Ethical Principles Abandoned (Paper Presentation by Dr. Birgit Wolf on refugees, journalists and media at the EU borders in autumn 2015, presented at the International Round Table “Refugees, Media and International Law”, University of Vienna, event organised by the Media Governance & Industries Research Lab; 02/12/2015
Besides being a communication researcher focusing on gender and cultural studies, I have been volunteering at the EU borders since September, when I first went to the refugee hotspot in Röszke Hungary [see also the article “Hungary’s Anti-European Immigration Laws” by panelist Prof. Gábor Halmai] https://univiennamedialab.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/hungarys-anti-european-immigration-laws/
One attitude of the media during the refugee crisis I experienced is that many journalists and media arrive when borders are being closed and/or an enormous fence is to be installed.
This phenomenon was especially apparent in Hungary, when the borders were closed in Röszke on 14 September as well as in Zákány on 16 October (See also https://univiennamedialab.wordpress.com/wp-admin/customize.php?return=%2Fwp-admin%2F)
But I did not see any journalists taking pictures of the hundreds of refugees forced to walk the path of 20 – 30 cm-deep mud from the border to the railway station in Zákány, screaming elderly persons, kids getting stuck, parents with their babies and small kids in their arms or on their backs or both at the same time. The protection-seekers had to enter the train without being allowed to get rid of the mud on their shoes, even if it would have only taken a minute. They had to enter with cold, wet, clumpy mud sticking all over their shoes. There was no press there, because they were at the border busy taking pictures of the closure.
Since 1978, international and regional organizations of professional journalists, representing altogether 400,000 working journalists in all parts of the world, have held consultative meetings based on the lasting value of the UNESCO Declaration in which it is stated inter alia that “the exercise of freedom of opinion, expression and information, recognized as an integral part of human rights and fundament freedoms, is a vital factor in the strengthening of peace and international understanding.”
The conclusive meeting of this process issued the document International Principles of Professional Ethics on this basis as international common ground and as a source of inspiration for national and regional codes of ethics. The Principle VI refers to respect for privacy and human dignity and explains: “An integral part of the professional standards of the journalists is respect for the right of the individual to privacy and human dignity, in conformity with provisions of international and national law concerning protection of the rights and the reputation of others, prohibiting libel, calumny, slander and defamation.”
Last week I was volunteering on Lesvos, receiving people and providing first aid when they came to the island by boat. In the night of 23 November, I had a night shift with the team of the NGO A Drop in the Ocean. There were also teams of Spanish and Greek lifeguards, the Bergen Doctors NGO, a group of nurses from Spain, and many more. We helped people from four arriving boats – each with approximately 40-50 persons – all land safely.
As these were the first refugee boats again for several days to arrive at Lesvos, journalists were eager to cover the landing and so we had to face numerous press persons locating themselves, their cameras and microphones on the frontline.
I don’t remember how often I rushed into a microphone stand or had to ask a journalist to get out of my way when I received wet children and adults, looking to get them dry clothes, water, some sweets if necessary.
But this was not the worst. The next day, I had already planned to head to the south of the island, when various volunteers texted for help as they had run out of supplies – no food, no water, no dry clothes anymore. So I bought food and water, went to get clothes and drove down the dirty roads towards Skala Sykamineas. I stopped when one boat after another was coming in, and helped as usual changing the clothes of children. Then we had two boats with many very exhausted persons, a young man on the ground, unconscious.
While I supported the work of doctors and nurses, a journalist came to the first aid team, bent down over the unconscious patient, and took a close-up photo. Immediately I covered his camera with my hand, in order to defend the dignity and privacy of the unconscious refugee, and had to face the anger of the journalist who insisted that this was his work and important.
The situation was tense, due to the state of the refugee, so I didn’t want to cause even more tensions and stopped arguing with the journalist. After the patient had recovered consciousness a colleague of the first aid team told me they don’t interfere with journalistic work unless they are hindering their work. “We don’t fight with them, they are so many, it does not make sense, if we stop one the next one will come instead”, the young medical assistant said. I turned around, and there were many more persons on the ground and unconscious, and many more journalists taking close-ups of them – of people who were completely unable to defend themselves in this situation.
And there was no protection against the violation of ethical principles to be found out in the field, the coasts of Lesvos, where people struggle to survive the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea. This was an extremely sad experience and upsetting. Not only were individuals so exhausted that they lost consciousness, but I also witnessed how their right to privacy and dignity was grossly violated by this unabashed journalistic behavior.
Dr. Birgit Wolf, InterEuropean Human Aid Association e.V., Lecturer in Communication Donau- Universität Krems and University of Vienna, Head of Social Work Johanniter Refugee Camp Währing, Flüchtlingshilfe, Johanniter Unfallhife e.V. Wien
Dr Wolf was attending this viennamedialab event on 2 December: https://univiennamedialab.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/event-refugees-media-international-law/
 Ethicnet (undated). International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism << http://ethicnet.uta.fi/international/international_principles_of_professional_ethics_in_journalism>>, accessed 28/11/2015