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About the Author

Helena Goldon
NGO Consultant, Programmes Department/Journalist (POLAND)

www.helenagoldon.com A change agent. Main focus: people. Writes based on her experience as a freelance correspondent for the Polish Radio - from Uganda, Zambia, Lebanon, and Malawi and project work in the field. Worked also as Assistant Producer for Save the Children on a documentary on rehabilitation of children abductees to Joseph Kony's rebel group and coordinated projects co-financed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Board member of Development Cooperation Centre.

Post

How far would YOU go?

Published 22nd May 2010 - 14 comments - 3055 views -

 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and apart from being journalists we are also human beings with challenges on our way. That’s why, before I get to the nitty-gritty of my blog, let me first present a recent incident that unleashed a wave of criticism among many journalists and bloggers.

The story starts on 25th January 2010 when a mutilated body of a 10 year old girl, Babirye Margaret was found by the police in a forest in Katugwe village, Wakiso district, central Uganda. The investigation conducted by Mr. Moses Binoga, head of the Anti Human Sacrifice and Trafficking task force, primarily classified the murder as yet another case of child sacrifice,  a witchcraft practice present in Uganda and widely covered in the international media.

Thus, it didn’t take long before Marco Vernaschi, a widely known photographer published a story on Pulitzer Centre website, publishing photos of a naked and tortured corpse of Margaret (subsequently deleted by Marco and the Pulitzer Center). Although some initially questioned Marco’s credibility, it wasn’t until André Liohn  (who travelled to Uganda to undertake his own investigations and confronted the girl’s parents) opened with his article a profound ethical debate on Facebook, accusing Marco of using unethical methods. It turns out, in order to get his “visual evidences” , Marco, who was not present at the burial ceremony went so far as to illegally* exhuming the girl’s body – which he later acknowledged by saying :“it was wrong to ask that the body be exhumed. It showed disrespect for the dead, and forced a grieving family to suffer anew. It also had the effect of focusing attention on the actions of one journalist, as opposed to a horrific crime that needs to be exposed.”

On the top of that, Marco asked by the chief of the community for a ‘contribution’ paid $70 to the mother of the girl.

The published in the UK photos violated both the 1978 Child Protection Act, which states that ‘it is an offence to take, permit to be taken, make, possess, show, distribute or advertise indecent images of children in the United Kingdom’  and The Declaration of The Rights of The Child stating: 'The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in  conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration'.

The debate was soon joined by Anne Holmes, author of vigilantejournalist and many others who raised questions such as: 'Would you have published this photograph if it was an American child?  And if not, why is it acceptable to do so in Uganda and not in America?'. The internet, was used once again to amplify journalists voice who gathered during a debate organised by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and led by Jon Sawyer, the Executive Director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, who defended Marco. During the debate the following survey was conducted:

•••

It hasn’t happened to me once –  many times was I asked for a ‘contribution’ in return of a photo or a recording. Some Ugandans argued that, according to them, I was getting loads of money for my material, so they should at least ‘get a fair share of my profit’ . ‘You, muzungu’ – they used to say – ‘you will take a photo for a newspaper and going to put a comment underneath suggesting how poor I am’. ‘That’s not a bribery, Helen’ – my other Ugandan friends would explain – ‘These people are just extremely poor and they expect you to give them something as a visitor. At the end of the day, we have been always dependant on you, white people – when colonised and afterwards – if we needed to send kids out to school, we would ask an Italian priest, to get a cow, we would look for an American organisation’.

I would sometimes take the effort to explain that I was not being paid for the photos, which sometimes resulted in the interviewees final agreement to document their stories, but in the vast majority of cases the price I had to pay was lack of any photos or sounds.

•••

Knowing that there is no other way to gather the evidence and it is a question of a relatively small contribution, would you resort to paying it? In order to get a catchy story - would you go as far as exhuming a child’s body?  

 

* According to the article 121 of the Ugandan Penal Code Act 'Whoever unlawfully hinders the burial of the dead body of any person, or without lawful authority in that behalf or otherwise than in accordance with rules made by the Minister disinters, dissects or harms the dead body of any person or, being under a duty to cause the dead body of any person to be buried, fails to perform such duty, commits a misdemeanor.'

 

While writing this story two very interesting and related posts appeared – I recommend to you the posts by Giedre Steikunaite and Andrea Arzaba on ethics  and ethics in photojournalism.



Comments

  • Robert Stefanicki on 22nd May 2010:

    Hi Helena. You seem to mix two things. Giving a coin to somebody for “photo opportunity” is one, and paying a source for information is two. Nothing wrong with the first one (if I’m reluctant to do it, it’s only because I’m scanty bastard). And the second one… it depends. Paying blackmailers for information about politician’s misbehavior in private life (recent real case in Poland) is no-no, but paying for evidence of corruption in government or unethical corporate acts - worth considering.


  • Helena Goldon on 22nd May 2010:

    Hi Robert, I completely disagree. What you call a payment ‘for photo opportunity’ is to me very unethical and - apart from spoiling people from developing countries and making them used to getting always something as a reward for a snap - it is literally a bribery.

    Would this case at all shock if other journalists who raised an objection if they thought the way you do?

    Thanks for your voice smile


  • Robert Stefanicki on 24th May 2010:

    Bribery: the act of promising, giving, receiving, or agreeing to receive money or some other item of value with the corrupt aim of influencing a public official in the discharge of his official duties (Encyclopedia Britannica).

    In Havana there is an old man with cigarro in his mouth posing for pictures - he is the face from a cover of Lonely Planet guidebook. Of course he expects some money from tourists. Why wouldn’t he? This is HIS face people want to record for their own purposes. What difference from a professional model? And what difference from another old man, who was not lucky to get on cover, but still doesn’t want to give his effigy for free? You have a right not to pay, he has a right to demand. And I don’t see here any connection with this Uganda necrophilia case.


  • Helena Goldon on 24th May 2010:

    Hi, yes, Robert, thanks! As to the vocabulary - I think I confused the word bribery with corruption (I didn’t know bribery was only related to the officials, so I will change that now smile. Life, at the end of the day, is a learning experience. smile

    Indeed, the post mentions at least three ethical issues:
    1. Exhuming the body in order to take the picture of the corpse
    2. Taking a child indecent image
    3. Paying the source of information for an indecent image

    My point isn’t to confuse or mix the issues mentioned - I am referring to this particular case and paying the source of information while getting indecent images of the dead corpse, which may be, at best, a fatal coincidence.

    Otherwise, personally, I still believe this practice is very much spoiling the interviewees from developing countries and wouldn’t like the mentioned case with the practice. I still would differentiate between a tourist and a journalist at work - by paying the Cuban with cigarro you are undeniably making him used to get paid this way. My objection comes maybe from the fact I wouldn’t dare to demand from a French tourist in Poland for money for a photo I am on! smile


  • Helena Goldon on 24th May 2010:

    A little correction -
    Otherwise, personally, I still believe this practice is very much spoiling the interviewees from developing countries and wouldn’t like to mix the mentioned case with it.


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 24th May 2010:

    Thank you for your post Helena. Very important topics on ethics indeed!

    At uni where I study journalism, the official version is that paying your source for information is not a good idea. But then again, opinion varies from one journalist to another, with some going to the compromise of “yes but only if..” (“in certain important circumstances” as your data image calls it).

    This guy exhuming the poor girl’s body is undoubtedly outrageous. You have to be sick to do it, really. As for paying to someone to take pictures of them… I wouldn’t do it. It doesn’t seem right to me, this selling of one’s image. However, the Cuban cigar guy is different as Lonely Planet obviously used him for their own profit purposes (remember the story of a boy who sued some NGO for using his picture as a hungry child on their posters? Clare’s post). If money is involved in a commercial deal it’s only natural. smile

    Reporting ethics is a squeaky subject. How do you know when you cross the line? And who draws the line anyways? Where is it?


  • Iwona Frydryszak on 25th May 2010:

    Well, I agree with Stefan… on some point with point 1. I must admit sometimes I paid. It’s just up to the people and story. I hate Mzungu style and that’s way I never give anything to people on the street… However after seeing the film “Enjoy poverty” (I really recommend it to you - http://humanrights.foreignpolicyblogs.com/2009/05/11/enjoy-poverty/, I started to think more about it and changed my mind about journalism and paying a little bit for the materials to really poor people.
    In fact, the best thing we could do is to educate local journalist and let them earn money on their own stories and poverty… (this soft one)...


  • Iwona Frydryszak on 25th May 2010:

    and according to your story with Uganda necrophilia case…

    I was last year in Mwanza (Lake Viktoria), well covered case of albino killings… Me and other European journalist, we went to the local NGO dealing with topic of People with Disability (as Albino are thought to have visual impairment and skin pigmentation disorder)... and they were showing as all the photos of cut albino man and were ready to give us for publishing. They said: “yes, you can publish it and, lets people know what’s going on here”...


  • Andrea Arzaba on 25th May 2010:

    Ahhh Helena! A very interesting article!!
    I believe giving a reward for a picture is a valid, and a kind, thing to do in most cases.

    Answering Giedre’s question…the line is very personal, as well as morals and ethics. But there most be some universal therms…right?


  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 25th May 2010:

    Hm… In the end, did Vernashi’s pictures benefit anyone in Uganda, or only his own career? I guess there is a point in showing shocking picture if your audience is not aware about what is happening, but I don’t really see why hi went so far here.

    I have no journalist training, so I should be humble hre I guess wink I guess there are no definite rights or wrongs about paying for an interview or a picture. It is questionable, but as Robert points out, many people also in the west live from being photographed. The question is rather which image you want to spread - maybe a story from Havana is better off without a picture of an old man with a cigarr.

    The problem with paying probably appears once you work a while in the same area, and the word gets going that you pay.

    But there is also a morality issue towards readers. I think most people who read a newspaper (or blog post) take for granted that the journalist did not pay anyone for anything when doing it. If money were exchanged, I as a reader would like to know the details about that… how much, why, to whom etc.


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 25th May 2010:

    I just watched a report on last night’s BBC Newsnight about street children in Kabul, Afghanistan. Many are the main breadwinners in their families, because eg the little girl’s mother is staying home with her 6 brothers and sisters, and her father is a drug addict. So every day she goes to the street to find some food. This was heartbreaking. I tried to imagine if I was the reporter seeing all this and knowing I’d be back to my hotel to have my hot meal that same night… Should I give some money to the children I was filming? Or direct them to some charity? On the other hand, that’d be involvement…


  • Helena Goldon on 26th May 2010:

    bottom line is relying on both Journalism Code of Ethics and your own conscience. (@ Giedre) That’s true – so many stories are very heartbreaking, it seems inhuman not to support the families or people suffering. On the other hand, we can also use journalist tools to touch our audience and be the spokespeople of the ones in need. (@ Iwona, Giedre, Robert, Andrea & Daniel) One of my biggest achievements in life was when after one of my live broadcasts I got a phone call from the very president of the Polish Teachers’ Union – he was so moved by the condition of the street kids in Kampala I broadcast with that he decided to support a centre that received them.
    Another way I supported my interviewees was when after my first assignment as a correspondent I organised an auction dedicated to the street kids from my stories – I sold a few items I gathered along the way


    and sold them for over $6000 in 3 hours!


  • Helena Goldon on 26th May 2010:

    (the link disappeared ;P)

    I will post it without HTML code (?)

    http://www2.polskieradio.pl/trojka/aktualnosci/default.aspx?id=20398


  • Helena Goldon on 26th May 2010:

    sorry, first sentence disappeared - this is the whole message (look the way I am coincidentally producing comments!) wink

    (@ Daniel) Well, I haven’t studied ethics in journalism either but I guess the bottom line is relying on both Journalism Code of Ethics and your own conscience. (@ Giedre) That’s true – so many stories are very heartbreaking, it seems inhuman not to support the families or people suffering. On the other hand, we can also use journalist tools to touch our audience and be the spokespeople of the ones in need. (@ Iwona, Giedre, Robert, Andrea & Daniel) One of my biggest achievements in life was when after one of my live broadcasts I got a phone call from the very president of the Polish Teachers’ Union – he was so moved by the condition of the street kids in Kampala I broadcast with that he decided to support a centre that received them.
    Another way I supported my interviewees was when after my first assignment as a correspondent I organised an auction dedicated to the street kids from my stories – I sold a few items I gathered along the way
    http://www2.polskieradio.pl/trojka/aktualnosci/default.aspx?id=20398
    and sold them for over $6000 in 3 hours!


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