ETHICAL USE OF PERPETRATOR CONTENT
Collecting and analysing perpetrator content raises several ethical concerns, both in terms of the potential impact on journalists or investigators, and because of concerns relating to the use and dissemination of such material and the risks to the safety and dignity of those involved. This is particularly important for journalists or archivists intending to report on or catalogue human rights abuses.
Consideration to the journalist, analysts or investigators involved in a project:
- Are individuals prepared for the kinds of content they’ll be exposed to?
- Are individuals given adequate support – training, counselling, etc?
- Is the workflow such that an individual can step back from the work without impacting the project?
- Is the team staffed up to allow members alternate between tasks, or to ensure no one person is overexposed to difficult content.
Consideration should be given to how to store and archive the content:
- As discussed above, sensitive content should not be archived on public platforms or shared for any purpose not central to the project or investigation.
- Storing sensitive content on video platforms or commercial servers risks the content being shared and may raise problems from service providers.
Consideration should be given to the victims and individuals involved:
- In the case of perpetrator video, the content will have been published intentionally for public dissemination. As such, the original source’s consent is not required for publication; however, if victims can be identified, it should be considered whether they should be contacted before publication.
- Will publishing or making available the content endanger anyone or injure the dignity of those involved?
- Will editing the content to protect victims, sources or individuals impact the validity or verifiability of the content?
- Can the content be archived in such a way that it is searchable and available as necessary, without publication.
Consideration should also be given to the target audience:
- The target audience could be members of the public, journalists, or legal professionals.
- Graphic content should be identifiable and end users should have control over what they’re exposed to when receiving this sort of information.
Before publishing or disseminating the content, it must be verified and archived in a manner that will give the end user all the information they need to take action on the content in an informed manner. This should include information that will ensure the target audience avoids creating problems for the victims, their families, or their wider community through publication or dissemination.
Consideration must be given to whether publishing or using the content will inadvertently fuel tension or possibly lead to an escalation of violence, or risk to the victims.
Storyful’s journalists approach these stories cautiously, providing partner newsrooms with the information they need to tell the stories accurately and confidently in the style and format that meets their own editorial and ethical guidelines.
The verification processes set out in this report is applicable to newsrooms and investigators and is designed to prevent misreporting or wrongful use of content of this type.
Storyful’s policy is never to publish perpetrator content publicly (though we archive and provide such content to partners).
In order to protect the integrity of our work, Storyful considers offering anonymity to sources only where there is a compelling case to do so, such a potential threat to life, liberty or security.
Storyful has specific policies around the publication of content that shows minors (parental releases may be required), or where the blurring of faces, muting audio to protect sensitive information, etc, may be necessary. In our role as a newsroom-to-newsroom service provider, our partners are the ultimate arbiters of how this content will be used.
Storyful cannot provide legal advice on these matters to newsrooms or investigators. Individual newsrooms will be bound by local legislation with regard to the right to a free trial, privacy and other concerns. Storyful’s role is to provide detailed information to our partners to allow them to make informed decisions about usage.
The goal of publication of content by journalists or human rights organizations is to draw attention to an issue, or to prompt action by authorities to deal with the situation or bring perpetrators to justice. Consider the following:
Public Interest vs Individual Risk
- Will the publication serve the public interest, but put an individual at risk? Storyful would not advise that content be published in such cases.
- Is it possible to tell the story in a different format, or, for human rights investigators, can the case be handed over to authorities for investigation without publication?
- If there is a strong public interest case for publication, can the uploader or the victim be identified? If so, can their identity be obscured while still allowing their story to be told?
Public Interest vs Rights of the Accused
- Will the publication serve to draw attention to an issue, but put prosecution at risk where the perpetrator is identified?
- In the case of a high-profile perpetrator, there is a case to be made for the publication to force the authorities to take action. The case of Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a Libyan special forces commander wanted by the International Criminal Court, is an example where social media content, in which al-Werfalli was clearly identifiable, was central to the prosecution.
- There is a strong case for publication in the public interest where the content is verified and the source is a public figure, if the goal is to draw attention to the issue or the crime.
- However, the rights of the accused also need to be protected. Depending on the case and the circumstances, blur faces or take other steps to insure the story can be told without prejudicing prosecution.
Public Interest vs Individual Dignity
- Will publishing a piece of content result in greater advocacy or better long-term results for a victim than would otherwise be the case, even where publication would impact the person’s privacy or dignity?
- Special consideration is given to the following cases:
Children are highly vulnerable, so respecting their dignity and privacy is vital. It is important to obtain permission and consent from parents for all photos and videos used for publication.
UNICEF’s guidelines for journalists reporting on children recommend to “always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child” that meets the following criteria:
- Is a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation
- Is a perpetrator of physical or sexual abuse
- Is HIV positive, or living with AIDS, unless the child, a parent or a guardian gives fully informed consent
- Is charged or convicted of a crime
Considerations around women and their safety are particularly relevant in certain regions.
As the status of women varies widely from city to city and country to country, special considerations should be taken when reporting on such cases of abuse.
In some places, a woman’s “honor” can be important to her family or society, increasing the risk that identifying a female source or victim could lead to reprisals or put such people at risk of death. Women can become “double victims”: they may be victims of the perpetrator, as well as victims of the tradition and rules of their society, or may become victimised as a result of being the subject of reporting or an investigation.
The fear of being subjected to blame and public criticism if they are named in the media can lead people to decide against speaking up about their experiences. It is important that the use or publication of perpetrator content does not add to the factors that constrain a victim’s ability to speak out.
Videos of prisoners often show them in vulnerable situations. Perpetrator-created videos sometimes show prisoners being humiliated, degraded or even tortured.
Videos of this kind are often shared with the intent to warn a community of the consequences of disobeying orders, or as acts of dominance over a defeated enemy.
Perpetrators may want to start negotiations with the families of the prisoners, as set out in the first case study below.
Specific cases, such as that of the IS-captured British journalist John Cantlie, kidnapped in Syria in November 2012, raise specific questions. Cantlie appeared in a number of propaganda videos, one of which is discussed in the second case study appended to this report.
Storyful’s policy is never to publish directly content relating to Cantlie; however, we have archived, verified, and distributed his work to our partners. Newsrooms reporting on these video releases often use screenshots or even video clips, in order to illustrate Cantlie’s statements or to report on his location.
Considerations for Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Victims identified in perpetrator content may have been subjected to sexual abuse or exploitation.
Consider the following points in dealing with content in these cases:
- Anonymity (unless the person chooses otherwise after getting advice from a legal advisor).
- Only adults can make an informed decision about how they want their identity to be reported.
- Children’s identity should not be reported, even if they choose not to remain anonymous.
- Don’t share any information that, taken as a whole, could lead others to identify the survivors, such as names, personal details, nationality, hometown, or age.
- Use non-judgemental language in reporting and while conducting interviews or outreach.
- Maintain dignity, confidentiality and respect.
Where appropriate, in each of the cases outlined above, consider not providing the full name of the victims, blurring content for public distribution, etc, while carefully documenting the facts for archival purposes.
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma spoke to journalists and trauma experts in 2016, who provided useful information for journalists, on both self care and on working with and speaking to the victims of child sexual abuse.