Nick Kristof Live Tweets a Raid on an Underage Brothel – And Not Everyone is Thrilled
Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has taken his long-running coverage of sex trafficking in the third world one step further: Last week, in his most recent journalistic innovation, Kristof breathlessly live-tweeted a tense raid on a brothel exploiting underage girls in Cambodia’s northern Oddar Meanchey province.
However, Kristof’s tweets about the incident have garnered no small number of negative responses from those – including myself – who believe live-tweeting, a tactic often used for covering less sensitive and private happenings, was inappropriate for covering the brothel rescue.
Here’s the story, as detailed by both the Cambodia Daily newspaper and by Kristof himself. The columnist accompanied famed Cambodian anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam in a raid last Monday on an Anlong Veng brothel, which was owned by a 55-year-old Yim Sorita, whose ex-husband, present at the scene, is a former military colonel.
During the course of the raid, which, according to Kristof’s tweets, involved “riding beside Somaly in her car toward a brothel bristling with AK-47 assault rifles,” Cambodian police officers rescued six girls: five underage, including a 13-year-old, and one girl whose age has not yet been verified.
Things seemed to get tense for the group, as Kristof tweeted “Just got word we’ve got to leave. Brothel owners reportedly sending reinforcements. Concern abt what might happen,” followed by “Large crowd gathered outside brothel. Police seem wary of brothel owners or military friends staging attack.”
The situation grew scary enough that Kristof reported: “I’ve been told to rush out of town for safety. That’s what I’m doing now.” A few more tweets, presumably relayed to Kristof from the scene, followed, as a police prosecutor stared down threatening military supporters, and ultimately prevailed: “Prosecutor faced down soldiers. Military officer & wife, alleged brothel owners in N. Cambodia, taken to police station”
From Kristof’s account, the story seems to have a happy ending. The rescued girls were sent to Somaly Mam’s Afesip [Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire) organization for rehabilitation and counseling after the raid, while Kristof released a New York Times column later in the week detailing the rescue.
Finally, brothel owner Sorita, according to the Cambodia Daily, was charged with the procurement of prostitution and the management of an establishment for prostitution.
Not that all involved – or likely involved – were punished: Sorita’s ex-husband Kang Veasna, was released by police, according to a Cambodia Daily report, who said the former military colonel had nothing to do with the crimes and was divorced from Sorita anyway.
Kristof’s live tweets of the dramatic rescue certainly made for gripping reading for an international online audience. But was live-tweeting the incident the right thing to do?
I think I’m not alone when I say that it wasn’t, and that using a live Twitter stream in this instance was both potentially dangerous and in bad taste.
First and foremost, the tweets could have put both the girls and their Cambodian rescuers in danger. It’s not hard to figure out who is who, and where is where from Kristof’s 140 word missives for a person with some knowledge of Cambodia. In a well-armed country with a corrupt political system, giving out so much real-time detail is a potentially dangerous idea.
And then, there are those nagging issues of privacy and consent.
Twitter is a powerful tool of organization and announcement but it has many drawbacks, as pointed out by Salon.com columnist Irin Carmon, who wrote a well-thought out piece on Kristof's Twitter escapade last Tuesday. In her column, Ms Carmon notes, "I don’t believe Twitter is necessarily trivializing, but it isn’t a mode that fits every story.”
I agree: Not everything, or every subject fits well into an 140-word box. And, as Carmon notes, Twitter flat-out sucks at providing nuance—and nuance is what is needed in spades when it comes to covering the rescue of sexually abused young girls.
We don’t know what the girls thought of the Twitter feed after the fact—so far—but due to the instant nature of live-tweets, I’m guessing they weren’t able to give anything even approximating prior consent to having their rescue publicized. Consent is a tricky, ever-changing, and sensitive subject in journalism, and Kristof’s live tweeting adventure is, to me, pushing the bounds of morality. For the record, I believe the same limitations would and should apply to recording and broadcasting live a raid on a brothel on television.
Finally, allow me to veer into the realm of gross opinion: Live-tweeting an event like Kristof's brothel raid smelt like voyeurism to me. Watching a live-tweet unfold can be exciting, and maybe educational for the folks back home, but that doesn't absolve it from being exploitative for the girls who, without their input, have been made international symbols of a brutal trade. There are many courageous victims of sex trafficking who have chosen to stand up and tell their stories—but it's also a path they chose.
Further, a live tweeted “event” can, as Ms Colman at Salon noted, portray Kristof as more rescuer and character in the story than as an at least somewhat impartial journalist.
Not that Kristof has ever concerned himself much with staying “out” of the story. As every blog post on the topic of Kristof and sex trafficking must mention (seriously, look it up), the columnist previously ‘purchased’ two young Cambodian girls from a brothel to free them, a well-intentioned act that has earned him the title of ‘human trafficker’ from some commentators.
The critics point out that simply buying someone out of slavery does little to help the problem, instead creating demand for more women—and such modern-day slaves, including one of the young women Kristof freed, have sometimes been known to return to their original “owners” for a number of complicated reasons.
Finally, there’s the matter of the brothel raid itself. Brothels are technically illegal in Cambodia, but are widely tolerated—including on my own street—as long as owners pay bribes to the proper authorities on time, and underage prostitutes (whose numbers are, as Kristof correctly notes, in decline) are kept out of the public eye.
Such a wink-wink-nudge-nudge approach to the sex industry means enforcement of anti-prostitution laws here is spotty at best. So spotty, in fact, that many Cambodians and expatriates first reaction to a reported brothel raid, especially if no underage girls are involved, goes something like this: “Well, someone didn’t pay their bribe on time.”
Now, Kristof believes the raid took place because the brothel was publicly advertising the sexual services of 13-year-old girls, who “were in plain view." That the raids were conducted as an extension of law may be true in this instance, as underage girls were involved, but the cynic in me wonders if the brothel owners were also late in paying off the required bribes.
It is undeniably a wonderful thing these young girls were rescued from a horrific situation, but I wish Kristof had added in his column or Tweets that such raids often don’t have much to do with the rule of law here in Cambodia — and that's another big, big obstacle in the fight against the exploitation of young girls.
Further, recall the brothel owner’s former colonel ex-husband, despite his presence at the brothel during the crack-down, was released without charges. His innocence, in my mind, is more than suspect, but status talks in Cambodia. This former colonel seems to have had plenty.
More raids such as the Anlong Veng crackdown need to take place, and more brothel owners need to be punished for trafficking and abusing young women. For those raids to happen regularly, effectively, and without landing victims into yet another horrible situation, fixing Cambodia’s pervasive atmosphere of corruption needs to be a major priority for everyone.
It’s also worth pointing to a recent Phnom Penh post article on human trafficking, which finds Cambodia has made less-than-wonderful progress during the last year in the arena of human trafficking. Although Cambodia has made some progress in the past decade in the fight against trafficking, it hasn’t made enough – and as Kristof correctly points out, more needs to be done. Just not with Live-tweets of tense rescue situations.
So what does Kristof have to say about the Twitter flap?
“Forced prostitution thrives because it's ignored. Tweeting raid shines a light on it, makes govt pay attention,” said Mr Kristof in his Twitter feed on Nov 9, replying to a critical comment on the live-tweet approach.
Kristof continued that argument in a quote in this weekend’s Cambodia Daily newspaper: “[Child prostitution] is a problem that persists partly because it doesn’t get enough sunlight, but I’ve seen that attention can make a difference.”
And then, I’m just plain mystified by Kristof’s Nov 14 tweet, in response to one Tania DoCarmo, who wrote “Appreciate the response but disagree. Raids r complicated & traumatizing enough w/o bystander tweeting on the sidelines…”
Kristof tweeted back with this: “Tweets draw attention to trafficking & send traffickers to jail. That’s why situation is much better in Poipet, Svay Pak etc.”
I can’t tell if Kristof intended this – and I sure hope he didn’t – but it reads as if he’s giving Twitter credit for sending Cambodian human traffickers to jail. That might be almost feasible somewhere that doesn’t have 0.5 percent Internet penetration (access) and a profoundly un-wired political elite. But in Cambodia? No way.
Kristof is right that “sunlight” is what the issue desperately needs, and long-standing efforts to bring the world’s attention to human trafficking via his writing, reporting, and upcoming “Half the Sky” documentary are laudable. But that sunlight can be applied to the issue of sex trafficking in more careful and less potentially dangerous ways than via the medium of Twitter. And if anyone gets a say in taking place in a publicity effort—even for a good cause—it should be the girls, not their rescuers.
Writing a gripping account of a brothel raid after the fact, when the dust has settled and something is known of the situation, is a fine idea. When written by a popular writer such as Kristof, such an account can go very far in drawing the public’s attention to a terrible and pervasive issue. Reporting a raid as-it-happens, as if the Tweets were coverage of a hurricane, a Middle Eastern protest, or a sports game? Not so much.
Twitter, as has been amply proven, can be a great tool during unexpected and volatile situations, such as during disasters, protests, and even (though this is trickier) in times of war. Live Tweets can help people respond to a calamity, mobilize for social change, and know what is going on with their loved ones during difficult times. But there’s a time and a place for everything.
I’ve live-tweeted a disaster myself, during last year’s Phnom Penh bridge stampede, where over 300 people lost their lives.
At the time, I felt getting the word out to a confused public about the disaster on the scene and over the Internet trumped other ethical concerns. Today? I think I’d have handled that Twitter feed very differently. But I also feel that I’d live-tweet a disaster again, while trying as hard as I could to ethically walk that very slim line between good reporting, and media exploitation of other people’s suffering.
In my mind, this debate opens up a much bigger question. What are the right – and wrong – uses of Twitter for journalists, citizens, and Internet users? Where do we draw the line and decide that 140 characters just aren’t enough, and condensing a story in such a way may be detrimental to the people we are trying to help, and whose stories we are trying to tell?
What do you think, Faster Times readers? Do you think live-tweeting a sensitive event involving private citizens is going too far? Do you think tweeting sensitive events is OK in some situations, and not OK in others? Do you think drawing attention to a little-known and horrifying issue is worth any possible privacy concerns?
Let me know in the comments, because if you ask me, this is one hell of an interesting moral question.
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