Ukrainian Experts Produce Guide for Journalists Reporting War-Related Sexual Violence
By Brian Dooley
Russia’s war on Ukraine is the biggest news story of 2022. Teams of international journalists are all over the country detailing Russia’s attacks on civilians, Ukraine’s mobilization and resistance, and war crimes.
While the quantity of media coverage is impressive, not all the reporting is responsible. Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe Council of Europe, called out sensational and exploitative reporting of war-related sexual violence (WRSV) in a memo in July that “details of some cases of war-related sexual violence, including the victims’ identity, have been made public on social media or in the press.”
She reminded reporters of “the importance for journalists and media actors to always report ethically on cases of war-related sexual violence and always respect the victims’ rights and dignity.”
In response to concerns over how some journalists report WRSV, Ukrainian media and legal experts produced a guide for reporters, How to Responsibly Report War-Related Sexual Violence.
The authors are three Ukrainian experts on gender issues: Larysa Denysenko, a lawyer, writer and human rights activist; Oksana Pavlenko, Editor in Chief of DIVOCHE.MEDIA; and Tetyana Troschchynska, Editor in Chief of Hromadske Radio.
“We’ve seen a range of how the media covers war-related sexual violence. Some of it hasn’t been done the right way, so we got together to produce a guide on how such reporting should be done.” said Denysenko, who is currently representing women in various lawsuits brought against Russian soldiers for sexual violence.
“Many local journalists, and those who come from other countries, have little experience in reporting these difficult issues,” says Pavlenko. “Some of the coverage has been clickbait, focusing on the explicit and sensational. This guide can help journalists do a better job in how they cover these issues.”
The guide is “intended as a practical guide for media workers reporting on WRSV in Ukraine. It provides context and advice on language, consent, and behavior when conducting interviews.”
It offers a detailed list of Do’s and Don’ts so reporters can approach these stories from a position of trust, the sorts of questions to ask and to avoid, expert information on responding to trauma, and straightforward advice on what journalists should never do, including exploiting survivors of WRSV: “Even if you sense the story of a lifetime, an incredible career opportunity for yourself, do not use the vulnerability of people who have trusted you.”
Human Rights First supported the production of the guide, which also reminds media workers that “no journalist ever has the right to manipulate anyone by demanding they speak out publicly in the name of justice.”
Some of the guide’s key elements:
- The experts advise journalists interviewing survivors of WRSV never to “Tell them that you understand their pain, that you understand what this person feels. Because you do not.”
- It also addresses issues of managing consent, interviewing witnesses and children, handling evidence, and the appropriate use of illustrations. It emphasizes the importance of protecting the traumatized person’s personal data, and not using images that disclose their identities or locations.
- The guide makes clear that it’s important that journalists don’t promise what they can’t deliver. “Don’t promise that you will protect them, or take them to another country, or punish the perpetrator. You cannot do this. What you can do is listen to them, and promise to stand by them and their truth.”
- Good interview practice includes making questions open-ended, and using a tone of respect, solidarity, attention, and trust.
The media has a responsibility to report WRSV in Ukraine. This guide offers a valuable resource to those who want to cover these stories sensitively and ethically.