In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones
AFRICA: Interview with W. Kwendo Opanga, Executive Editor of the East African Standard, Nairobi. July 2004
NAIROBI, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - W. Kwendo Opanga is the editor of one of Kenya's most influential newspapers. In this interview, he discusses some of the principles and considerations which guide his publication's approach to gender-based violence and conflict. Not least among them is the need to protect survivors of abuse and to avoid inflammatory reporting.
QUESTION: Does your paper have any policy about how to cover war or other conflict situations?
ANSWER: Definitely. We've not had a country war here, but we've had tribal wars and ethnic conflict. One of the things we do as a national newspaper is to try from the outset not to inflame the situation or make it worse. We would not want to set one community against another …not heighten the tension between groups …We don't want to place gory pictures onto the breakfast tables of our nation. We would highlight the plight of the disadvantaged groups with a view to drawing the attention of the public to them, with the idea that a sensitized people would help ameliorate the situation. It is not something that we have written out as policy, but we have talked about it when going into conflict areas. We sit down as editors with the reporters who go into the field and remind them of the ethics of our profession…remind them of what we stand for…. We are in the process of formulating that policy …
Q: There has been some criticism recently of the media's role in reporting incidents of gender-based violence especially in times of war and with children. What position does your paper take in reporting on such incidents?
A: In Goma, they are in a war situation and that aggravates the child-rape situation. In Kenya we are not in a war situation…but there have been cases here where men have raped children …there have been cases that went to court…people have been arrested. Now it is a policy, and this is understood around the world, that we do not name victims of rape. And if it is a child we are even more sensitive about that. We will not name the kid or use pictures of it. Our attention will be focused on the rapist. Our coverage is likely to be very harsh with such people.
Yes, there are more cases of kids being raped and they are getting more coverage in the media… Now the South African example is bizarre and shocking. When some of us heard about it we were stunned. It is not possible that you are going to be cured of AIDS by having sex with a minor! But the mere fact that some people are doing that should force the media to look at the subject. AIDS is a huge issue on this continent… Is this an act of desperation? Is this witchcraft? What exactly are we dealing with? It is a matter that concerns the media and the greater society and it should be condemned.
Q: It is said that even the fact of coverage of it by the media should not happen because it might give desperate people ideas.
A: I do not agree. There are instances of students burning their schools down here and we are asking if we should cover it because of the fear of copycat events…but again if we of the media do not cover it …it will still happen. The first case was not because the media gave anyone the idea. No. When the media cover it, they do so to condemn that action … they cannot not cover it for fear…
Q: But these copycats do it out of desperation…so they might be stimulated by your coverage.
A: First of all we do not go into the gory details of the crime…we just observe that a certain person has been charged with raping a minor…apparently convinced that it will cure his AIDS …we will not get into those details but we will go a step further to insist that you do not get AIDS by doing that… that the best way to avoid it is prevention …You should not engage in risky behaviour and we will insist that people pass on these messages.
Q: In areas of conflict where there is a lot of rape of women going on…would you use the same ethics when reporting those horrible acts?
A: Precisely. The difference here is that in war cases there is more brutalization of people … a soldier with a gun is not only dehumanized by the war but with a gun he gets the feeling that "I have conquered." In his mind he's seeing the enemy…the woman may not be one, but that's how he sees her … But we use the same standards there as we use at home …our emphasis will be on covering the increasing cases of rape and violence and call on organizations like the Organization of African Unity and our neighbours to do whatever they can to stop the atrocities - to go to the aid of these people in the conflict situation.
You see if you expose a child of 10 or 12 in your story then years later that picture is still in the archives and it could be used …you stigmatize them for eternity…we don't want to get into those kinds of situations. We will name the perpetrator, but not the victim … unless she wants to come forward to tell her story for her own reasons…she'd like it to be a lesson to others. We will never push the case, but if she wants to we will make sure she is certain …we will make it clear that she came forward. It was her choice.
Q: Have you ever done specials on violence against women?
A: Not in conflict situations. But we've focused on violence against women as a reality in our society …We did take a risk … there was a lady who was badly burned by acid - it was torture … as editors we said it was a horrid picture - but we took the position to show it because we wanted to shock this society into waking up - we wanted this to be a statement about the increase in violence against women … it's horrible and this is what it looks like - it's happening.
Q: Have you covered gender-based violence in war?
A: No …we've been fortunate as a country that we haven't had these brutal wars. But unfortunately, we have men who brutalize women in this country and we try to condemn that. In my case the first time I really heard about the horrible violence against women during war was in the former Yugoslavia. That was when I was watching CNN and there was a lady talking about how everyone talked about the bombs and people running away, but that no one was talking about what is being done to the women during war. That was the first time I realized it was a serious issue.
And as an editor, if I found myself in a conflict situation where that was happening I would definitely focus on those two issues, violence against women and against children. Yes, that would be a special issue for me. But it has taken a long time to come to public attention.