Western double standards when reporting Africa.


A photograph of two South Sudanese children, with names listed directly below, sits adjacent the headline “South Sudan’s Boy Soldiers Swap Schoolbooks for Kalashnikovs”.

This recent story by Bloomberg concerning child soldiers raises major ethical issues about putting vulnerable subjects at risk, and wider problems of double standards between ‘the West’ and Africa in reporting.

There have always been criticisms about the way Western reporters treat subjects in Africa compared to how they might write or investigate stories ‘back home’.

The debate around the politics of representation has a long history, going back to Susan Sontog’s work and that of Leni Riefenstahl about the Nuba of Sudan. This is an important conversation that clearly requires revisiting.

In the story cited above, the author, editor and media outlet have, for the sake of another story on child soldiers in South Sudan’s current crisis, placed two minors in full public view as members of a particular faction in the conflict, as well as being outspoken in their role as child soldiers in the government army.

The problems with this story should be blatant for all to see. First, the children photographed and detailed would, by any criteria, be considered vulnerable subjects, minors.

Children such as these are not, under most ethical standards, journalistic or academic, considered able to grant consent, which any journalist is expected to secure before naming, photographing and reporting details of individuals.

To make matters worse, in this case the story is about the very sensitive subject of child soldiers, an issue that inspires defensive (and often violent) responses from armed groups.

A story such as this could generate a retaliation upon the youths or their famililies, which demands that those treating the subject take special care.

Most stories on the same issue use pseudonyms, will not show photos of the actual subjects or will simply not name the child soldiers in question. However, this is not the first story that has placed children at risk and nor is it likely to be the last.

If the story were about the role of two child subjects in a gang, or other sensitive activity, in most western countries the journalist and media outlet would likely face legal charges as there are ample laws protecting minors and vulnerable subjects.

If some harm befell the subjects, the media outlet would also likely be on the hook for major damages – I am thus baffled by the fact that an outlet such as Bloomberg would be willing to take any such risk.

Not for those in South Sudan it seems, as with many other areas of expatriate activity while in developing countries, very often people conduct themselves in a manner they would not think of at home.

All the more astonishing in this instance is that upon contacting the journalist, I was informed that the UNICEF child protection officer consulted on the story did not see any potential risk to the boys, whose precarious condition has now become just another by-line for a journalist and yet another story for the media outlet. It is unlikely that there will be any benefit for the two boys – the best we can hope is that they suffer no negative consequences.

I am amazed that the journalist, the editor, the company and even the UNICEF protection officer did not appreciate the severity of risk facing such vulnerable subjects. Nor do they seem to appreciate the basic ethical standards of care that go hand in hand in dealing with such serious subject matter.

Raising concern and awareness about the use of child soldiers is extremely important. But no single story can be worth putting vulnerable child subjects at any level of risk.

There is just as much a duty of ‘do-no-harm’ for journalists, researchers and other writers as with medical professionals or humanitarian workers. In this widely accepted ethical principle, those trying to help should first endeavour that they are not adding to or causing any new harm or risk.

Reporting of this kind, which clearly breeches professional best parctice, shows double standards, and places vulnerable subjects at risk, giving autocratic governments ammunition in their efforts to censor.

In South Sudan many journalists are already struggling with an increasingly difficult media environment and this story makes their work all the harder – it gives further justification for government to try and control the news media, not to mention making it more difficult for human rights monitors and journalists to cover the child soldier issue. I have already heard comments to this effect from government officials discussing this story.

I intend this contribution not as an attack on the media outlet or journalist in question but with the aim of sparking some debate; although it should be noted that after raising the issue with both, photos and names remain posted on the Bloomberg site.

There should be a vibrant ongoing debate regarding the standards and practice of media coverage of conflict and other sensitive situations.

All journalists and news consumers should be engaged in this debate. Journalists and their editors should be challenged and engaged regarding their conduct, since there are significant obligations that come along with their profession.

The virtue and right of the freedom of the press is not just a licence that allows reporting without professional and ethical obligations and with only headlines and readership in mind.

By  Matthew LeRiche- This article is reproduced from African Arguments


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

One Comment

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  1. There are no credible media outlets in the West these days, even papers like New York Times and some other papers that used to fact-check their sources and what they printed have all gone corporate.

    Sensationalisation of the news and attention seeking head lines seem to be the order of their operations now a days. Yes they have to sell papers to make a living, but misleading headlines and wrong analysis of the situation isn’t supposed to be entertained by a credible journalist that took up journalism as a profession.

    But they are writing about African affairs anyway. They don’t care about what heck they write about, because no one in Africa would dare sue the hell out of them in their ivory towers!

    Media outlets in the West are the drummers of wars and their politicians follow them behind their media war drummers. For those who followed their reporting on current war in South Sudan, might have realised that Western media are on the rebel side. They were on the rebel side in C.A.R, in Libya and they are now on the rebel sides in Syria and Ukraine, can you see?

    Their governments wanted a regime change in South Sudan and in those countries that l mentioned above, and so the west media corporate machine has to kowtow what their governments want reported from those countries—what the corporate west media print out these days is all, but a pure propaganda that would make Josef Gieble smiles in his grave.

    The buzz word on South Sudan now a days is “looming” famine. Other times the figure displaced by the current war is placed to be 1.2 million, 1.5 millions, 1.8 millions etc it changes to and fro every passing single day. And the sources of these figures—none! Yes, a lot of South Sudanese are displaced, but they are not the only refugees facing “famine” in the region.

    There are more displaced refugees from Darfur, Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile, Somalia than South Sudan, but no one even speaks about them, but the name “starving South Sudan refugees” is always very sweet to European and American NGOs to use, to get donations; even though those donations would not be used on the South Sudan’s refugees.

    There was a donation conference done in Oslo, Norway a few month a go and over 600 millions dollars was alleged to have been pledged to help the starving South Sudanese refugees, whether those pledges were honoured is another thing all together, but l doubt that that is the case.

    Right after South Sudan signed a CPA with the arab North Sudan in 2005, a similar pledges were done in the same Oslo, Norway. In which over 4 billion dollars were pledged for South Sudan’s rebuilding, but when the South Sudan people asked for those pledges a few years later; they were told that the pledges went to rescue the Darfur starving refugees and that was it. South Sudanese people kept their mouths shut, because the beggars don’t hassle the givers anyway.

    With the reporting on the current South Sudan’s crises, I even noticed the 1990th starving South Sudanese pictures in Bhar el gazelle being used to ask for donations in the current conflict. These NGOs are doing their jobs, but they are not doing it in a good faith; but political.

    Some South Sudanese have a lot of cows than some refugees in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, South Southern Blue Nile, Congo or Somalia refugees and l don’t think they are the only most vulnerable refugees in the region.

    But the fact behind all these mass propaganda is: South Sudanese people are not bending to give their oil wells to corporate America and Europe, but to China and so everything about South Sudan has to be made bad as much as possible. But South Sudanese people are not going to let the Corporate US and Europe touches the South Sudanese people oil fields whatsoever. China is not going to go anywhere in South Sudan.

    The US and some criminals brought these war against the South Sudanese people when they were given the first priority to help built an alternative pipeline to Lamu coast, but they refused the offer, but aimed for a free pipeline that was built by China.

    Now their only option left now is let Riek Machar ganged up again with North Sudan like he did in 1990th and to let them retake the oil fields and then the government of South Sudan would be brought down—that is there only option left, but that is not going to happen never ever again as long as there living and kicking South Sudanese in South Sudan.

    The Riek Machar’s rebellion is an aimless and tribal oriented rebellion. And the 95% of the oil well both in the Upper Nile and Unity state are in the Dinka areas anyway. ONLY three of viable oil wells are in the Nuers’ Unity state but the Nuers destroyed them and are not functioning. In Jonglei state, the un tapped oil wells are still in the Dinka areas. And l don’t think any Dinka would want to let the Nuers played their dirty game they played with their arab masters this time around. The AFRICOM game caught the South Sudanese people by surprise, but for now; the AFRICOM game isn’t going to work in South Sudan.

    The corporate US and Europe media propaganda continue to fool the Nuers that they own much of the South Sudan’s oil fields and they want to inject tribal element into this current war, but it seems not to be flying though. The Nuers have no border with their arab masters, but the Dinka have has.

    Back to Western media, there is a tabloid called SUDANTRIBUNE. It is edited in France by anonymous reporters. They often create a polemic article and cited an imaginary source with no name and all and their reporters don’t even give their names and they have been the source of the current conflict in South Sudan.

    This SUDANTRIBUNE tabloid is going to be mass sued by the South Sudanese once these current conflict is put to rest.