Syrian’s livelihood exploited for media promotion, what are documentation limits for relief organizations in Syria

Children in Idlib receiving relief aid from the Spotlight organization (edited by Enab Baladi)

Children in Idlib receiving relief aid from the Spotlight organization (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

“God bless you for bringing us food; we were hungry.” These little but painful words were said by a little girl who appeared in a promotional video for the Spotlight relief organization operating in Idlib’s displacement camps, northern Syria. The video, published in late October, angered many activists who said that the organization had instructed the child to say the sentence in a “humiliating” way to promote its activities and gain more support.

In late October, social media activists launched a campaign against the Spotlight organization. They sent a letter to the directorate of legal affairs of the ministry of development and humanitarian affairs of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib to bring the officials of the organization to justice and prosecute them “after abusing the displaced people for the second time.” Previously, the organization’s officials were suspended and then released after submitting a written pledge and a videoed apology.

Almost 20 days after the video publication, the SSG’s ministry issued a statement condemning the organizations’ violations and abuses in the media documentation field.

The statement, published on 22 November, said, “In previous cases, we dealt with some of these abuses committed by non-profit organizations while documenting their work for media purposes. These practices portrayed our people in a way that violates the principles of humanitarian action. The first step we took was to check the video material source and ask the entity responsible for its publication to delete it. Then, we sent a warning letter to avoid repeating such abuses and referred the matter to the competent judicial authority.”

In its statement, the SSG called upon all humanitarian actors, especially in the media field, to follow humanitarian action principles and preserve Syrians’ dignity in the northern areas when providing relief assistance to them. It also asked them to abide by a code of conduct that ensures people’s dignity and pride.

Appeal to donors or necessity of humanitarian work?

Journalist and activist Mohammed al-Faisal, who participated in the campaign criticizing the organization, said to Enab Baladi that the published videos “take advantage of the beneficiaries’ need for relief aid, and depict them in a humiliating way, to win the utmost support of donors at the expense of the displaced people’s dignity.”

Al-Faisal added that the campaign’s demand is to abide by the code of documentation ethics by not revealing the face of the beneficiary and refraining from forcing children to say humiliating words to express gratitude to the donors.

According to Hisham Derani, the executive director of Violet Organization in Idlib, media documentation of organizations’ activity is necessary for several reasons. This documentation process is sometimes embarrassing for aid workers, as it is for aid recipients.

Upon documenting, relief organizations rely on two aspects, media coverage and administrative documentation to ensure the credibility of the process. On the other hand, the beneficiaries sign to the information they provide, which describes their need or nature of the service provided to them.

This is accompanied by a filmed version of how the relief team carried out the task to guarantee compliance with documentation criteria, according to Derani.

The advocacy officer of the “Ataa Humanitarian Relief Association, Dima Ma’rawi, believes that photographing beneficiaries’ faces does not include any mistake or violation in principle. The purpose and method of filming determine how correct the process is. A face image alone is sometimes not considered a source of or private information, as long as it is not accompanied by a name and place, which are called the danger triangle.”

The media official in Maram Foundation, Jaber al-Bakri, has pointed out that the exposure of beneficiaries’ faces while documenting humanitarian work is also adopted by global charity organizations to gain donors’ support, especially through revealing the faces of children, women, or elder people.

Ethical boundaries

According to Ma’rawi, “media documentation of humanitarian action is important as a monitoring tool to ensure the workflow according to the adopted plan, as written reports and invoices are insufficient to prove that the aid service has already been executed. Humanitarian work requires visual proof of the service provided.”

Ma’rawi added, “here lie the ethical boundaries between obtaining physical proof, the image, to prove the service’s implementation, and not violating the beneficiary’s privacy or dignity by filming them.” 

“Regarding images, they should be part of a general process without focusing on the beneficiaries only. The photographer should ask for the beneficiary’s approval, or the parents’ consent if the beneficiary was a child. If there is any objection from the beneficiaries, the documentation process should be stopped,” Ma’rawi said.

“Humanitarian workers abide by the photographic documentation policy and confidentiality of information provided by the beneficiaries. They also sign pledges not to use the photographed materials for any purpose, and if they do so, there are specific articles in the pledges that clarify the penalties of such a violation,” Ma’rawi added.

For his part, Derani confirmed that Violet Organization follows “a universally acknowledged media documentation policy to preserve the dignity of the beneficiaries against any abuse. Most importantly, the organization does not photograph or prepare any material about any person unless the material was explained and approved in advance.”

Legal perspective

In principle, any charitable association is entitled by law to document what it disseminates or spends as a charity; however, it is prevented from publishing the photographed documentation in public. Instead, the association may attach the visual documentation materials with its financial reports to the donor, according to lawyer Ghazwan Koronfol.

While documenting, the organization must obtain written permission from those being photographed, inform the beneficiary that the filmed materials would be available to the public, and obtain written approval from those previously photographed.

Koronfol told Enab Baladi that the Spotlight organization is investing in people’s tragedies through its documentation to gain donations and funding without paying respect or consideration for the privacy and dignity of those being photographed.

Although the defamation and humiliation crimes included in Syrian law do not apply to the content of the published videos, “this does not eliminate the fact that the Spotlight organization is undertaking defamatory and humiliating practices affecting people’s dignity,” Koronfol said.

He added, “this misuse of documentation would entail at least a civil liability on the organization to offer financial and moral compensation for the affected. In addition, the organization must be prevented from humanitarian work unless it adheres to legal and moral obligations that preserve people’s dignity, rather than using them as a means to elicit others’ feelings for donations or financial support.”

Psychological effects

The adverse effects of the non-professional photographing of aid recipients are not limited to humiliating the person who appears in the visual documentation materials, but often the public exposure of a human being as a person in need before the surrounding community causes psychological and social damage.

The consultant psychiatrist Dr. Jalal Nofel told Enab Baladi in a previous report that the supposed aim of assisting those in need in times of crisis is to empower them, not to show them weak or helpless.

Nofel added that this behavior, when repeated, could cause the “beggar psychology” for needy people. They can develop long-term negative feelings against the charitable entity that dehumanized and degraded them, for these entities intended to depict them in a vulnerable position. 

As for children, Dr. Nofel said that this improper depiction of children might develop a sense of shame and embarrassment for them in the future. They might sense injustice and negative feelings towards their parents for agreeing to portray them in such humiliating conditions. 

Relief aid is essential

Successive waves of displacement, faltering economic activities, and high poverty levels in Syria have made humanitarian aid a vital issue for civilians.

According to the United Nations’ (UN) official website on 25 November, the UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ramesh Rajasingham said that “more than three million people across Syria need help during this harsh winter season.” He also indicated that “displaced families are “particularly vulnerable, as are communities in elevated areas, such as in parts of rural Damascus.”

Rajasingham added, 6.7 million people in Syria are internally displaced, a third of which lack proper shelter and live in damaged or unfinished buildings, in public spaces such as schools or tents that do not provide sufficient protection from the elements.”

Commenting on the deteriorating economic situation and rising food prices in Syria, Rajasingham said, “people are increasingly unable to feed their families,” noting that 9.3 million people in Syria are food insecure.

 

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