Sunday, May 4, 2008

Fighting Trafficking Stereotypes in the Media

SPECIAL UN COMMENTARY - The media is a powerful tool that can inform and raise awareness about human trafficking to a large audience. Coverage of the issue, however, often equates human trafficking with prostitution. Stories tend to perpetuate clich├ęs about victims without offering insight into the root causes of the problem. "It is easier to focus on victims as persons with allegedly questionable moral than to treat them as persons with dignity, who have rights, persons who are like the rest of us," says Marija Andelkovic, President of the Serbian anti-trafficking NGO ASTRA.

Writing about personal ordeals also requires caution. Journalists who interview victims should keep in mind that victims of trafficking are vulnerable and unprotected, even after they escape or are rescued. As Ms Andelkovic explains, when journalists call ASTRA to speak to a victim, "almost 90 per cent of the time there is a positive reaction and they are willing to be interviewed". However, many victims soon change their minds out of fear. They might be portrayed in a bad light, family members might recognize them or traffickers might be able to track them down. Those who do decide to speak to the media have a lot to
say, and it becomes the journalist's responsibility to protect their anonymity.

But what can be done to help dispel stereotypical coverage, increase in-depth understanding of the issue and protect those who are willing to share their stories?

ASTRA's work to promote the effective use of the media to educate the general public has yielded promising results. "Serbians have learned through the media not to confuse trafficking in human beings, prostitution and smuggling," says Andelkovic. To minimize the chances of producing simplistic reports on the topic, journalists should be educated about the nature and complexity of human trafficking. By providing complete information, clearly and chronologically, using several sources, and offering information about how to protect oneself , journalists can also improve the quality of articles .

Journalists and editors must also ensure that they protect their sources by all means. In the world of organized crime, information tends to travel fast. Journalists must be aware of this risk and inform the victims accordingly. Re-telling the story of physical and mental torture also means victims re-live their traumas. Therefore, legal and psychological experts could be called in to support victims .

Writing an interesting and effective human trafficking story does not always require interviewing a victim. Trafficking in human beings is a complex problem that can be covered from several angles. As an organized crime activity, it is never isolated in a single country and is often connected to other profitable illegal businesses - such as the smuggling of drugs. But the business or profit aspects seldom receive attention.

Media power should be used to press authorities and society in general to tackle the factors that drive human trafficking. "And the greatest contribution would be to write about human trafficking as a serious social problem which is very complex and has different aspects, " says Andelkovic. "In that way, journalists will help fight crime."


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