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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Dilemma in the Desert

I should probably come clean right from the start. I am not an expert. I only recently graduated from UBC’s School of Journalism. And there are certain things for which no j-school, however solid the program, can properly prepare its students.

Torture is one of those things.

Not my own torture, mind you. The people I talk to are the ones at risk.

I am currently in Western Sahara, a territory about the size of Great Britain and as arid as the name implies. When the Spanish were preparing to relinquish this chunk of desert in 1975, Morocco swooped in to claim it and has been the de facto ruler ever since. A rebel Sahrawi movement fought for independence until the UN brokered a ceasefire and set up a mission intended to organize a referendum on self-determination. That was fifteen years ago. While the ceasefire has held, the referendum never happened and Moroccan security forces remain thick on the ground – by some estimates, as many as 170,000 troops police a population of roughly 300,000.

I have come here to report on conditions in a place where allegations of human rights abuses and repression are rife but outside journalists are few and far between. The authorities strongly discourage this kind of snooping, but Morocco enjoys good relations with the West and its leaders are far too intelligent to allow the kind of scandal that arises from pulling off foreign journalists’ toenails. No, I am not at risk.

But a recent report by the Irish human rights group Front Line describes in detail how two Sahrawi activists were arrested and tortured over a period of three days last year after giving interviews to al-Jazeera and a Spanish newspaper. According to one of the alleged victims, his interrogators wanted to know the names of the international organizations and media with which he was in contact.

Although propaganda abounds in this three decade old dispute, the number and variety of sources alleging gross human rights violations make the case fairly convincing. In addition to Sahrawi activist groups, international NGOs, national governments and even the human rights commissioner of a body appointed by the Moroccan King himself have joined the chorus of condemnation. Moreover, the recent expulsion of two Norwegian journalists and the refusal to grant entry to an EU fact-finding mission suggest that there is indeed something to hide.

That said, Morocco is neither the only country that does not respect internationally-recognized rights of civilians and media nor is it the worst offender. In fact, in its annual press freedom report, the French NGO Reporters Sans Frontières rates Morocco a semi-respectable 97th out of 168 countries, up 22 spots from last year. Such a ranking suggests one of two things. Either RSF underplays the importance of Western Sahara because it accounts for a mere one per cent of Morocco’s total population (though over a third of its territory) or the spectre of torture and intimidation is so widespread that many journalists working abroad will have to face it somewhere.

So, what to do? A little research gave some definition to my dilemma. I was faced with a tension between truth seeking and minimizing harm. These are two of the four pillars in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics but there is nothing unusual about their being in conflict.

“In any complex situation, journalists will have to balance two or more of these four principles,” Stephen Ward argues on this website before offering a rule of thumb: “Where serious public truths are at stake, pro-active principles trump restraining principles.”

In my case, that would mean truth-seeking (the pro-active principle) should win out over minimizing harm (the restraining principle). But of course, every situation needs to be examined in its own right. While most would agree that a politician’s privacy should be sacrificed for the sake of an important public truth, it is not at all clear that any piece of information can justify putting people at risk of physical harm.

Put another way, can I justify provoking new instances of the very abuses I want to expose, even in the hopes that international pressure might put an end to such acts?

Clearly, I had to go beyond reading prescriptions intended as general guidelines. I needed to give some specifics to people who, unlike me, qualified as experts in the field of journalism ethics. Luckily, there are quite a number of them about and there are even a few ethics hotlines. I fired off some emails and waited.

Now, I am not sure exactly what I was expecting. Certainly not clear-cut, written-in-stone advice. Even with a description of my particular situation, a person sitting in a North American office can hardly be expected to understand all the variables at play on the ground in Western Sahara.

In any event, what I got (when I received any kind of response at all – at least one of these “hotlines” is not really worthy of the name) was a collection of common-sense precautions and Socratic “know thyself” sorts of questions bounced back at me.

In other words, I am on my own. And I suppose that is how it has to be. Ultimately, I am the one who must be able to live with the decisions I make and the actions I take.

The end result will be an imperfect form of journalism but I know of no other kind. There will not be as many voices in my work as I would like because I do not want to put the unsuspecting, “ordinary” person at risk. As I see it, all I can do is speak to local activists who, knowing the dangers and having been through arrest and violence in the past, have decided that being heard is most important. Even then, it is difficult to justify putting people in immediate danger for the sake of some far-off ideal.

I can only hope that I am doing the right thing. Because a few months out of j-school, the stakes seem to have gotten awfully high, awfully fast. But it is clear that the current regime fears journalists, so maybe my efforts will make some small contribution in a forgotten corner of the world. As the old Canadian song says, got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight. Then again, I am not the one running the risk of torture. And I am certainly not an expert.

ROB ANNANDALE graduated from the UBC School of Journalism in 2006. He is currently in Western Sahara thanks to an IDRC Award for International Development Journalism. He is trying to shed light on a largely-ignored dispute that has left 160,000 refugees living in desert camps for over 30 years.

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