Reporting is Activism – IV
Published November 24, 2014
by Shamina de Gonzaga
How does the price of speaking out compare to the cost of silence?
In an interview before the Tunisian Revolution was on the horizon, Souhayr Belhassen, then President of the International Federation of Human Rights and former Tunisian correspondent for Reuters and Jeune Afrique, described what was once her daily reality: “In a country where democracy functions, it’s possible to live according to one’s principles, or at least to try. In a country where the regime is repressive, it’s much more complicated. It’s not easy to be constantly monitored, harassed and followed, to see even the grocer across the street denounce you…. They make a vacuum around you so that your parents, friends, no one can come and see you without fearing that they’ll have to report you.” When I asked what led her to become an activist, Belhassen responded unequivocally: “From the moment that you investigate, denounce, mobilize, these three principles constitute a way of life. Journalism led me to the defense of Human Rights.”
I wondered if commitment that goes beyond commercial interests is only possible when one has a personal connection to the issue at hand. When I interviewed photojournalist Teru Kuwayama, he was garnering support for people living in a settlement in Kabul that hadn’t been formally recognized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Previously, he spent much time working as an embedded reporter with US marines in Afghanistan. Asked if his perspective changed as a function of spending time with different communities, he commented: “The artificial approach is to imagine that one can avoid being influenced by the people in one’s surroundings. I find the attitude of people who criticize embedded reporting, claiming that it’s an inherently flawed system, to be strange and slightly disingenuous. What kind of reporting is not flawed in the same way? The only difference when I’m with the military is the use of the word ‘embedded.’ While living with any community, be it the military or Tibetan monks, I’m influenced by them and grow to appreciate them. Why do people think that in some contexts their activity is pristine and untainted, while in others it wouldn’t be?” He made me question my own thoughts about bias. “When I’m embedded with US marines, they do have an effect on me,” he continued. “The same happens when I’m with refugees in Kabul. That’s not fundamentally a problem at all, that connection and compassion are the basis of good work.”
Kuwayama, who allows much of his work to be downloaded free of charge, pointed to differences of opinion among his colleagues: “Many people think I’m a heretic by letting people download my pictures for free. Selling to the highest bidder may be logical if one photographs celebrities. But when you are photographing children in refugee camps, dealing with difficult subjects that people don’t instinctively want to grapple with, to not let anyone see the work unless they pay enough is counterproductive….” He elaborated: “If we look at the war in Iraq, trillions of dollars were spent and catastrophic amounts of blood were spilled, in large part because of a poorly informed and engaged public. There’s a huge cost to not having a good information flow, but the journalism industry persists on questioning the value of journalism if it can’t be viable commercially.”