Journalism, activism and the fight for migrant rights

Tom Law

“I’m a feminist. I can’t see a woman going through these problems without standing with her.”

In October 2017 when I first met Sawsan Tabazah, a freelance journalist from Jordan, she hadn’t written about the rights abuses of domestic workers in Jordan, let alone realised the scale of the problems facing migrant workers in her country and the wider region. Since then Sawsan has dedicated herself to investigating labour migration in Jordan and advocating for reform on a national level, and behavioural and attitudinal change across Jordanian society.

“My perspective has changed 180 degrees. I didn’t have a clear view of Jordan or the Middle East […] It is shocking that we are living with people who are living like slaves of the modern age.”

When the EJN started a fellowship scheme for journalists in the region in partnership with the International Labour Organization our goals were modest in comparison. We have now been able to support over 20 journalists to produce in-depth reporting that not only shines a light on the human stories of the workers that are the backbone of these economies but also points to technical and policy solutions at the local and international level.

Following her story on suicide among domestic workers in the Jordan Times, Sawsan introduced the women who contacted her asking for help to local support groups such as Tamkeen, a Jordanian NGO, which works to combat human trafficking and protect the rights of migrant workers and refugees. But things really changed after she left her phone number with one of the women she interviewed for her third story about a woman who said she experienced ‘slavery’ at the hands of her employer.

Her phone number spread quickly among African domestic workers in Amman and soon she was inundated with calls and messages asking for help.

Since that moment, these women became far more than sources. Sawsan has taken on the issue of the rights of women working in Jordan as a personal cause, trying to persuade friends and family to recognise the rights of domestic workers as well as throwing herself into wider advocacy on the issue.

“I’m not standing in the street with banners calling for change. But on a social level, I am advocating for that cause.

By drawing a line between work as an activist and work as a journalist you are able to do both roles properly.”

Sawsan has taken some practical steps to avoid the appearance of having a conflict of interest, for example by not writing while she was actively involved in the “My Fair Home Campaign” a joint initiative of the ILO and the International Domestic Workers Federation aiming to change attitudes and behaviours among employers of domestic workers.

While Sawsan’s change in career trajectory has been an interesting outcome of the fellowship, it has also raised questions for me about whether journalism and activism can ever be comfortable bedfellows.

Such compartmentalising may be possible for freelancers like Sawsan – so long as they are transparent about their other roles and continue to approach their journalism with rigour and due impartiality – but the challenges of working in newsrooms are quite different as Lina Ejeilat of Jordanian news website 7iber explains in her article.

Finding national titles willing to accept stories that question the kafala system (See Box 2) and human rights abuses can be problematic, with some fellows choosing to publish some of their stories outside their country or even under pseudonyms.

The activist versus journalist dichotomy was one of the hottest topics of debate during the workshops that accompanied the fellowship programme, especially when we focused on “solutions” or “constructive” journalism.

While the constructive and solutions journalism movement has gained momentum in recent years many journalists remain uncomfortable with the concept.

The main hurdle for some of the fellows, and many others, about solutions journalism, is the misconception that advocating for more solutions journalism means that problems and negativity should be avoided, or not remain the vast majority of news reporting.

In her new book, You Are What You Read, researcher and campaigner Jodie Jackson writes that advocating for more solutions journalism should not be confused with calling for the eradication of what she terms “problems-focused journalism”.

She argues that “including solutions is not to be seen as a manipulation of the media to create a false impression of the world. In fact, it is quite the opposite. At the moment we are confronted on a daily basis with a pathological report of the world that is heavily geared to get our attention and to provoke a reaction through negative news reporting.

Solutions-focused journalism advocates are not suggesting the pendulum swing the other way […] Instead, we are advocating a better balance in the new narrative, in order to have a more accurate and complete understanding of the world and its affairs.”

If I had had that argument to hand, I may have been able to make a more convincing case to those who remained sceptical and have a better response to what, in hindsight, seem quite reductive reactions: “So you want me to cover the planes that land safely, rather than the one that crashes?”

Many fellows did embrace the concept. Laura Secorun Palet’s op-ed in the New York Times addressed not only the legal and logistical reforms needed to improve the rights of migrant workers but also made it clear that “to eradicate forced domestic labor, we must confront the rampant prejudice behind it.”

The article points to the work of NGOs and efforts of migrant women to unionise and become leading voices fighting for their own rights. It also gave examples of ethical recruitment practice as an alternative to the many unscrupulous companies that encourage vulnerable people to leave their families with promises that they cannot or do not intend to keep.

Journalism like Laura’s does not shy away from the mistreatment of migrant workers, but it also gives examples of practical solutions and initiatives that can be an inspiration for governments, activists and migrants. We have to shine a light on how problems can be addressed, not just human suffering and injustices. Providing one without the other does a disservice to our audiences and those whose lives we are reporting on.

The EJN/ILO Labour Migration Fellowship

The EJN’s fellowship programme with the International Labour Organization has run since 2017, supporting journalists who are reporting on labour migration in Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf States.

The fellowships are part of the ILO’s Regional Fair Migration Project in the Middle East (FAIRWAY) which works to promote fair migration (including fair recruitment) and eliminate forced labour and trafficking for labour exploitation.

Over 20 journalists have taken part in the programme, conducting investigations, producing podcasts series and writing op-eds in publications as diverse as the Jordan Times to the New York Times, from BBC World Service Radio to Arabic podcast startup – SOWT and much else besides.

To read all the stories produced in the fellowship, see:

ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/ilo-journalism-fellowship


Tom Law is the deputy director of the EJN, which he joined in 2015 to lead the organisation’s international media ethics campaigns and educational programmes. Prior to joining the EJN Law worked as a freelance journalist and media development consultant specialising in Sudan and South Sudan and for four years was an associate editor of Sudan Tribune news website. In 2005 he was part of the team that founded The Juba Post – an independent newspaper for South Sudan.

Saving the News: Ethics and the fight for the future of journalism

Published in London by the Ethical Journalism Network

© 2019 Ethical Journalism Network

No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the publisher. The contents of this book are covered by authors’ rights and further use of the contributions will be granted after consultation with the Editor under the conditions of Creative Commons.

This is the eighth EJN report on the state of ethics in journalism. Previous publications include:

For all of our previous reports see: https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications

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Tagged with: Constructive Journalism | Solutions Journalism | Positive Journalism, Ethics in the News, Fairway Fellowship, International Labour Organization (ILO), Jordan, Media and migration | Reporting on refugees | Journalism and the "refugee crisis", Middle East, Sawsan Tabazah