Human Trafficking and the Media

By Courtney A. Fiske*

To many Americans, the word “slavery” rings of anachronism. Slavery, or so our history textbooks teach, ended with the Civil War. Yet, despite our desire to confine slavery within a neatly bound historical period, slavery remains a pervasive problem in our contemporary era. The United Nations deems over 27 million persons to be modern-day slaves—that’s more than double the number sold during the transatlantic trade’s 400-odd year history. By contrast to the slavery of America’s past, which primarily targeted black Africans and operated as a form of legitimate trade, modern-day slavery is more diffuse—and decidedly illegal. Indeed, according to language employed by the United Nations and international NGOs, such as Free the Slaves, the phrase “modern slavery” is analogous to “human trafficking.” By this denotation, far from an eminently visible commercial enterprise, today’s slave trade thrives in the seldom-seen spaces of organized criminal networks.

This Wednesday, the United States Mission to the United Nations, backed by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, convened a panel discussion entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight: The new media’s role in exposing human trafficking” at its New York headquarters. The event brought together an impressive array of experts in the field: a veritable red carpet event for journalists, activists, bureaucrats, and policy-wonks concerned with slavery’s contemporary manifestations. The crowd befit its mandate: to examine “how the news media have helped expose and explain modern slavery—and how to do better.”

This event dovetailed the release of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. For the first time, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca—head of the Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat TIP—explained, the report included the United States within its purview. The Ambassador related two other impressive developments:

  • the drafting of an International Convention protecting the rights of domestic servants, slated for release in 2011;
  • the liberation of an estimated 50,000 victims of human trafficking in the past year—a mere 2% of the global total, but laudable nonetheless.

Situating contemporary writers-cum-activists alongside their historical predecessors—most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the groundbreaking novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin—Ambassador CdeBaca emphasized the transformative power of the written word.

The panel next turned to Mike McGraw, whose five-part exposé of human trafficking in the United States earned numerous accolades in 2009. McGraw detailed the difficulties of stopping human trafficking as domestic politicians struggle to formulate sound immigration policies; he noted, in particular, extensive problems with the H2B Visa program. McGraw further lamented the lack of methodologically sound data and the difficulty of finding victims willing to relate their experiences.

E. Benjamin Skinner, author of the award-winning book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery, framed the primary challenge of covering human trafficking as “doing no harm.” Unlike other atrocious crimes such as genocide, victims of modern-day slavery, he stressed, are very much alive; many remain in constant jeopardy of recapture. Probing these survivors to recount past traumas comes at the risk of their revictimization: a fact which endows journalists in the field with weighty responsibility.

Suffusing his remarks with bon mots and an ample dose of self-deprecation, Guy Jacobson—Israeli-investment-banker-turned-award-winning-filmmaker—proved the most entertaining member of the panel. His latest documentary, Redlight, premiering in New York this Monday, features female victims of child sex trafficking in Cambodia. Shooting inside brothels with espionage equipment, Jacobson ignored Interpol’s persistent reminders of the dangers attendant to his project (human trafficking, after all, is one of organized crime’s biggest cash cows). Rather than jump ship, Jacobson employed an entourage of 40 bodyguards outfitted with machine guns to trail his crew’s every move. The takeaway from Jacobson’s story: reporting on issues of human trafficking is almost always risky business.

Noy Thrupakew, a fellow at the Open Society Institute who has written extensively on sex trafficking in Thailand and Cambodia, was next to speak. She urged journalists to take a more victim-centered approach in their reporting by avoiding sensationalism and withholding salacious detail. Against the tendency to deflate and fetishize slavery’s female victims, Thrupakew encouraged reporters to retain victims’ three-dimensionality and to allow them to speak for themselves.

The panel closed with remarks by Under-Secretary-General Antonio Maria Costa. Here, Costa underscored the need to address the socioeconomic dimensions of human trafficking: the reciprocal problems of supply and demand. The latter area, Costa emphasized, is where average citizens can make a difference—whether by boycotting goods whose production hinges on exploitative labor or, he added (only partly in jest), by “keeping up their zippers.” The media, as the seminal arbiter of public opinion, could do its part by influencing popular attitudes and, in so doing, stemming the demand for trafficked persons.

*Courtney Fiske is currently a Research intern with the National Council for Research on Women.  She is pursuing a BA in Social Studies at Harvard University.

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