What three qualities does a journalist need cover human rights?

Energy, commitment and passion are the key qualities journalists need for writing about human rights and injustice, Observer editor John Mulholland told a packed room of students at the Amnesty-NUS Student Media Summit today.

Over a hundred students from all over the UK descended on Amnesty’s Human Rights Action Centre in London to celebrate media freedom and meet some of the UK’s most high profile human rights journalists, commentators and editors.

The students – all hoping to start careers in human rights journalism – got advice from the likes of Newsnight’s Sue Lloyd-Roberts, the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis and the Independent’s Owen Jones on how to get into journalism, what makes a good story and how to cover human rights abuses.

Iain Overton, editor at the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, talked about how to find stories in data and make them resonate with readers and viewers. Sky News presenter Charlotte Hawkins gave advice on presenting skills, Andrew Carter from Unreported World talked about reporting overseas and Press Association photographer Lewis Wyld held a photography workshop.

Mulholland told the fascinating history of the Observer’s long-standing relationship with Amnesty – launched in the paper in 1961 when then editor David Astor published a story by lawyer Peter Benenson about two Portuguese men jailed for seven years under the dictatorship of Salazar for raising a glass to freedom. Benenson called them ‘prisoners of conscience’ and with that a new term and a new organisation were born.

Mulholland also talked about the power of the media to bring about change. One of the many causes the Observer has championed over the years was opposition to the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa. The paper’s relentless coverage of human rights abuses there quite possibly saved the lives of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.

But while the power of the media to bring about change was at the top of the agenda at today’s event, there was a reminder in the papers about the dangers journalists face day-to-day across the world for telling the truth and exercising their right to freedom of speech.

Forty-four Kurdish journalists have appeared in a Turkish court on terrorism charges, a trial Amnesty and other human rights groups say is an attempt by the government to intimidate the press and punish pro-Kurdish activists.

Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher of Amnesty International, told the Guardian: "[This] prosecution forms a pattern where critical writing, political speeches and participation at peaceful demonstrations are used as evidence of terrorism offences."

The paper reported that more than 100 journalists are currently in jail in Turkey, many of whom work for Kurdish media. About 800 more face charges and many journalists have been fired or have quit their jobs because of direct or indirect pressure from the Turkish government, the paper said.

This is perhaps all the more reason for those who can to celebrate freedom of speech and put their energy, commitment and passion into uncovering and reporting on human rights abuses, wherever they happen. We wish the students with us today every success in their careers as human rights journalists, influencing change where it is most needed.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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