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Imagine your worst experience. How would you want your story told?

March 2, 2020

Freedom United tells us about their campaign “My Story, My Dignity” to help media portrays victims of modern slavery with respect and empowerment.

©lisakristine.com

For anyone who has suffered a trauma, recounting the details of what happened may be difficult, painful, even retraumatizing.

“Think about the worst thing that happened to you. Now think about living it once more. This is what survivors of trafficking experience each time we are asked questions about what we went through”, explains Sophie Otiende. “We don’t want media to take our dignity away again”.

Testimonies are critical: they are the human voices and faces behind the numbers: 25 million women, men and children are still in forced labour today. Only testimonies really allow the audience to understand what being tricked and trapped into modern slavery means, in one’s body, flesh and soul. It is what will move people and create enough compassion to drive action. It is what journalists and the media are looking for to grab their audiences’ attention.

The media rely upon strong stories and eye-catching images when writing about modern slavery. Unfortunately, survivors of slavery often say that the images and language used to represent modern slavery and tell their stories do not reflect them accurately or in a dignified way.

The NGO Freedom United has been supporting the 50 for Freedom campaign to promote the ratification of the Forced Labour Protocol. Joanna Ewart-James, Freedom United executive director, explains to us how they set up a campaign to change the way these stories are told.

 

Aurélie Hauchère Vuong: A significant number of people still deny or underestimate the mere existence or prevalence of modern slavery. So raising awareness of the broadest audience is truly needed. How can we balance the necessity to share testimonies about the atrocities of modern slavery while respecting the dignity of those who have suffered the most horrible experiences?

Joanna Ewart-James: Too often we speak on behalf of survivors and sensationalize the experience of modern slavery today. Freedom United decided to give the floor to survivors instead. Through our campaign “My Story, My Dignity” we are calling on large media houses and others to treat modern slavery survivors’ stories with dignity.

 

Aurélie: What are the concrete actions the media can take?

Joanna: Based on the guidance provided by survivors themselves, we call on them to:

– Choose respectful images that are representative of the issue. Choose stock images carefully.

– Select text that accurately represents the story. Be careful to avoid sensationalist language.

– Respect survivors’ right to privacy and dignity.

– Obtain prior consent to using a personal story, be transparent and accurate about the process and how it will be used.

 

Aurélie: When telling the real life story of a victim of modern slavery, the media must be careful. These men and women have gone through awful experiences and journalists should avoid retraumatizing victims. What are the other risks?

Joanna : Sensationalist images and language can unintentionally create or reinforce stereotypes or negative prejudices. Disseminating a typical model of victim can completely undermine efforts to end modern slavery and hinder victims’ identification. It also can be very harmful to their ability to recover and start a new life.

 

Aurélie: Is the problem only with the media?

Joanna: No indeed, there are many other places featuring stories or representations of modern slavery that don’t show enough care, even NGOs! We developed guidelines on how we at Freedom United live the principles we set out in our My Story, My Dignity Pledge, so that others can see concrete examples of what can be done to communicate in a respectful and empowering way.

Our guidelines are steps that our team follows and which have been approved by survivor-led organization Survivor Alliance. We post a link to them in all our communications so we can be held to account. They also provide a blueprint that other organizations can use and adapt so they join our cause in disrupting unhelpful narratives.


Nancy is a victim of trafficking who granted Freedom United permission to use this photograph of her. She is covering half her face to protect her identity.

Aurélie: And did other organizations indeed follow?

Joanna: Yes! Already 34 organizations have committed to ensuring accurate and respectful representations by signing up to the My Story, My Dignity Pledge. We ask these organizations to tell us how they are aligning their practice with the Pledge, whilst also encouraging more to join. There is still room for improvement in the anti-slavery community when it comes to empowering representations of modern slavery but if we all adopt clear policies and develop internal guidelines on how we publish content, we can make fast progress.