Jonathan Miller, is Asia Correspondent for Channel 4 News. In our interview with him we asked about the ability of social media to prevent genocide. Jonathan spoke about his experience covering disturbing stories in Sri Lanka and Nigeria.
If there had been social media in 1994 would there have been a genocide in Rwanda?
The question you pose is a good one though: had more people, across the world, known more quickly about what was going on, would those who could have intervened to prevent genocide, have done so?
It’s a hard one to answer: I’d like to say yes — but it’s complicated. Just because the world is aware of bad stuff happening — whether it’s in Syria, Nigeria or Sri Lanka, it doesn’t guarantee intervention to stop it. It does make it harder to ignore for those who said, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, “Never Again.” Video and photographs can also present crucial prima facie evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes — and perhaps even the knowledge that evidence of such crimes could end up on YouTube acts as a deterrent. Often though, the levels of barbarity in serious conflicts are so extreme, that those fighting don’t really seem to care what’s recorded and posted online. There are many cases of particularly bloodthirsty acts being posted as trophy videos by the perpetrators themselves.
There is no doubt that social media have changed the way journalists like me work. These days most of us Tweet away, particularly when we’re out on the ground, reporting. But Twitter, for me, is primarily a source of information, albeit sometimes a little unfiltered. YouTube and Facebook have also changed the way we work, particularly in TV journalism, because they provide us with instant access to pictures. Had that been possible in Rwanda in 1994, perhaps the world would just have woken up a bit faster. A little while back, reporting on the situation in northern Nigeria, the local journalist I was working with learned of a massacre by the group Boko Haram. Together we managed to talk interview witnesses by phone but it was in a very remote place and there was no video for days. We did manage to obtain four still photographs from a Twitter account we trusted and the images corroborated all we had already learned. I used the pictures at the top of my report that night.
But as to whether the ability to Tweet out pictures or post videos has actually made much difference…. well, what’s happening in Syria suggests that actually not much has changed. Sometimes, despite damning evidence, it just doesn’t suit the interests of other governments to do anything. Remember Obama dithering over whether what to do about Assad’s chemical attacks? Red lines and stuff? Well, Assad got away with it; he’s had to give up some of his nasty chemicals, but that was a small price. It’s called political expediency, or ‘realpolitik’.
These days, we are often alerted to allegations of war crimes in Syria through Twitter. But, with so many journalists being kidnapped or killed, many news organisations are unwilling to risk the lives of their staff by sending them to extremely dangerous places. We still have to report what happens though, so we have come to rely on video posted on Youtube or Facebook, often by activists. This creates a major problem in that we have to corroborate and verify the pictures, which is often very difficult. At Channel 4 News, we have an Arab journalist working with us full-time, whose job is to do exactly this. When we have checked through multiple sources whether, for example — claims of a chemical attack, or a barrel-bombing, are really true, then we can report it; sometimes the pictures simply speak for themselves, and we have to report that we have been unable to independently verify claims. The immediacy is everything though; the problem is that in the world of 24-hour rolling news and with deadline pressure, it is all-too-easy to make mistakes. We have to be very, very careful.
One of the conflicts that I have covered in great depth is Sri Lanka, where government forces defeated Tamil insurgents five years ago, after a long war. It ended in a bloodbath. Not many of the civilians trapped under withering government artillery fire would have had access to smart-phones or Twitter. We were able to get pictures out, and yes, Youtube did play a role. In reporting the aftermath of the war, I reported several stories which made allegations of war crimes against individual commanders.
When I reported these stories, I always took the video evidence I’d obtained to a lawyer who had specialised in this grim area for an expert opinion — and there are a number of real experts in this field. One of them was the Executive Chairman of the International Bar Association, Mark Ellis. It got him thinking, and motivated by a sense that victims with smartphones were actually potential witnesses, he worked with his team at the IBA to devise an amazing new app which, I believe, is to be launched shortly. It’s called i-Witness, and it enables someone who’s filmed an extrajudicial killing or some other abuse of human rights to securely upload the material to a server in the hope that one day it could help bring the perpetrator to justice.
I’m not sure whether all this goes to the heart of your project! The world is way more wired up than it ever was in 1994. There are fewer excuses these days for world leaders who profess to want to protect human rights to say they never knew. We, as journalists, have ever more tools at our disposal to ensure that they do know. And that ordinary people know too. So that’s the good bit. Look at how that #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign in Nigeria spread like wildfire! Attacks by Boko Haram happen all the time in Nigeria. Even kidnaps are commonplace. The government, I reckon, would quite likely have ignored the schoolgirls’ abductions had not the whole world shouted WAKE UP! It forced their hand. It forced the Americans and the Brits and the French to get actively involved. The danger is now, that having done so, we won’t see it through. Remember the Kony2012 campaign? It burned very brightly for a short time. I’m sure it enlightened many young people. But two years on, Kony’s still out there, kidnapping and killing and the campaign is almost forgotten. Cuts both ways.