Activist journalism: where do you draw the line?
- Published: 12 June 2010
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You can’t be an activist and a journalist, right? Not so, according to three renowned journalists and human rights campaigners who discussed their dual roles at a recent Sydney Writers’ Festival event, writes Katrina Fox.
“Activist journalism is a bit of an oxymoron.” So stated Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief at the Los Angeles Times at the beginning of her presentation on the ‘Activist journalism: where do you draw the line?’ panel at Sydney Writers Festival on 21 May.
She was reflecting on what most journalists have heard in their careers: you can’t be an activist and a journalist because by its nature journalism requires objectivity. You’re not supposed to take sides but merely report the ‘facts’. But while fairness and balance are concepts every journalist would do well to adhere to, pure objectivity doesn’t exist and some rules need to be broken to deliver an honest and engaging story.
“I come out of a traditional journalistic background and was told you had to keep your distance from the subject and couldn’t be an activist,” said Demick. “I was told you could not give anything to get a story or take. In 1987 while I was working at the Philadelphia Inquirer I went through ethics training where I was told you can’t write about people you know and must not be involved in political campaigning.”
But as Demick went on to explain, it’s often not feasible to stick to rigid ideals. “In 1993 I was sent overseas to Eastern Europe to cover the economic change. This period was dominated by the war in former Yugoslavia. I went to Sarajevo and fell in with Bosnian friends who were under siege by Serb militants. I flew in on a UN relief plane with food and supplies. For my assignment I had to write a profile of life on a street, so I spoke to families in their homes and the rules [around journalism] broke down quickly.
“These people offered you a meal even if they were starving and it was the only food they had in the house, and it was rude to refuse. I brought food for them, so it was a slippery slope. The rules didn’t last. This happens to all of us working in war zones.
“As journalists we have opposing mandates: keep your distance – and write with heart. But you can’t write well if you have no passion, because your work will be flat. It’s an ongoing dilemma for all of us.”
Caroline Overington, who writes for The Australian newspaper. Overington has covered several child abuse cases and has publicly spoken out against restrictive freedom of information laws that prevent journalists from revealing pertinent information to readers.
She used her opportunity on the panel to raise the issue again. “Australia rates very low on the list of nations for providing information to journalists,” she said. “There are 335 acts of parliament that have a secrecy provision and there are around 1,000 suppression orders in place restricting what reporters can tell you.
“My job is to be a conduit. Information does not belong to me, it belongs to you and it’s frustrating for me as a journalist to have information I can’t tell you about.”
Overington used the example of the death of Melbourne gangland killer Carl Williams in jail to make her point, quoting John Silvester, author of Underbelly, the book about gang wars in Melbourne. “John said, ‘You can’t imagine a crime more important than Carl Williams’ death.’ I can’t tell you what he means for reasons that will stun you. I know what he means but I can’t tell you.”
The New South Wales government is the “most hostile government I have ever worked under,” said Overington, who recounted to story of a foster home expose she penned.
“Foster care has become a business in NSW. You get around $600 a week for a disabled child and if you get a few it’s lucrative. A whistleblower came to us and I went to a foster home. The kids there were hungry and desperate for cuddles – it was heartbreaking. When we reported it the government didn’t want to know where the kids were, but who told us so they could prosecute that person.”
The other panellist was Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist and author who has written articles and a book exposing child sex abuse in Cancun, in which senior political figures and businessmen were implicated. She was been arrested, harassed, kidnapped and tortured for 20 hours. Despite a bounty still being on her head, she continues to fight for women’s and girls’ rights in Mexico.
For Cacho, there is no conflict in her roles as a journalist and as an activist.
“There is a well-known quote: ‘I am not objective because I’m not an object, I’m subjective because I am a subject’, and I agree with this,” she said. “People ask me how can I be an activist and a journalist, but I don’t have a problem with being both.
“My mother, who was a feminist, used to take me to the slums in Mexico City and I returned depressed because of the poverty and domestic violence. The kids there don’t even have the strength to hold a pen because there isn’t enough to eat.
“I wanted to know why – and if you have the ability to ask the questions you must try to find the answers and you have a responsibility to change the world.”
Cacho’s foray into activism came 19 years ago when she had a radio show in which she talked about domestic violence, encouraging women not to put up with it and to leave their abusive partners.
“After I told these women they had rights all these Indigenous women wanted to come and live with me because their husbands were violent and they thought what I said was a good idea,” said Cacho, who is a columnist on the South American newspaper El Universal.
“I told them that I was only a journalist but they said, ‘You are right – we want to do what you are saying.’ So I started working on domestic violence issues and 10 years ago I opened a shelter for battered and trafficked women.”
During her investigations into a child sex ring in Mexico, Cacho was leaked a video which she said showed prominent businessman Jean Succar Kuri engaging in sexual abuse of children and published her book on the subject Los Demonios del Edén (Demons of Eden). Shortly after publication Cacho was kidnapped and tortured.
“Once I saw the video I had an ethical responsibility to publish my book,” she said. “I didn’t use the word ‘allegedly’, I said [the abusers] did it because I saw it. I didn’t even consider my own life.
“I was abducted and tortured for 20 hours and thought they would kill me. They said they wouldn’t kill me if I said the girls were liars and all the evidence in my book was made up. I then made peace with [the situation]. It wasn’t heroic, but because the girls trusted me I wouldn’t betray them. Journalism for me is when someone trusts you – you are talking about a human being who may lose their life.
“We have different roles in our lives. There is no need to be ashamed of this. I tell readers if I am involved. I know how to do it right. As a citizen I am an activist and this makes me a better person. If you are not a good person, you are not a good journalist.”
Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief at The Scavenger.