Late last month, Bonn, Germany, was the centre of the world’s attention as experts from the realms of politics, science, academics, civil society and the media converged to discuss the role of the media in promoting human rights.

Catarina de Albuquerque shared a very interesting story. She said: “When urinating and defecating became a criminal offence in California, Tim decided to create his own enclosed toilet. He raised a tent behind a War-Mart, cut out a hole on the chair and attached to it plastic containers. He wanted homeless people like him (especially women) to have some privacy when answering the call of nature. They would also not breach the law. Tim would then collect the full plastic containers and empty them in some bathroom in the city and bring them back empty – ensuring the improvised toilet was back in place again. Tim lives on the street in the United States. He is considered a human rights hero because he tried to ensure there is sanitation for his fellow homeless citizens.”

The story was not reported by the media but by Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. She points out that stories like this often go unreported because less people expect to encounter violations of human rights in developed countries. But they do happen and the media should report about them because the media should defend human rights – at least that is what many people expect from the media.

“Tell the stories of the people you have met who are suffering violations,” says de Albuquerque. “Don’t forget the silent suffering of people who get a lot less attention. Bring these stories to the fore,” she adds.

During the conference in Bonn, one clear thing was that the media has no explicit role of promoting human rights. Its role is to inform its target groups of things not working in society, and of things not respected as they should be.

At the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, Catarina de Albuquerque advised journalists to “get it right” when it comes to human rights. In the same way the public and human rights activists should get it right when it comes to promoting human rights.

 “First of all learn about human rights beyond a fundamental level. After all, human rights are a basic international law. If the government or any other party breaches those rights, they breach the law,” says Catarina, the UN independent expert.

While I agree with Catarina de Albuquerque that the media has an important role in exposing human rights abuses, it is not that easy especially in Africa. African governments are intolerant to any stories that depict or seem to expose their incompetence or inability to protect and promote human rights. In Zambia, for example, the government is sometimes in the forefront of violating the rights of innocent citizens. The shooting of unarmed citizens in Mongu of the Western Province is a case in point. The government unleashed the police on citizens who wanted to hold a peaceful demonstration to register their displeasure towards the state’s inability to develop Western Province. Some people were shot dead while several others were put in jail with gunshot wounds.

It wasn’t easy to report these stories and even get clear statistics of the people who were killed and those who were wounded because government controls the majority of the media in the country.

Human rights reporting is more than about abstract legal issues. Mostly people who are at the centre of these stories are vulnerable people, who have been exposed to traumatic acts, involving sexual violence, medical or other forms of mistreatments. Doing justice to their accounts requires research, knowledge and sensitivity - and in some cases genuine personal courage.

Most journalists are well equipped to question powerful politicians or business people, but what is needed is to sharpen their interviewing skills necessary when working with the powerless groups.

In order to overcome these challenges we need to encourage what the Minister for Federal Affairs, Europe and the media, State of North Rhine - Westphalia in Germany, Dr. Angelica Schwall - Duren, suggests: “(encouraging) the existence of the free media is essential to upholding human rights.”

This is what the Zambian government should also work upon - set the journalists free and encourage the proliferation of media houses.

Charles Mafa - Journalist, Zambia