When Reporting Migration Means Breaking the Law in the Name of Humanity

Aidan White

A Swedish television team have learned the hard way that compassionate journalism laced with commitment to cardinal principles of humanity and transparency can still get you into trouble with the law.

Fredrik Önnevall in May 2015 (Wikipedia Commons)

Fredrik Önnevall in May 2015 (Wikipedia Commons)

On February 9 Fredrik Önnevall, a documentary film-maker with the Swedish public broadcast network SVT, was convicted of people trafficking because he and his team in 2014 helped a desperate 15-year-old Syrian refugee travel from Greece to join his cousin in Sweden.

Önnevall pleaded not guilty. His lawyers called for an acquittal on the grounds that his action was a humanitarian act of solidarity. The court accepted that he had the best of intentions, but said that under the law he was still guilty of trafficking. He and his two colleagues were given a suspended sentence and a community service orders.

The case raises a number of tricky questions, not least about when is it right for journalists in the field to put away their camera and notebooks to help those in need? It’s a question that troubles every journalist reporting from a war zone or the scene of a humanitarian disaster or covering the migration story. They often find themselves reporting in the midst of human suffering and it may be impossible to ignore cries for help.

Certainly, the impulse to act with humanity is hard to ignore and has troubled journalists for decades. In The Race Beat, an excellent book about 1960s media coverage of the struggle for civil rights in the United States, there’s an anecdote about Flip Schulke, a distinguished freelance photographer who put down his camera and rushed to help a young woman demonstrator who was being beaten up by police. Few journalists would stand idly by in such circumstances.

But after the event he was reprimanded by Dr. Martin Luther King. He was reminded that he was much more valuable as a photographer than a participant in the events he was covering. The story of injustice and police brutality said King was too important not to be recorded and circulated to people in America and beyond.[1]

This incident is a reminder that journalists have to remember their primary role is to record, expose and circulate facts and information that will tell stories people need to know. They are not participants in conflicts or rescue missions. They need to consider carefully when the suffering of others pulls them away from their professional task.

The case of Fredrik Önnevall, his cameraman and his interpreter, is more complex. For a start, this was no immediate, life-or-death moment in which a journalist is faced with a dramatic dilemma; to decide whether their story is worth more than someone’s continued suffering or even their life.

According to Agence France-Presse, Önnevall was filming a documentary about the response of European nationalist parties to the migration crisis when he met the Syrian teenager in Greece. Along with two colleagues, Önnevall agreed to help “Abed”, which is not his real name, travel to Sweden.

Önnevall says the boy was considering throwing himself from a road bridge onto a running lorry and in this way to get a ride out of Greece. It was a deadly strategy. Önnevall said he couldn’t live with himself if he thought he might put the boy at risk by refusing to help.

In the end they decided not just to help him, but to document his trip by car, ferry and train. In court, Önnevall admitted knowing the boy had false papers. He and his team would normally have flown back to Sweden, but instead they paid for a car rental to help the team and the boy avoid strict identity controls at airports.

The details are not clear, but it’s likely as one colleague in Sweden has suggested, that a television team loaded with equipment would find it easier to cross borders with the boy than if he was travelling alone or in the company of other refugees. Certainly, it worked. The boy made it to Sweden where he was granted asylum.

The Swedish broadcaster SVT took no position on the choice Önnevall made. It was, they said, a personal decision of the team. But they did broadcast the documentary that emerged, a very personal and engaging story and they did fully acknowledge the circumstances in which the film was made. They also paid for the legal costs of the defence team.

Breaking the law is an occupational hazard for journalists. Sometimes it’s done inadvertently or to avoid unnecessary delays, such as applying for a tourist visa rather than a journalists’ or business visa to avoid delays at the frontier. But sometimes it is a legitimate act of defiance, as is often the case when journalists and media defy the law to protect to their sources.

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For his part Önnevall is fighting his corner. He has been on the receiving end of hate-speech on right-wing websites, but he is unapologetic and plans to appeal against his conviction.

He says that he acted in an emergency situation, he provided a humanitarian response to the boys’ dire situation, and he and his team made no money from smuggling the boy to Sweden. Nevertheless, the court said that Sweden’s current law gave them little choice but to convict him.

He argues that he and his colleagues shouldn’t be punished. But some might say that the light sentence suggests that the courts have taken account of his best intentions. A total of 116 people were charged with human trafficking in 2016, twice as many as the previous year and almost eight times more than in 2014. Those convicted risk up to two years in prison.

With that in mind some lawyers argue that an interpretation of the law in Önnevall’s favour would open the doors to more non-profit, humanitarian smuggling of refugees.

And there are other questions. Will this case make it easier or harder for other journalists to cover migration without closer scrutiny by the authorities who are already reluctant to grant journalists access to migrant and refugee camps? Many journalists worry that this sort of intervention by a reporter increases the risks for other journalists who may be seen as participants in conflicted situation, whether it is working in a war zone or in a refugee hot-spot.

But many will sympathise with Önnevall who in an interview with Agence France-Presse prior to the start of his trial said his dilemma over the boy’s request for help came down to a simple question: “What decision will I be able to live with in the future for myself?'”

There are no easy answers, but all reporters do well to remember that although journalism can do good and it can be a force for progress, civilisation and human progress, that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to act in the public interest and to provide intelligence that helps people understand better the events that shape their lives. If Önnevall and his colleagues have done that, then their decision to break the rules can be better understood.


[1] The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (2007) by Gene Roberts and Hank Kilbanof