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Sexual violence and media: how to report rape during war

Sexual violence and media: how to report rape during war

The russian military has committed and continues to commit sexual violence against Ukrainian women, men, children and the elderly. Police have launched a series of criminal proceedings for the abuse and rape of women and girls in Donetsk, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson regions. But not all victims are ready to tell their stories. At the same time, Ukrainian and foreign journalists are looking for heroines for materials on this topic.

Lawyer, human rights activist, writer, trainer on gender-sensitive communication Larysa Denysenko, editor-in-chief of Hromadske Radio, presenter, trainer on gender-sensitive communication Tetyana Troshchynska and editor-in-chief of Divoche.media Oksana Pavlenko prepared these recommendations.

Why do you need this?

We want to be the first to tell the world about this!

This needs to be told!

We need examples, we can’t be abstract about evil.

People need to know tragic stories; real stories are better perceived by the audience.

The woman wants to speak up, we will make her voice louder!

Everybody will know about you!

The world has to know about such crimes!

The public has to know what kind of horror is happening.

The editorial board is always focused on such topics.

Women and girls have to be sure that there are mechanisms of protections and support for those who experienced this crime.

Evil must be punished.

Which of these scenarios is yours?

You have to follow the principle ‘Not to harm a person’ even when you think that this is minimal harm which will allow to protect others against sexual crimes.

Proceed from the principle of trust: You have been entrusted with a painful story: Listen to a person. Don’t become an investigator.

When the verification of the story is concerned, be an attentive documenter, this is not a topic for investigative journalism.

The topics for investigative journalism may be the security process, the work of ‘green corridors’, state-provided relief, the behavior of occupiers’ armed forces.

International justice stipulates that the correctly documented story of a person who survived sexual violence does not require other proof.

Rape is, first of all, a trauma and a crime, and only after this it is a hot topic. Rape during war is a war crime.

Leading theoreticians, like Cathy Caruth, think that a sign of traumatic experience is that it tries to avoid speaking out, retelling, narrating (her book, ‘Listening to Trauma‘).

This means that far from everyone who has traumatic experience dreams of retelling it to a person with a camera or a microphone. In this situation, refusing to give an interview rather than giving it may be a norm.

Why Is It Happening?

Traumatic experience is so unexpected and mind-throwing that it cannot be related with words. The words are often lagging behind the experience, they are not enough to describe the experience. We are human beings first of all, and only then we are journalists.

Far from everyone who feels traumatized looks like a regular victim. Some are rather tough and, at the first glance, calm people. This does not mean that they don’t want quiet about their experience.

People may also be aggressive, distraught, lost, worried, as if frozen and not able to speak.

This, however, does not mean that we cannot single out common signs of traumatic experience, and they should be understood by everyone who wants to work with such interviews or even just read cues to them in the studio.

All these people are vulnerable, they do not expect anyone to throw a microphone or a recorder at them or call upon their conscience from the screen, and appeal, in the lofty tone, to the important mission of punishing the culprits.

Rape is among the most traumatic experiences that a human being may endure. Apart from physical pain, most of the cultures have a special stigma of shame where the raped are concerned.

This is one of the most important reasons why women in this situation do not want publicity. It is for this reason that no journalist has the right to manipulate the need for justice demanding that the raped people speak publicly.

Sexual violence during war means not only rape but also subjugating people with the help of power, and this is a horror in itself.

A woman who endured this traumatic experience feels:

– THREAT, DANGER: Fear that the rapist will return or recognize her; she also may relive her helplessness when telling her story. It is because of this that the attack of a pack of journalists cannot be a norm in this situation. Such conversations require preparation, and often people who had such experience choose to be with a person of trust (a lawyer, a psychotherapist, a female friend), and this is normal.

– SHAME: The feeling of shame and being put down is present in all the experience of people who survived, even in simpler circumstances.

– GUILT: Those who suffered rape often feel that they are guilty of what had happened to them: as if they had not done something, as if they were not able to somehow defend themselves, as if they had provoked the rapist. THIS IS NOT SO: Only the rapist is guilty.

And this is important to remember when we are telling their stories as journalists. In particular, it is about the choice of words.

This is what attention should be paid to:

You should not intentionally provoke tears; however, if a person cries, don’t be afraid and be prepared for this. Tears are natural, and you should not say ‘Calm down’ or ‘Why are you crying…’ It is enough to say that a person may feel safe talking to you, that you can give them as much time as they need to come to senses. If you are working with a camera, it is worth asking if you may continue filming.

Don’t try to catch people when they say something wrong. When a person keeps silent this does not mean that they want to hide something. When a person tells a confusing story, this also is not a reason to suspect them of lying. It is normal for people who endured trauma to be confused about the timeline of events.

This does not mean that you cannot try to specify something. Do ask for clarification but be sensitive in your speech, body and face language, and gestures.

It is categorically forbidden to touch a person who tells you their story of sexual violence: Do not touch their hands, shoulders, or their back. Do not hug this person.

Be careful while making compliments, better avoid such moments even if you think that you won’t offend a person but create the atmosphere of trust instead.

Don’t stigmatize this person, do not share your vision of an ideal victim, do not share your fears, make round eyes, shame them, blame them, treat their words with skepticism, demonstrate presumptuous attitude or put yourself higher than them.

In the same way, you should not fall in a state of pitying a person: ‘Oh My, how did you manage to survive this?’ The person may be in the state of acute stress reaction, and you may make it worse. Compassion and empathy are in NOT HARMING the person.

Never ask about what the person felt when they were in the situation of trauma. Specialists work with emotions; journalists have other tasks.

Also, do not ask to show albums from their peaceful life or their life before trauma (children, childhood, ‘Could you show your photo album?’). Channel the conversation not to emotions but to the facts that the woman is prepared to tell.

  • This means that ‘How do you feel?’ or ‘What have you felt?’ are bad questions. More acceptable options are ‘What is more convenient for you to start from?’, ‘What do you remember?’, ‘What have you done then?’, ‘What was later?’

Don’t exploit the person. Even if you sensed an incredible career opportunity for yourself in connection to this story, this can never be the number one motive. Do not use the vulnerability of people who entrusted themselves to you. Do not prosecute. Do not manipulate.

Be honest and frank, transparent in your plans. Ask those who survived about their expectations: What do they want to get from their story? What do they want from the media: Protection, information support, publication, justice?

Do not promise what you cannot do: For instance, that you will protect them, take them to another country, punish the criminal who had done such a thing to them. You cannot do this. However, you will always be capable of listening to them and promising to stand by this person and truth.

When you talk to a survivor, it would be expedient to consult this person’s legal defense so that this interview does not impede criminal prosecution of perpetrators. Be mindful and tell this person that this piece can be read by lawyers of a suspect or an accused, and they may build their defense on this interview. This will allow to treat details in a more thoughtful way, as well as circumstances and words, to protect the witnesses of the events from publicity, and to not endanger anyone.

Do not take and do not request from a person who survived after sexual violence possible proof from the site of the events, etc. Inviolability, entirety, and integrity of evidence are important for the investigation and for the survivor.

Be a journalist

People who survived sexual violence are often in the state where adrenalin speaks instead of them. This is the state when a person wants to speak out in order for everything to end as soon as possible, the person is burning with the desire to tell and vent out their pain.

You should understand that in this state the person cannot themselves understand the results of their frankness.

You should make sure that such people are not on their own, that they have support, that they have received at least the first-necessity package of medical and psychological assistance, that they are warm, that they have water and food.

You have to suggest that your conversation is recorded on their phone so that they could later listen to the interview themselves or in the presence of a person of trust (a psychologist or a lawyer) and decide whether everything is left as it is, or the process is not launched at all, or make changes. Or you may send this person the recording you made.

Never should you use this state of the person and entice them to tell the details: ‘Were you raped by one or by three?’, ‘Were the clothes taken off you?’, ‘Had you undressed yourself?, ‘Were you raped in an unnatural way?’, ‘Had you treated the rapists to tea?’, ‘Had you drunk with them?’, ‘Can you tell us how they threatened your child?’

The questions have to be open-ended, the person will tell you themselves everything they consider necessary and what they are prepared to tell. Your task is to listen and to be an attentive editor. Switch on a safety filter for this woman, girl, or man.

Think about protecting the traumatized person’s personal data, do not use photos and/or videos that can disclose their identity or location.

Do not ask for photos of this person’s children even if it seems to you that this would add a human touch to the story and more people would sympathize with the survivor.

Do not use any links to any social networks’ pages even when you are sure that you have disguised everything masterfully: You may be mistaken.

Do not take pictures, even if it seems to you that a photo of a person’s profile will harm no one, and the person won’t be recognized.

Do not take pictures of even the person’s hands: Practice shows that people can be recognized by their nails, decorations, nevi, etc.

Do not push the person towards even bigger frankness, do not ask for personal details: Where they live, where they work and in which position, which school you attended, do you have a husband and children, and where are they now?

Remember that in this duo you are a journalist, and this is a profession, while you are talking to a person who survived after suffering a horrible crime. As a person, you may sympathize and want to bring retaliation upon the criminal. However, do not forget about ethics, the standards of your work, editorial policy and protection of the person who shares their pain with you. This is your professional duty.

People who survived after such crime may be in different states, like the state of being unnoticeable, when the person seems as if being still; the state of aggression when the person thinks that not everyone understands what they had gone through. From numbness to a loud cry.

Try not to focus on their appearance, age (if they are not a young or underage child), their clothes, their manner of speech). We all have our presumptions, our own visions of how the victim has to talk and look; we visualize the traumatized person according to our habitual patterns of what is adequate, what adds ‘rightfulness’. All this impedes listening and perceiving everything in an unbiased way.

The person who suffered sexual violence may not look, talk, behave in the way that you determined for yourself

You don’t have the right to talk to a young or underage child in absence and without permission of a responsible adult. Besides, if you see that the presence of this adult is not to the child’s liking, try to find another adult, a person of trust for this child. It is expedient that an experienced psychologist who knows about children’s sexual traumas work with you. The same rule applies to working with children who were witness to sexual violence.

If this is a sound recording, think how the person’s voice can be changed, warn them about it. The same applies to video recording. Ask for a specific agreement for both sound and visual recordings and explain consequences to the person.

A person who survived after a sexual crime has to feel that now they control their life. Do not talk to them as to a person who knows zilch both in their life and in your profession.

Tone: Respect, solidarity, attention, trust

Do not tell them that you understand their pain, that you understand what this person feels. Because you do not.

Do not tell them that you had such experience in the past, so you were in their shoes. That had happened to you, and this has happened to another person. Our body reacts individually, and every case of violence is individual. There exist no generalizations for this crime, no similar manifestations of trauma.

Please make sure that the person is aware of the results of every step of their openness. The victim should be warned of possible consequences of their statement (irrespective of whether they contacted you first or you contacted them).

‘This piece will be on the Internet. Yes, everything will be anonymous but someone may recognize you. Are you prepared for this? What can we do to avoid this? Let’s think together’.

‘Let’s think whether we may harm your family, your child, your near and dear by telling this the way we do? Let us change these lines for something else’. Suggest options and take counsel with the person.

‘There are many scoundrels, trolls, bots on the Internet. They may post horrible comments under this piece. Are you ready for this? What can we do to minimize this impact?’ Moderators should use the function of closing comments if it is available on the site.

Your media may decide to pay honorarium for an exclusive material. The person who survived violence may agree to financial terms of working with you. This does not mean that you have bought this person, their body and feelings. This means that you have bought a license to tell their story, and not in the format that you deem more apt for publication and a bigger number of clicks.

It would be better if your media makes a charity donation for the sake of the victim or their family and opens an account, for instance, for a relief fund. These things must be agreed.

When any contractual relations are involved, if you want to make the person the story’s or the documentary’s protagonist for the sake of a noble goal (an advocacy piece for the world, translations, stage productions, other formats of the story) you must ask for consent for everything. The person who suffered from sexual violence has to know that they are entitled to the right to legal advice, to the right to choose a lawyer or a company who will represent their interests

Media often stress that they will talk not to the people who experienced sexual violence but to witnesses to the crime. It is considered that in this way, the person is not traumatized, but the story is verified by witnesses, while the harm is minimal.

Don’t forget that a witness may have their own stereotypic vision and presumptions. You can check this at the start of the conversation or during the interview.

Please pay attention that certain adjectives, links to time and area, description of the survivor or of the situation, voiced by witnesses, may point to the identity of a person who survived sexual violence, interfere with this person’s safety space, as well as influence the evidence collected by the investigation. This is why you should carefully treat all the evidence and switch on the filter of protecting the person’s data.

Illustrations

Do not use photos of children at all. Realistic photos may be taken from photo reports but it is desirable to agree this with relatives. Don’t manipulate and don’t transform violence into glamour.

Photos of ‘victims’ from photo banks should not be used (women with bruises, a raised man’s hand, etc.), better use illustrations or infographics. For instance, paintings by contemporary Ukrainian artists and illustrators.

Your own attitude to the survivor and to the story itself should be expressed in an extremely cautious way. Empathy, sensitive attitude, knowledgeability, respect to human dignity should be displayed towards a person who experienced violence.

What you need to know:

  • What is sexual violence, why sexual violence is torture? Why sexual violence is not only rape, wat are its forms?
  • What is trauma?
  • How to talk to children who experienced sexual violence or are witnesses to sexual violence?
  • How to talk to men and boys who experienced sexual violence?
  • What is personal data protection?

The Murad Code: Important to Know

Nadia Murad is an Iraqi human rights activist of Yazidi origin, a Nobel Peace Prize winner 2018, along with the Congolese doctor, Denis Mukwege. After Kocho was captured by ISIS in August 2014, Nadia became a victim of persecution of Yazidis by Islamists. With other girls, she was deported and found herself in sexual slavery. She was kept in the city of Mosul from were she tried and failed to escape. For this reason, she was tortured. She had been re-sold into slavery several times. After her liberation from slavery, Murad became an activist. She is now fighting human trafficking and military rape.

The Murad Code is a global voluntary code of behavior for those who collect data about those who survived sexual violence because of a conflict.

Next follow important excerpts from the Murad Code project that may help while getting ready for the interview:

  • The interview’s safe structure: We guarantee that our interview has a safe and sensitive structure. We try to combine sexual violence with broader experience and we will not concentrate, research or extract only clear or evident details of sexual violence from the person who suffered.

What does this mean? Tell what the piece will be about, who else you will talk to, what is the purpose of this piece, what sexual violence means to you.

  • Open-ended questions: We will use open-ended questions and correlate the tempo and the tone of our questions. Recognizing the potential harmful impact of closed-ended or leading questions on the affected person, we will limit the use of such questions to exceptional circumstances.

What does this mean? We will watch how the person feels. We will tell them that they may take a pause or that we need a pause. We may say that they have the right to not answer the questions, ask questions to us or ask not to talk about this altogether.

  • Safe completion: We will find the time to complete the interview in a safe and careful way, bring the victim back to the present time, thank them for the time they allotted to us, for bravery, for the trust they displayed when telling us their story. We will discuss further actions with the victim, how we remain in contact, and the possibility of making changes and voice objections. We are prepared to answer any question.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself after your work with such material. Watch your breathing, pulse, indignation, the speed of reacting to questions and events, your sleep, nourishment. Control your state and body. You are working as a pain storage: it is important not to forget that when you are entrusted with trauma, this is painful as well.

 

Larysa Denysenko, lawyer, human rights activist, writer, trainer on gender-sensitive communication

Oksana Pavlenko, founder and editor-in-chief of Divoche.media

Tetyana Troshchynska, editor-in-chief of Hromadske Radio, presenter, trainer on gender-sensitive communication

 

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