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The problems with human rights journalism

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Human rights journalism is a field that has encountered and continues to confront numerous obstacles and setbacks. Firstly, journalists do not know how or where to properly cover internationally-occurring human rights abuses. As I have learned in professor Patnaik’s “Human Rights and Literature” course –– part of the Sanctuary Series program at Swat studying forced migration –– this problem is not unique to journalists. World leaders attempting to construct U.N. protocol documents and authors of novels frequently attempt and fail to adequately portray these abuses. How do we, as college journalists and college students, cover and write about human rights atrocities occurring internationally? Where in a journalistic organization is the best place to cover such topics? What platforms are most effective at disseminating information about human rights abuses, and how can journalists force them to become the central narrative rather than a sub-point that can be easily, frequently, and often conveniently shunted off to the side?

This struggle with adequately covering human rights abuses is not at all new. American journalists have historically failed to adequately cover human rights abuses. According to Peter Novick’s “The Holocaust in American Life,” “In the course of 1940, 1941, and 1942, reports of atrocities against Jews began to accumulate. But these, like the numbers cited, were often contradictory. In the nature of the situation, there were no firsthand reports from Western journalists.”  In his article titled “The Awful Truth About Holocaust Reporting — And Its Legacy,” Mark Kersten postulates five reasons for the silence to which Novick refers. These reasons, he claims, are that reporting on the Holocaust would have provided a distraction from the Allies’ war effort, that there was widespread anti-Semitism still lingering within the journalism community in the United States, that people did not want to believe such a genocide was possible, that newspapers received accounts of the mass killings from Europe but refused to publish them, and that since the New York Times did not cover the Holocaust, other publications simply followed suit. This lack of coverage and failure on the part of American journalists resulted in a largely uninformed U.S. population with respect to the events of the Holocaust.

Concern for the physical safety of the journalist is another factor that obstructs the ability of the media to disseminate information concerning human rights abuses. During the Rohingya crisis, journalists were not permitted in the vicinity. In Myanmar, two journalists were arrested for investigating a mass execution of Rohingyas by soldiers. Yaser Murtaja, a Palestinian video journalist and photographer from the Gaza Strip, was killed by Israeli security forces during the 2018 Gaza border protests. The Israeli army claimed it does not “intentionally target” journalists, yet this man was wearing a large vest clearly labeled “press.”

In order to protect themselves, some writers stationed abroad are forced to incorporate qualifiers such as “allegedly” and “may have,” diluting the severity of human rights abuses. Although the introduction of these qualifiers were originally intended for safety concerns, they seep into the works of major news organizations such as CNN where the writers are not in direct danger. In cases of safety I support the inclusion of careful language, but American journalists stationed in the United States should address the issue directly for what it is.

Due in part to their internal structures and relatively narrow scope for defining their audience, journalistic organizations sometimes struggle to adequately portray international atrocities. U.S. news sources often paint these abuses of human rights through a U.S.-focused lense, rendering the actual human rights abuse on the outskirts of the conversation instead of the central talking point. Placing human rights articles in the context of a larger journalistic organization has proven to be difficult. The internal structure of journalistic organizations makes it inherently difficult for human rights abuses to get coverage. News sides struggle with covering human rights abuses because they are supposed to be engaged in the project of objectivity. Because news has no obligation towards the feelings of its readers, journalists often internally struggle to reconcile the reporter and the human while presenting human rights abuses. It is for this reason that many shy away from such topics.  

Editorial sides struggle to cover human rights abuses as well for two reasons. The first is that editorial journalists look through news articles from the day before in order to come up with topics — if the topic is not appearing in the news side it will then not come up in these searches. The second is that crafting an argument surrounding condemning human rights abuses is often regarded as not an interesting enough editorial perspective. Instead, journalists often cover conflicts and refer to human rights abuses solely as byproducts of conflicts and therefore corollary, rather than central, to the subject of an article.

How can American journalists better cover and represent human rights abuses that occur internationally?  To which audiences are these journalists accountable? These are questions we writers must constantly ask ourselves, and questions the Sanctuary Series program has illuminated for many Swat students. The media is continuously grappling with the question of figuring out how to cover human rights.  The American newspaper articles often center the piece around not the conflict itself, but Trump or the U.S.’s reaction to it. While Americans may be more interested in this subject, this method of US-centric coverage can be at the expense of information disseminated about what was actually going on and the ability to best capture the entire conflict. Headlines centering around Trump’s reaction to what is happening are more prevalent than those delineating the atrocity itself.

Widespread discussion of human rights did not occur until after the Holocaust, so placing this concept on the international stage is a relatively modern project. Nevertheless, considering all of these questions of accountability and audience, it is a fact that far too much information is lost when atrocities are framed through a strictly American lens. Potentially sacrificing leadership, on the part of the organization, by incorporating more human-rights based editorials and replacing America-centric headlines with those more specific to the conflict is a project worth undertaking.

UNICEF and Syria

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The Syrian Civil War and the United States’ involvement in it has been an area of contention since the U.S. first supplied rebels with non-lethal aid in 2011. This aid has since evolved—as the government’s injustices have grown—facilitating more violence. After Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons earlier this month, President Trump decided to strike back, and people’s reactions varied. Yet, regardless of how you view Trump’s actions, or even Trump himself, this act was necessary. Now that military intervention has occurred, further involvement in the form of humanitarian aid—dispensed in part by UNICEF—should take over. This aid has been consistent in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, and it is critical that support continues in light of recent events.

Although Assad denies the use of chemical weapons, BBC confirmed the airstrike released toxic gas that produced over 125 fatalities, and another 541 injuries. In addition, there were already nearly 13.5 million people displaced over the past six years. The impact on children is harrowing. According to UNICEF, children have been forced to fight in the war, forced to enter into early marriage, and forced into child labor. In more than two-thirds of households, children are working in extremely harsh conditions in order to support their families, and now, over 6 million children are depending on humanitarian assistance. It is these conditions and lifestyle that underscore the importance of humanitarian groups such as UNICEF.

The Syrian Civil War began with the arrest of a group of teens and children who simply voiced their opinions by spraying graffiti on a wall. People began gathering and protesting in support of this group, violence ensued, and a revolution was born. Soon after, heads began turning in the international community, but foreign pressure did not seem to stop the bloodshed.

According to CNN, more than 1,000 people were killed in a chemical attack near Damascus in 2013. After the attack, Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” and would prompt him to strike back, yet no action was ever taken due to complications in seeking congressional authorization. President Trump also rebuked the use of chemical weapons saying, “it crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies … with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines.” Similar comments followed from U.S. leaders, emphasizing the impact these atrocities have on children.

In addition to speaking out, Trump dispatched a military strike on the Syrian government air base that launched the chemical attack. Many have condemned Trump’s visceral reaction for various reasons. Some question the legal grounds of his retaliation, as he acted without consulting Congress. In addition, his strike could have killed innocent civilians, or could have hurt our relations with Russia—who seems to be supporting Assad. Still others scrutinize Trump’s hypocrisy since he has previously implied an “America first” policy.

As valid as these concerns may be, it really doesn’t matter how you view the logistics of Trump’s response. The bottom line is, something needed to be done. Too often we sit unwavering in the face of such inhumanity. This is because we have become desensitized to violence. Disturbing images are constantly flashed on television screens, splattered on the front pages of newspapers, and fill our social media feeds. We consume news of cruelty and violence so often that we have forgotten that those people in the pictures are real people. To them, this is not just another war or explosion—it is the one that destroyed their homes, tore their family apart, uprooted their lives.

So, where do we draw the line and decide to intervene? I’m sure we all wish for a world where that line is superfluous, but unfortunately, we are not living in a utopia. Brutality and lack of concern for one’s actions are not new issues and it is unlikely that they will cease to be problems. Therefore, I find myself agreeing with Trump that the use of chemical weapons should most definitely cross more than a few lines.

Regardless of whether or not you agree, this horrific attack should remind us how important it is for people in need to get the resources, treatment, and support that will help them get back on their feet and move forward with their lives. It should remind us of the necessity of organizations who are working to provide victims of atrocities with valuable assets.

Now that the airstrikes have occurred, whether or not you agree with them is unimportant. We should instead focus our efforts on what we can do to help the people of Syria move forward. In light of recent events, it is especially salient that we must pay more attention to current events. It is fitting that UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) club was recently formed on Swarthmore’s campus.

UNICEF is an organization that ensures basic needs for children in need, and Syria has been one of UNICEF’s largest focuses due to its unrelenting violence. UNICEF is committed to minimizing the impact of this crisis on children by providing Syrian families and children with nutrition, immunization, water, and sanitation, as well as education and child protection. The organization is hopeful for an immediate political solution to end the conflict in Syria, and an end to the violations of rights against children.

The club on campus will be organizing movie screenings, speakers, fundraisers, and more in the hopes of both raising funds that will help provide children with vital resources and garnering support to push decision-makers to protect children’s rights across the world. In the wake of events that ignore human rights, we will take action.

While I believe that American intervention within Syria in the form of airstrikes was critical in order to condemn the use of chemical weapons, I also believe that the most productive course to take now is focusing on humanitarian aid. As UNICEF’s executive director stated, “We must draw from this not only anger, but renewed determination to reach all the innocent children throughout Syria with help and comfort. And draw from it also the hope that all those with the heart and the power to end this war will do so.”

Why us “snowflakes” won’t stop marching

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Walking down the streets of Center City, I am surrounded by hundreds of equally passionate individuals, all gathered to reach a common goal. All of us are marching through the streets, careless of anyone who may be against our protest. We are too empowered by our chants and energy to care. Instead, we are all united by a purpose, which is to stand by the values of which the United States was founded upon

As we make our way from City Hall toward Old City, our protest gains momentum. Everyone in the crowd begins to chant at the top of their lungs. A couple of Swatties are sprinkled across the crowd and we smile at one another as we make eye contact. We switch off between shouting “when our country is under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back!” and “no hate, no fear! Refugees are welcome here!” As we chant, people walking on the streets begin to join in and people in shops begin to run outside to witness our movement. Observing its growth, I could not be more proud to be a member of this march. Clearly, our movement is achieving exactly what it is meant to achieve, which is to share our voice and make clear America’s true values.

Of course, in parts of Philadelphia and across the United States, many are not as empowered by our movement. Rather, they find the action immature and wish that we would accept the president instead of continuing to complain. Especially as the movement continues throughout the country and spreads on social media, people view the challenging of Trump’s presidency as a movement driven by “millennial snowflakes” who are crying because they didn’t get what they wanted. While I acknowledge that this view exists, this couldn’t be further from the truth about why we continue to organize. Although many see us protesters as whining and unrealistic about our goals for the country, this is not why we march against the very real dangers of Trump, his cabinet, and his executive orders. Yet, because people see us whining, it is more important than ever that we make clear our true purpose of organizing rather than accepting the misconception that we are simply “liberal college students who don’t know what we are talking about.”

Rather, marching down the streets of Philadelphia, we are not whining, but chanting our love for refugees, our values, and our nation. Many of us are reminded of what it means to be “one nation, united” as our fellow protesters proudly wave signs with messages like “make America great for all, including immigrants and refugees” and “a staircase is more likely to kill Americans than a Muslim.” One petite woman is holding a sign that reads “Scary Sudanese immigrant” with an arrow pointing down at herself, indicating that the stereotypes Trump’s executive orders were founded upon are false. A caucasian six year old child is standing next to her mother and baby sister, leading the crowd in a chant of “black lives matter.” This young girl is already aware of what it means to be an American and serves as an inspiration that one is never too young to exercise their freedom of speech to fight for their beliefs.

Although many people may disagree with our marches and our protests, this movement is much bigger than Swatties “crying about Hillary Clinton losing the election” or anger that Bernie Sanders did not win the nominee. It is more than us millennial snowflakes upset because we didn’t get what we wanted. This movement is much bigger than a simple dislike for Donald Trump as president. Rather, the purpose of our protests, marches, and opposition are people of all ages, ethnicities, and even some differing political beliefs joining together to make it clear that the United States is a country that stands up for basic human rights and all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or origin. As we Swatties join the movement, we need to make it clear that we are a country that believes in serving as a role model and opening our doors when people’s lives are being threatened, rather than shutting people out. Perhaps most importantly, we need to remember that this movement is a call to action and a reminder to people around the world that, even with a leader that refuses to stand by our freedom and commitment to fundamental rights, Americans will not remain silent and will continue to fight for our people, our humanity, and our values.

As the march concludes, the energy and momentum created by the crowd still resides in the air. My face is red from the cold, but I don’t care, nor does anyone else around me. We all smile at one another as we prepare to return to our daily lives, midterms, or ordinary jobs until the next protest ahead of us.

One thing is certain. We will continue to march for our country, our refugees and immigrants, and for others suffering around the world. We will continue to march because this movement is bigger than us or a tantrum against Trump. Our protest is about love for our nation, love for our people, and we need to remember that, as Swatties, we can not stop joining the protests until that love is restored.

Khomusi and the Human Rights of Storytelling

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After a two minute walk from SEPTA’s Jefferson station, Murtaza Khomusi ’17 enters the Philadelphia-housed NGO on Arch Street for the second time this week. Here, he elevates theory into practice, and transcending his identity from student to advocate. For the next few hours, Khomusi will once again be a part of a critical process that often goes unseen: helping refugees and low income immigrants navigate the complexities of American society.

“I do a lot of paperwork,” Khomusi laughed — his humble attempt to downplay the significance of the work he’s involved in. Starting his internship at the Nationalities Service Center earlier this school year, Khomusi is not your average paralegal. An Honors major in Islamic studies who’s contemplating medical school, law has not always been in the plan for Khomusi. However, he did not hesitate to apply to NSC.

“I’m really indebted to past Swatties for introducing me to this opportunity, especially Muriel,” referencing Muriel Carpenter ’16, “she’s a legend. I had always heard about the work she would do and I was really impressed, so I asked for guidance on applying to the internship. She was really kind and took my resume and forwarded it to her boss right away.”

For the past 95 years, NSC has operated as a non-profit resource that serves over 5,000 people in Philadelphia each year. Their extensive services aim to restore dignity and human rights to immigrants and refugees through legal protection, accessibility to health and wellness services, and community integration. Serving such a large population originating from all corners of the world, lawyers at the firm rarely have the time or language abilities to meet with all potential clients.

“I speak English, a couple dialects of Arabic, Urdu, Gujarati, and some very basic French.” Khomusi explained. “What I do is sit with new consultations and write down their whole stories, which then gets forwarded to an attorney. I essentially take some affidavits and narratives to be used in court of law.” This year Khomusi is writing his senior thesis on literature;further evidence of his passion for storytelling.

Khomusi also finds a personal connection with the clients he meets, which have thus far included families from Indonesia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and throughout Latin America.

“My own family background — well, I was born into an immigrant family that wasn’t initially very well off financially,” he began “I always felt that I didn’t really fit into school … and I’ve always enjoyed talking to people who also felt like they didn’t fit in.”

For many families, the complex story of belonging is all too familiar. “What’s been really interesting is learning that a lot of people have been living in the U.S. for a long time. After 10 to 15 years, they’ll seek citizenship. Sometimes, it might be because their employer let them go because they learned they had no documentation … they learned that they have a chronic illness and won’t get access to medical care, they got in a relationship, their partner abused them. Now they are alone and have no benefits. Sometimes, there will be a whole family there just trying to petition for another family member. It really varies.” The uniqueness and diversity of each case and narrative cannot be stressed enough.

Khomusi joins the staff each week to sit together and look at all of the new consultations, to decide which cases they are able to take on. “The trouble always is trying to see whether they have a valid case — not according to our or their standards — but according to the laws in place. For instance, the UN definition for asylum seekers means you have to have a ‘credible threat.’” NCS’s process for reviewing which cases to take on is by no means an easy task, and Khomusi gets to experience the reality of this firsthand.

The organization’s success with clients is due in part to the fact their charges are substantially lower than is expected, which is a result of a decision to charge in accordance with what individual clients can pay — never turning someone away for financial reasons. “Essentially we analyze a family’s income and let them know what they qualify for, and if we can’t help them, then we give them references to other organization that work in similar capacities. We run on donations and get a certain amount of government funding for pro bono work, so in that sense, we have a limited capacity.” Despite this reasoning, Khomusi is extremely satisfied with how much NSC actually does.  

“The people I work with are so incredibly impressive. They have amazing resumes, attended highly elite institutions … and the amount of time and work they put into this [organization] is absolutely inspiring. It’s one of those jobs where people are motivated by something else besides financial means … I don’t want to define the work for someone else, but these attorneys will have files all over their offices, take on much more work than ‘billable work hours.’” Khomusi said. “It’s really inspiring when people have the qualifications to enter occupations that they know will give them a great amount of mobility, but this is what they’re passionate about and ultimately pursued.”

Jonah Eaton ’02 is one such co-worker. He is a Swarthmore alum who specializes in asylum and victims of torture at NSC. “Our legal department provides a wide array of legal services for people unable to afford private counsel at a highly reduced rate or free, depending on funding constraints. These services range from family petitions, green cards, and citizenship, to asylum and complex appeals,” Eaton explained. When asked about how others can get involved, Eaton noted, “We can always use bright, motivated, and multilingual students … we have a history working with Swatties going back several years now.” Eaton added, “There’s no coincidence our legal director and two staff attorneys, including myself, are alums.”

Khomusi stressed the importance of acknowledging the reality of our complex immigration system. “I’m not going to victimize everyone who comes to us because some people come into this country who had beautifully comfortable lives before in their respective countries, and they’re able to live comfortable lives here.” These cases are atypical. “All too common,” Khomusi explained,  “people come to us who are fleeing some kind of domestic abuse or persecution, whether that be concerning religion, sexual orientation, you name it.” NSC additionally notes taking on cases of human trafficking and unaccompanied children, and their website list countless first-hand stories from the survivors they aided (nscphila.org).
Whether or not law school is in his near future, Khomusi notes that this experience has been invaluable in shaping his understanding of how the world works. He expressed gratitude, especially to Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility for providing him with free transportation to and from his internship. NSC has also been generous in allowing Khomusi to learn the industry, sending him to a continuing legal education conference earlier this year. “I learned about the history of asylum seekers and people trying to seek naturalization and medical resources and availabilities for them.”  

“It’s really refreshing coming into this work from Swarthmore … the paperwork requires a different part of my brain, and I can be a good robot after some amount of time,” he joked. “Just talking to people who live — not even ‘normal’ lives but just lives different from mine — is really, really nice.”

Khomusi’s joy comes from “being able to do something for others that they are not able to do for themselves. That’s where the paperwork is really put into perspective.”

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