difficult. Katharine described the hierarchy of human rights issues, with disability hate crime coming lower down the hierarchy than more conventional human rights atrocities, such as in Syria or Afghanistan.

The sustained and often fatal abuse of the disabled became a focus for Katharine’s research when she realised that many cases against the disabled were missed by the police and perpetrators were getting away with light sentences. “I became convinced that there existed in society a depth of hatred towards disabled people that had gone unmarked by the criminal justice system,” said Katharine  who spent over two years assembling evidence to prove what had been an "invisible crime" before writing the report, Getting Away with Murder, published by Scope, Disability Now and the UK's Disabled People's Council. A further report, No Hiding Place brought further focus on this issue, and the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC, labelled disability hate crime as a ‘scar on the conscience of British justice.’

Discussing the problems associated with her research into disability hate crime and the rights of nomads and travellers, Katharine outlined some of the problems faced by human rights reporters, including funding and protecting sources. “Protecting your sources and evidencing your story is a very difficult balance,” she said adding that she would not tell the story or find a new way to tell it rather than compromise the safety of sources. Finding your audience is also challenging in that it is hard to get funding if you cannot show there is an appreciable audience for what you are writing, she said.  But she also praised news outlets that stuck with human rights journalism, both on the large and small scale, singling out Private Eye’s model of ‘gadfly’ journalism for particular praise.

So what future for human rights journalism? Katharine believes that the future is not an easy one, and reporters of human rights issues are less likely to earn money from their work. But, she added, her own curiosity means she will never stop following up the next story.