Footprints: OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

November 03, 2017

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“A journalist cannot go undercover or use hidden cameras and other clandestine means to procure information, but in certain cases, there is no other way to obtain the information necessary to prove criminality.”

Olga Ceaglei chooses her words carefully; on the screen behind her looms a photograph of 17-year-old Misha, who was once sold on Moldova’s black market of underage sex workers. Although a victim of human trafficking himself, Misha later became part of a trafficking ring that operated in eastern Europe.

The business was extremely lucrative: using blogs and social media, traffickers advertised packages for sex tourists, complete with instructions on how to get to Moldova and offering minor boys as ‘escorts’ for the duration of their customers’ stay.

Ms Ceaglei jealously guards her anonymity and refuses to pose for a photo. This is because she exposed the same trafficking ring through an investigative report, and helped spark a national debate around paedophilia.

Her efforts led to the passage of a law that called for the mandatory chemical castration of all those convicted of sexually abusing children in Moldova. The legislation was watered down the next year after legal concerns were raised over the unnatural nature of the punishment.

“In real life, there are rarely any happy endings,” Ms Ceaglei says with a sigh as she recounts how even the juvenile Misha was convicted and sent to prison along with the rest of the traffickers, a textbook case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Her story is one of the many case studies shared with journalists from across Pakistan at a training session on the role of mass media in raising public awareness about trafficking in human beings.

The two-day workshop aims to sensitise journalists on how to cover the complex issues of human trafficking and smuggling, but inevitably, the conversation drifts back to journalists’ safety.

“The political will to tackle any issue, such as human trafficking, is directly proportional to amount of media coverage of that issue,” says Elena Krsmanovic, a criminologist who has studied the way the media covers the topic of trafficking in persons.

The problem, in her opinion, is that while the media may cover the issue of trafficking in persons, their focus is very different from what the anti-trafficking community wants to highlight. “Sensationalism is very hard to fight when it comes to representation of trafficking victims.”

“Think about the safety of the victims, but also think about your safety,” she warns a room of newsmen and women on #EndImpunity day. The mediapersons in attendance groan and nod; they are all too familiar with the dangers facing them when trying to cover any organised crime.

One of the biggest dangers, in the words of one journalist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is the smuggling of persons who have been recruited by militant organisations, such as the so-called Islamic State (IS).

“Mercenaries are taken to conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, through illegal channels, and many of them have made their way back to their countries of origin via the same routes. How is it possible that these routes have not been identified?”

But those who do report such stories often face reprisals. “These can be in the form of physical threats, threats to family, threats to the organisation and threats to the journalists’ integrity,” says Tamme de Leur, a senior journalist who teaches human trafficking at the University of Ede in the Netherlands.

“Journalists need to be well-trained to handle high-risk situations, not just for their own safety but also their team’s. It will take an organised civil society, organised government and organised journalism to fight organised crime,” concludes Mr de Leur.

Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2017