Resources - Media Analysis

MMA Adresses Sunday Times’ Misreporting of Human Trafficking

14 February 2012

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The article on Sunday January 15th, 2012 “Woman tells of ordeal as drug-mule slave” refers. I would like to raise our concern about a crucial omission in the article, as well as highlight some additional ethical concerns.

The story presents a powerful firsthand account of a woman’s experience at the hands of drug traffickers. We learn how she was lured and trapped into a situation that endangered her life and saw her exploited by her captors. The story is not only newsworthy but also a gripping account.  Our concerns is not the subject, but rather a substantial omission in that the sum of the crimes referred to in the story – human trafficking is simply absent. This case, which clearly constitutes human trafficking, needs to be named because the crime committed in the article is exactly that.

In line with the definition of human trafficking outlined by the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children referred to as the Palermo Protocol, the story detailed every component of the crime of human trafficking (lured, tricked, transported, trapped and exploited/enslaved), but nowhere in the article is it mentioned. It relayed in detail the experience of the woman, from her being lured under false pretences of employment after answering a job advert in a Durban newspaper (by a false company), transported to another country, warned that her family in South Africa would be killed if they tried to escape, forced to sleep with men on a regular basis and forced to swallow condoms filled with drugs to courier them to other countries accompanied by handlers.

It is quite possible that the reason the journalist did not mention human trafficking, was that no source mentioned it. It’s also quite common for victims/survivors of human trafficking themselves to not be aware that they were victims - and survivors - of human trafficking.  It may also be that because we do not have comprehensive legislation against human trafficking, that it was not mentioned as cases often have to be prosecuted under various other crimes, including abduction, extortion, fraud etc.  The only exceptions where human trafficking is currently legislated are to be found in the South African Children’s Act, which covers trafficking of children for any purpose, and in the Sexual Offences Act for adults of sexual exploitation.  It should be noted that in the current case, the woman could be classified as a trafficking victim under the Sexual Offences Act as she was “often forced to sleep with four men every night”.

To not acknowledge human trafficking where it occurs relegates it to a position that does not correlate to the serious intentions and motivations of those behind the crime. Human trafficking is most often a willful violation of another’s most basic human rights and can only be referred to in this case as slavery. The concept of slavery, looking back to the institutionalized slave trade in history, is something that horrifies and appalls. Slavery was an entrenched global system that benefited a select group of people and nations to the most severe detriment of others, most commonly Africans. It was organized, there were processes and strategies of capture, of movement and delivery and of purpose - behind those who traded in and exploited slaves.  Likewise human trafficking in most cases today is just as organized, processes are planned and strategies are put in place – for the capture, movement, delivery and usage of victims. We would not label the slave trade as anything other than that. We should not label human trafficking as anything less than human trafficking, if not slavery.

This woman did not just make a bad decision and get stuck in a situation she didn’t want to be in, she was intentionally fooled, lied to, offered false promises, transported, held captive, forced to undertake illegal activities and raped. Failing to name and identify the crime is similar to ignoring the rape of a rape survivor.  It is also a denial of a bigger more encompassing crime.

Further by not identifying the crime as human trafficking, the dignity of the victim is also harmed, as it denies the full horror of her experience.  Further it is also crucial that it is identified, if not for the sake of the woman in the story, but to be able to acknowledge that this is what happens to South Africans, particularly the most vulnerable, who usually don’t have the access to protection they need. Acknowledging that this is a story of human trafficking also brings into stark relief the ethical issue of naming and photographing the woman concerned.  The risks in doing so are profound, given that she is the witness to her own abduction, that she is a victim of sexual assault, all of which is under investigation.  The decision to name and identify her is all the more extraordinary given that the article also states that she is in a witness protection programme.

Had the writer perhaps understood that the person they were interviewing and writing about was a victim of human trafficking, they and the Sunday Times may not have published her name and what is an identifiable photograph of her. It states “they were often warned that their families in South Africa would be killed if they tried to escape”. It is known among those who work to combat human trafficking that this is no idle threat. While the woman may have given consent for her name to be used, it is not clear that there was informed consent and when dealing with a person in a state of trauma, it would be hoped that media would exercise greater care in taking such decisions. 

Human trafficking stories are incredibly newsworthy, they are powerful and important stories, that tend to impact the most vulnerable.  They can also be told with sensitivity and dignity and powerfully without putting the victims and survivors at further risk.

By Melanie Hamman

Sunday Times Public Editor’s response, 12 February 2012

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Download MMA’s analysis with original story, and Joe Latakgomo’s editorial, in the download links below

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