A woman mourns her husband, who died after being severely beaten by local security forces in Nariman, Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Moises Saman for Human Rights Watch.
In June when violence broke out in the Fergana Valley of Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch happened to have a researcher already in Osh, the epicenter of the mayhem. Within days, we sent in reinforcements from our emergencies team—the “firemen” who cover armed conflicts for us. They interviewed dozens of victims, separately whenever possible, asking detailed questions about who instigated the violence, who was killed or injured, what the perpetrators did, what weapons they had, what time they showed up, how long they stayed, who said what to whom, what everyone was wearing, and now let’s go over all this one more time. It took days.
Photos from Kyrgyzstan are available on the Human Rights Watch Web site »Human Rights Watch also assigned a photographer who works frequently for the international media, paying him a standard day rate, and a local cameraman to take video. Both of these shooters had worked with us before and had substantial experience covering armed conflicts.
This was not exactly journalism because Human Rights Watch is an advocacy group and not a media organization. But the fact remains that the commercial model for international fact-gathering and distribution is broken, and the number of foreign correspondents working for U.S. newspapers and TV networks has fallen precipitously. Meanwhile, the number of researchers at Human Rights Watch is larger than the corps of foreign correspondents at either The New York Times or The Washington Post, and the organization has quadrupled in size since I joined in 1998 after a dozen years as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek.
Our researchers do more than cover the story, of course. In Kyrgyzstan, in addition to interviewing all those victims and eyewitnesses, they were also consulting with United Nations agencies about getting humanitarian aid to people, issuing press releases calling for an independent inquiry into the violence and for international police to be deployed, urging Kyrgyz government officials to rein in security forces, and meeting diplomats to get them to issue démarche. In other words, once the facts are collected, we don’t consider the job over—our researchers become energetic advocates on the question of what should be done about them.
Nevertheless, our researchers may have been more thorough and objective than some journalists. Many reporters focused almost exclusively on violence against Uzbeks. We sought out Kyrgyz victims, although they were fewer in number, to ensure their stories got told. And we didn’t, for example, fall for that legend about pregnant women getting their bellies ripped open by the enemy, a claim that did get published on the Web. (We’ve heard the same claim in many ethnic conflicts we’ve covered over the years.) We are more experienced than many journalists in taking testimony from people whose passions are inflamed, who are acutely distressed, or who have suffered great trauma. We’ve logged more hours on these types of stories, and our researchers are specifically and extensively trained to do this kind of work.
The fact that we do advocacy in addition to collecting facts does not necessarily reduce our credibility, however. Human Rights Watch is far from a household name, but we’re pretty well-known among people, including foreign correspondents, who follow news from places like Kyrgyzstan. In 2008, The New York Times cited Human Rights Watch 200 times. I don’t think that means they’re not objective. It simply reflects a changing information economy in which Human Rights Watch is a useful and reliable producer of good, fresh stuff. We bring juicy tidbits to the information marketplace. And the price is right—they’re free.
The nonprofit sector generally has a good deal of credibility, at least according to a study done by the Edelman Trust Barometer. In this annual review, conducted by a big New York public relations firm, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were found to enjoy greater public confidence than business, government or the media. Trust in NGOs is significantly higher in Latin America and relatively lower in Asia for reasons the survey does not fully explain. But the overall numbers are pretty compelling: The NGO sector is the only institution trusted by more than 50 percent of “informed publics” aged 35-64 in 20 countries. So I’m not sure that the information generated by Human Rights Watch will be less credible to the public than the information produced by the mainstream media.
We don’t try to pass ourselves off as journalists. It’s important for Human Rights Watch to be transparent about who we are and how we gather our facts in the field. We’re not slyly distributing “stories” pre-packaged for local television, as the Bush administration liked to do. Our multimedia packages are branded as Human Rights Watch products, and our methodology is spelled out in detail on our Web site. So are our major donors and our mission. This is the kind of transparency that led Jim Barnett, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, to conclude recently that Human Rights Watch is producing “work of the same—or, arguably, higher—journalistic quality.”
We do have a lot of ex-journalists on our staff. Some of them are researchers who wanted to “get out of the bleachers and join the game,” as a job applicant put it recently. (Despite the cool metaphor, he didn’t get the job.) Some work for our multimedia team, repackaging the material that our researchers collect. We also hire freelance photographers, videographers and radio reporters to go into the field and illustrate our research findings. These multimedia features live on our Web site and often get picked up by mainstream media all over the world—including in the United States. One of them won a Webby this year.
The numerous job applications we receive from journalists are mostly a product of the bad economy. If times were good at American newspapers, most journalists would not be interested in moving to a human rights organization. Yet there are extremely good journalists who get tired of treating all stories with the same pretense of aloofness—especially the ones who have covered mass atrocities. Think of Christiane Amanpour’s impassioned pleas for Western intervention in Bosnia. War photographers, in particular, have often witnessed a great deal of extreme brutality. For their psychological health, some of them want to contribute to an organization that’s doing something about it, not just covering it and moving on.
Human Rights Watch gathers information in a lot of places where journalists don’t go. In part, this is because we don’t use a commercial yardstick to measure the worthiness of the information we gather. We don’t care if people don’t care about Burundi. We cover it anyway. We decide whether to cover an issue based on criteria that may sound familiar to creaky old junkies of what used to be called “hard news”: How many people suffered? Did the abuse of power lead to the tragedy? If we reveal that abuse, can we succeed in getting some people riled up about it?
Foreign correspondents who help us “name and shame” the perpetrators of abuse are critical partners in the mission of Human Rights Watch, whether they think of themselves that way or not. We want them to keep doing their job. The best foreign correspondents are highly seasoned and experienced, and we learn a lot from them. They have bigger audiences and they work for better-known brands. But I wouldn’t count Human Rights Watch out. We’re different from the journalistic institutions of yesteryear, to be sure, but we’re no less legitimate.