Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human trafficking and Africa’s ‘pornography of pain’: the pitfalls of CSR

LexisNexis South Africa has mined its newspaper archives to produce a deeply flawed ‘human trafficking awareness index’. This draws upon sensationalised research to create yet more false information on trafficking.

Marlise Richter Joel Quirk
2 September 2015
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GongTo/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.

LexisNexis is an internationally renowned company that specialises in providing research and information for legal and corporate clients. It is especially popular amongst law students, who routinely use its user-friendly search engines to write assignments and briefs. While these search engines can be an invaluable source of information, they have also unfortunately been put to use to support sensationalism, myth-making, and poor ‘research’.

This is because LexisNexis recently sponsored the publication of a new ‘human trafficking awareness index’ (HTA index), which seeks “to analyse the volume of news related to human trafficking” in Africa. This index uses information from their media database to “highlight emerging trends and patterns of awareness within and across national borders”, and attempts to produce insights that will enable anti-trafficking activists “to monitor and drive the anti-trafficking agenda”.

The inaugural awareness index was published in November 2013, and since then two further reports focusing on media coverage from September - December 2013 and January – December 2014 have been published. These reports follow a common logic, with media references to human trafficking being treated as a proxy for public awareness of human trafficking in South Africa as well as in Africa more broadly. The main thrust of all of these reports is not only that human trafficking is insidious and increasing, but that public awareness would assist in uncovering a multitude of cases that are assumed to go undetected. Thus, through public awareness more trafficking victims will—somehow—be saved.

The reports do not reflect critically on the power of sensationalist media coverage to distort the public’s perception of the problems associated with human trafficking. This omission is all the more glaring given the  now extensive body of research that suggests relevant media reports routinely suffer from dubious statistics and classifications, unrepresentative or uncorroborated anecdotes, and self-serving statements from ‘experts’ with a vested interest in exaggerating specific problems.

While journalists often have a great deal to say about trafficking, this emphasis can often come at the expense of other more pervasive forms of violence and exploitation.  Most obvious of these is domestic violence, a devastating (but mundane) epidemic that has prompted an estimated third of all women who have been in a relationship to report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner.

Sensationalised reporting on human trafficking also tends to exaggerate the reach and content of trafficking, and to present often self-serving speculation as ‘fact’. This does a disservice to victims of trafficking, and can increase burdens faced by already marginalised groups such as sex workers and migrant populations, for example when trafficking raids take place.

In a recent report on Trafficking and Gender, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, warns:

Exclusive focus on trafficking without a social analysis also contributes to sensationalism. It creates the false impression that trafficking is a problem that can be solved by merely taking a few legal measures and providing assistance to those identified as trafficked. Thus, the long term goal of advocating for systemic and structural changes in society gets overlooked.

It is therefore highly debatable whether the HTA index brings us closer to either a clearer understanding or an effective response.

Stylised images and dubious ‘statistics’

All three HTA index reports are attractively designed, ten to 24-page documents packed with highly stylised images of white women bound with ropes and sad black children peering through rusty fences or scratching at walls.  Especially troubling within the context of post-apartheid South Africa is the cover of the second report, which has an image of a mouth of a white person being smothered by a black hand. These types of visual images not only run the risk of falling subject to what historians of slavery have described as a ‘pornography of pain’, they also present a racially coded image of menace and physical constraint that does not adequately capture the challenges and complexities associated with migration and exploitation.

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Cover of the second HTA index report. Fair Use.

This visual presentation is accompanied by the use of dubious statistics. Especially prominent here is the figure of 2958, which the most recent report calculates is ‘the number of potential trafficking victims reported on by African media during the period [January – December 2014]’. This figure is in turn drawn from 1838 ‘unique African media articles on human trafficking, captured by the LexisNexis database during the period’. Yet the report contains no definition of trafficking, has no methodology section, and includes no indication of the original source of media articles or how they were located, or indeed how the report drew its conclusions. Furthermore, what is reported on by the popular media as ‘trafficking’ frequently has little resemblance to the technically complex and serious crime of human trafficking as written into law. As such, counting the number of individuals labelled ‘victims’ by the media does nothing but produce yet another inflated and inaccurate statistic.

These methodological difficulties do not prevent the 2013 and 2014 reports from making bold claims about ‘notable trends’.  The 2014 report highlighted that child trafficking is ‘a pervasive problem’, while the September -December 2013 report includes a section titled ‘Murky Waters – Forced Labour (in the maritime industry)’ despite the fact that this trend does not feature in the media reports considered. While some might consider that a red flag, the report asserts:

this type of trafficking remains under-reported in the media, although the number of victims assisted in individual cases tends to be higher than those of sexual exploitation. [...] Elsewhere in Africa, ‘deep sea’ child sex tourism is becoming more widespread and entrenched in Kenya, as ‘clients’ rent boats to sail out to sea with children of their choice.

Sex work in South Africa and Nigeria

All three reports contain a variety of anecdotes and case studies from various parts of Africa. The 2014 report noted the death of Desiree Murugan in Durban, South Africa.  Murugan was a 39-year old mother of one, who worked as a sex worker in Durban.  In August 2014, she was found stabbed to death and decapitated in Chatsworth. This brutal murder sent shockwaves through the sex worker community, and a memorial was held by her family and supported by sex workers and sex worker advocates. The 2014 report classified this murder as “Body Part Trafficking/Ritual Killing” and provided the following description:

Indian sex worker killed and beheaded for muti [an isiZulu term for traditional medicine]. Stabbed 195 times; brain, ear, nose, flesh and skin from face removed. Body found in Shallcross, Chatsworth. 6 arrested, including a traditional healer, 2 men, and 3 minors (a girl and two boys). Co-accused claimed they were offered R2m for the head of an Indian, Coloured or White woman with long hair by the traditional healer, who pleaded guilty and received a life sentence.

South Africa has no category of crime for ‘ritual killing’. The scenario described above also does not fulfil the definitional requirements of trafficking for organ trade, as laid out by the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT).  It is not clear at all, apart from its sensationalism, why this brutal killing was not simply labelled as ‘murder’ in the 2014 HTA index report.

Similarly, the same report contained a section titled ‘Plight of migrant women – Nigerian women take risks crossing the Mediterranean to Italy only to become sex slaves’.  There is no reference to the original source, a problem found throughout the report, so one is left to wonder how many of the women labelled sex slaves actually became sex workers, something very different. One also cannot know from the report how many of these women saw sex work in Italy, which has legalised the occupation in contrast to Nigeria, as a step up from their previous conditions.

There is little ambiguity over the definition of trafficking internationally.  It is clearly set out by the United Nations Palermo Protocol and includes the essential element of movement by means of coercion or deception for the purposes of exploitation. The two case studies above, and many others described in all three reports, do not seem to pass definitional muster according to the evidence that is provided.

Potential trafficking victims?

The first HTA index report warned that “The information and numbers provided in this report are only as accurate as the way in which the media reports this heinous crime”, and that many references to trafficking cases explicitly include the phrase “potential trafficking victims”. However, these cautionary notes were not uniformly included throughout the reports. A useful summary page with a table and bullet points—particularly valuable for busy journalists—instead proclaimed that there was a total of 5450 victims of trafficking in the period August 2011-2013 and that 2971 victims were children. This ‘fact’ was subsequently reproduced in a report on the SADC Gender Protocol 2014 Barometer

This conflation of potential victims with real victims (as defined by journalists) is further encouraged by LexisNexis’ public relations work. For example, the press release accompanying the 2014 report noted:

At least 2958 people were trafficked through African countries outside of South Africa over the 12 month period from January to December 2014 for unjust purposes including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced recruitment as child soldiers.

A representative from LexisNexis South Africa repeated this statement in an article written for the Cape Times, a popular South African daily newspaper. This sort of repetition serves to give weight to the result and to persuade the public that a reputable law research firm confirms the extent of human trafficking.

Making responsible choices

Recently, the CEO of LexisNexis South Africa proudly noted that his company had directed all its corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds towards combating human trafficking.  At a global level, LexisNexis has also chosen to support a range of anti-trafficking organisations, including the now notorius Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia. This Foundation closed down in October 2014, after its namesake was exposed in Newsweek for having fabricated a history of being sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather. Mam also allegedly instructed Cambodian girls to lie about their lives as sex slaves in order to bolster the credibility and stature of her foundation.

Africa does not need false or misleading claims about trafficking that gain undeserved credibility through their association with a well known corporation. These claims are especially problematic when they harness the mutilated bodies of sex workers like Desiree Murugan towards dubious ends. Africa is currently plagued by a virulent mix of gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. There is consequentially an urgent need for companies like LexisNexis to invest their substantial CSR funds towards practical efforts to prevent gender-based violence, as well as for sustained government, private sector and civil society engagement with violence at the community and policy levels.  It is fundamentally irresponsible to instead choose to fund glossy reports that fail to enlighten anyone.

This article draws on a response written to the release of the HTA report in 2015, entitled Marlise Richter "Evidence-based, truthful reporting needed on human rights violations" Cape Times 16 April 2015.

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