Sailhan Michel: "Journalist, human rights defender, what is the meeting point?

Sailhan Michel: "Journalist, human rights defender, what is the meeting point?


What is an information?

To answer this question, I am used to offer to my students at the ‘Ecole de Journalisme’ of Science Po Paris the image of a lake in good weather: the surface of the water is calm, only stirred by insignificant wrinkles. Suddenly a wave occurs, a whirlwind swirls, or a simple bubble comes to break this inertia. That is information: the rupture of this dead calm on the surface of the world. This can be a train wreck after a smoothly course, a natural disaster, an armed clash, a decisive action in a football match until then uneventful, an official announcement, the death of a personality, or a falling brutal action on the stock market known for its stability.

Faced with this breaking down, what is expected of a journalist?

The main mission of the journalist is to become the witness, the most direct and most impartial one, of this breaking situation. To ask the question: What is it, then, suddenly, before my eyes, that the world does not know, and it is my responsibility to bring to public knowledge, explaining it in the best way possible? In other words, where is the information, what is it? And how to explain it? Inform, disseminate, this is the dual mission of the journalist. A mission clearly distinct from that of the human rights defender.

The alliances between journalism and activism

AFP correspondent in East Africa in the 2000s, based in Nairobi, I was regularly writing stories in remote areas of Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, where thousands of refugees or displaced persons, living without their traditional resources due to the war or drought, were threatened by hunger. My mission, and that of the photographer who accompanied me, was to bring this situation of extreme distress to the attention of world opinion, through the means of images, testimony and investigation.

Another example: I'm in Paris and I question a political opponent from Burundi, reflecting the harassment and threats by the authorities that he and his family suffer from, for several months in Bujumbura.

My mission is still to bring to the awareness of my media customers (TV, radio, print), and beyond world opinion, the situation of this opponent.

In doing so, I will bring assistance to associations defending human rights in their mission, which is to denounce the curse that is made to this Burundian opponent, to denounce the food deprivation suffered by IDPs and refugees and to find ways to mobilize public opinion to change the order of things or to act locally.

But the phenomenon works in both ways. In developing countries, particularly in conflict zones, journalists often enjoy significant logistical resources that NGOs have (transport in sensitive areas, hotel facilities, and telecommunications). They also found a great source of information by being in contact with NGOs, which, over their mission on the ground, accumulate evidence and valuable information about the local situation.

So it is a relationship of interdependence, or a give-and-take relationship that develops between the journalist and the humanitarian.

Professional or activist?

It is clear that both missions, the one of the journalist and the one of the advocate, the mission of the  professional and that of the militant, join soon, and converge towards the same result.

But they do not have the same starting point. Professional and activist: the difference of functions is an essential difference.

Because, if in both examples, the reporter joined in fine the defender of human rights by denouncing an injustice, an inequality, the poverty of a community, in many other situations, he is confined to a different activity.

During his craft, he will often be brought to become interested in other waves that agitate the surface of the lake, which depart from any humanitarian cause: the bankruptcy or the runaway success of a business, an electoral victory, the outstanding figure of the auction of a masterpiece, the minutes of a sports competition, a fashion show.

There will be in such information, little or nothing for human rights defenders.

Because, as we said, the journalist is a professional, whose job is to discover information, and to develop, popularize them. And to put them in shape for an employer who will then sell them to readers or viewers.

Except for the partisan press (i.e. publications attached to a political party) the press is not, in essence, activist, volunteer or even free. Do not they say "press company"?

The reporter certainly has obligations of integrity, rigor, objectivity, but he remains a professional who practices in a activity of services, who talks to a "customer", lives of its business, and works for a company that should as far as possible make profits. Although it is often supported by the government and if the nature of this business is still very far from a purely commercial activity (we easily speak of the press as a mission of public service).

In conclusion, one may think that the journalist and human rights defender are two separate players and they do not have the same mission, but they often find themselves on the same grounds of the alert and humanitarian mobilization. Because they remain, both of them, human beings, agitated and motivated by their human sensitivity, their personal and family situation, and they share the same determination not to satisfy themselves with the often misleading calm waters of the lake. 

Michel Sailhan

Contact information

Michel Sailhan est journaliste à l'AFP et écrivain. Il commence sa carrière au Bureau Parisien de l’Agence Associated Press (AP) en 1981. Il partage ensuite les premières années de sa carrière entre la France et l’étranger en travaillant entre autres, comme journaliste à Londres, à Nairobi, mais également comme chef-adjoint des informations générales à Paris et Directeur Général à Bordeaux. Par la suite, il a également assuré les fonctions de Directeur du Bureau du Caire de 1999 à 2004. De 2005 à 2009, il occupe le poste de Chef du Service politique à Paris, pour ensuite devenir Directeur du Bureau d’Istanbul de l’AFP de 2009 à 2012. Michel Sailhan est actuellement correspondant diplomatique à l’AFP depuis 2014 et enseignant en journalisme à l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP) de Paris.

Recent publications

- « Irlande, des Latins du Nord » (Editions Autrement)

- « You money ! Fragments d’Ethiopie » (Mollat Editions)