One popular trend that has been catching up the past few years has been for NGOs working in various sectors to call in the media to “highlight” what is known as “testimonies” where people tell the assembled media about their experiences or grievances. This is nothing wrong in this since the voices of people need to be heard. The question of ethics does however come into play when the feelings and the risks of the person who goes “exposed” are not taken into account in the zeal of highlighting issues.
Having worked in the HIV/AIDS sector and realizing that HIV/AIDS coverage in the media was more on functions and events and not issues faced by those living with it, one realizes the importance and need for the voices to go out. In a sense, it was HIV/AIDS that brought out the persons behind the epidemic by giving a voice and the HIV/AIDS model in Manipur (where people affected by an issue would stand up before the media and speak out) was soon replicated by other sectors: conflict, gender, development, education, et el. But even with HIV/AIDS, the going has not been smooth: there would be instances where people living with HIV/AIDS would be sharing their stories in certain observations like say, the formation of a self help group where they would be naturally telling the gathering about their difficulties. The ‘problem’ would be the next day: when the newspapers carry the names and sometimes, photographs of those who had spoken. More often than not, the media faces flak when this happens.
There are two sides to this: the media who have for long been told on innumerable occasions that they have not given enough priority on one hand who then feel that they are given brick bats either way- when they write and when they don’t. The other side are those who are comfortable with their HIV status within a specific gathering but who do not want a larger community to know. The media’s justification would be that the people concerned spoke at a gathering where they were invited in the first place. Except that, there have been occasions when newspaper establishments and reporters have had to face flak from family members.
There is another incident this writer was assigned to: one particular NGO working in the conflict arena was organizing a day related to Human Rights. On the podium were widows or mothers of men who had been killed in alleged encounters. The comfort area was till the point that the widows or mothers were speaking about instances that had happened more than a year back. When a young girl in her early 20’s clearly showing signs of great emotional discomfort and distress spoke about her husband who she lost only about 3 months back, it got a bit beyond my own sensibility and had to protest since the young girl did not need to go through added trauma before a roomful of strangers. The NGO program organizers were not too happy and fellow media colleagues did not seem to be too perturbed and I left the venue feeling sad that an event held to mark a Human Rights day was not taking into account the rights of that young girl.
Another recent incident needs to be brought out. In May this year, a news channel called me up saying they were doing a series on children in difficult circumstances and wanted to do a “shoot” in Manipur. Could I help them? Their nature of asking for my help put matters at a head: they wanted children (below 18 years) who were doing drugs or who were HIV positive or those whose parents were HIV positive. All the more better if their parents were drug users and HIV positive. It sounded like a shopping order that had to be delivered and naturally, the “help” they wanted from me was met by giving them information on how giving ways the names of children I have worked with entails to disclosing confidentiality. Also, they were not supposed to show the faces of the children if they were either drug users or are children of drug using parents. Apart from violating child rights, it would also have made the children more vulnerable to facing stigma and discrimination, not to mention harassment from various groups. Once the media team realized that I wasn’t about to tell them any names, much less take them around on their conditions (which were showing faces, giving real names), they never got back in touch with me.
The “shoot” in Manipur got aired about a week back and it is likely that some NGO working in the field of HIV/AIDS or drug use would have accompanied the media team. Since they came in from Delhi, there is no way they would have known where to go and whom to meet (which is why they got in touch with me in the first place) and this is where our major concern must lie: that NGOs who are seemingly working for certain issues seems to be insensitive to the rights of the communities for the people they are working for. Yes, the difficulties faced by people needs to be aired in the media so it gets out there but there are certainly ways in which things can be done sensitively. One: there are people in the same situation who are comfortable with their identities being revealed in the public. The one cardinal rule is to take informed consent, which means that the person we want to write about (regardless of whether he/she is HIV/AIDS positive, a widow) is explained what might happen in case her identity is revealed. Mere asking of consent is not adequate for sometimes, the person involved may not have thought it through.
NGOs on their part need to be sensitive themselves and be able to value the people they are working with and then give more importance to the persons they say they are working, rather than their events. They have to start by taking the community they are working through stages of coping with what has happened to them (HIV/AIDS, drug dependency, violence, conflict), give a certain time frame for that and take consent too. Media on the other hand need not just take “testimonies” on face value but also question NGOs themselves on whether informed consent has been taken.
Of course, when people call press conference these days, for personal grievances it means total publicity, no holds barred: one area where informed consent does not apply.