Implications of insensitive media coverage of human trafficking   9 comments

Attention Nicholas Kristof: this time you’ve really gone too far.

The recent live tweets that you posted while observing a brothel raid are beyond inappropriate and insensitive; you are hurting the very cause you seek to promote. (Please read Kristof’s own account of the incident here.)

I don’t want to address the journalistic moral dilemma of using twitter as a means of disseminating such sensitive information, and the encroachment on privacy of these young women in the most vulnerable situation – upon which subject pages could be written, but on Mr. Kristof’s writing in general and it’s implications.

Friends, please think this through for a minute:

Ever wonder why an average person, journalist, or even celebrity can’t just walk into a school, a hospital ward, or especially a home for abused women and children, without a proper reason to go there and background check? No? Never wondered that?

Seems like common sense right?

Well for some reason it’s not in Cambodia, where orphanage and tragedy tourism seems to be the norm. Mr. Kristof and his band of celebrities are making tourist attractions of the centers they visit and the girls they talk to, take pictures with, and force to tell their stories. And guess what, contrary to (apparent) popular belief, it DOES hurt. I have personally seen the impact of Kristof’s breed of journalism on the young women he wants to help. I made the same mistake of falling head over heals for Somaly when I read her book, and I recommended a girl I worked with to enroll in her shelter, who had been trafficked, because I thought she would be able to get the proper peer support, therapy, and education that she needed. She was further abused in the shelter, and did not get any of those things she desperately needed. Forcing (or pressuring, manipulating, encouraging) these girls to retell their stories over and over again to an insatiable media (and even just tourists who want to give money) is another form of trauma. They aren’t given proper therapy, and are exposed on a daily basis to unscreened tourists and journalists asking them probing and inappropriate questions and using their photographs to post all over the media. If a girl is in a “safe house” because a pimp is really trying to come after her, how is it possible this organization is allowing these pictures to be taken? It leads you to ask two questions, 1.) Is that girl really in as much danger as the organization claims, and 2.) If she is, what kind of organization would really allow this?

Furthermore, these young women are called victims on a daily basis, which instills the self-image of them inflicted upon them in the brothels. Or in the case that they were never in a brothel to begin with (which is true more often than certain organizations lead you to believe) they now are stuck with a label that never should have defined them in the first place, and become prey to a whole new form of victimization.

Sensationalizing the problem of human trafficking and turning it into a sexy media story opens the door for new non-profits to open fake shelters and legitimate non-profit organizations to become corrupted by the desire to get money which results in more people being trafficked – this time into shelters where they are not getting appropriate education, upbringing and care. In some cases, the line between fake orphanages, brothels, and shelters can be blurry. The fact that growing numbers of children in institutions has paralleled growing numbers of tourists is scary.  So, while the Phnom Penh Post concluded that by and large, although they disagree with Kristof’s tweets, he was getting attention to the cause and that “couldn’t hurt”, respectfully, I disagree: this really and truly can hurt, and has already inflicted severe damage.

Lets be clear. Human trafficking is a real issue, and it’s very serious and needs attention – At least we can agree on this; I don’t know who it is exactly that Kristof is speaking of whom he calls “non-judgmental about trafficking” (are those just people who disagree with Kristof?) But there are constructive ways to move forward with the issue – and by and large its not going to change until the demand changes as many have notably pointed out. The portrayal of the issue by key media figures and celebrities is making some problems worse and creating new ones, and at the same time not offering real, constructive solutions. The problem is not as black and white as Kristof makes it out to be and I guess that if he goes and watches a brothel raid and can write about everything that happened in twitter feed, he has shown that his knowledge of the situation is extremely simplistic.

We should have known that when he bought two women from a brothel and “freed” them. One of them went back to the brothel immediately.

These young women need to be offered constructive therapy, alternative options, and transitional help into supportive communities. There are other great organizations in Cambodia that do a much better job at this than the organizations Kristof champions. Critics of Kristof are quick to point out, and rightly so, that he never discusses what happens to the girls that are rescued in Somaly’s raids, more than a month or two after. The so called “success stories” that he notes in his columns are girls that have escaped sexual slavery – but are still living under the protective wing of AFESIP and SMF. What happens next?

The answer to this question for some is extremely sad.

To be fair, the good thing that’s come out of this is that finally some members of the international press are beginning to express outrage at Kristof’s actions and perspectives. The allegations of abuse, misconduct and corruption within AFESIP and SMF are well-known among the community of people working in this field in Cambodia; lets hope the international community will start listening as well, instead of to celebrities and journalists that drop in for a week long (highly) guided tour of Cambodia sponsored by the aforementioned organizations.


Posted November 25, 2011 by keokjay in Uncategorized

9 responses to “Implications of insensitive media coverage of human trafficking

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  1. Cant agree more. Kristof is all about that generation of liberal”journalists” who learned to exploit Cambodia and countries in similar straits to further their own careers. For me it all started with the grandaddy of them all NYTs Sydney Schanberg. These annoying users seem to have now all migrated to CNN where they trivailise and sensationalise very serious issues and simply the storyline with fabrications.

    3 cups of tea my ass!

  2. TOTALLY disagree. He can get much more much needed attention for this topic than any of you can. He is a JOURNALIST. seems a lot of people forget that. As for the girl\’s privacy: oh please, none of them was harmed in the raid or with the coverage. They were harmed for years by the people who held them captive and had them raped like a dozen time every day. I hope Kristoff tries to get loads more attention for this topic. I am happy they are making a PBS documentary about this topic with the help of Somaly Mam and Meg Ryan. 🙂

  3. There is a historical thread regarding this kind of coverage of trafficking by journalists. Another example is William Stead (known also as the father of modern journalism) who, in the late19th century, purchased a young girl from her mother to prove that it was possible. In the course of the investigation she was drugged, and ‘examined.’ He was jailed for his part in this.

    If I recall, early on Kristof seemed quite contorted about the reality of his rescue, where the women returned to work in the sex trade.

    Laura Agustin wrote excellent pieces about the colonialism that Kristof represents.

    The media plays a crucial role in history of the way our society focuses on this essentialized symbol of the abused female/prostitute. Clearly the framework of this issue has lead to numerous violations of the rights of migrants, women, prostitutes, domestic workers, etc.,

    for example, in the US (and elsewhere) almost all those caught up in raids are deported. This is glossed over in the context of media reportage and trafficking discourse. In other contexts, humanitarians would be quite concerned about systematic deportations.

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  8. Great thoughts! Thanks for visiting my site about this too. Continuing to follow the discussion.

  9. Pingback: Attention Nicholas Kristof: this time you’ve really gone too far | NOT FOR SALE

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