human rights, women's rights

A journalist’s quest for a story–and his traumatized subject

Recently, I ran across this New York Times article by Graham Bowley, who writes about his quest to speak with Sahar Gul, a young 15-year old girl who had been subject to countless abuses at the hands of her husband’s family, who tortured her and kept her in a basement bathroom for five months after she refused to go into prostitution.

But I was enraged not only at her story and the abuses she has experienced — but also at the way the journalist, Bowley, had treated Sahar Gul:

“No one can see Sahar Gul,” he said. “Too many people have come to see her. She has psychological problems. She is hitting herself. “

I told him that we didn’t want to talk to Sahar Gul if it would upset her. We just wanted to tell her story, and we had a signed permission letter from the Public Health Ministry.


When I arrived back at the Times’s bureau, I found that the Associated Press had also visited the hospital — and had more luck interviewing Sahar Gul.

When I was reporting for the business desk, being doggedly persistent — and even pushy — to get access to a protected source was a feature of normal life. But I am new to reporting in Afghanistan, and I have found myself treading lightly around a culture to which I’m not yet accustomed. But I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past ‘no.’ Her story was too important.

The next day, Sunday, we returned to Wazir Akbhar Khan. And this time, I wouldn’t be turned away.

Sayad Hassan, a white-bearded man who was in charge of the nurses, led us up the tiled stairwell to Sahar Gul’s room.

I found a small girl, cringing beneath a comforter. Her face was cut and scratched, her left eye bruised and half closed. Her forearm was withered and thin. Her hair was a dark tangle beneath a brown headscarf.

Upon reading this article, I felt Bowley was simply ignoring the fact that Sahar Gul is a human being – and not just that, but a traumatized survivor of severe violence – while in his blind quest for a story. There are so many things wrong with this picture!

First, Sahar Gul is only 15-years old; there is no way she could have given informed consent to speak with a reporter about her experiences. Second, Sahar Gul is severely traumatized and a victim and survivor. She has been subject to extreme violence at a very young age; from the article, she clearly has psychological problems. She shouldn’t be forced to speak with a reporter — especially one who clearly has NO training in speaking with trauma victims in conflict zones, or with survivors of gender-based violence. By asking her triggering questions about the abuse she has encountered, the journalist could be causing flashbacks of the trauma, which only serve to further disturb her psychological state. Forcing survivors to tell and retell their stories can be extremely traumatizing! Telling one’s story can be therapeutic – but ONLY on the survivor’s terms! In this situation, Sahar Gul basically had no say in telling her story. She was forced to relive her experiences over and over again. Can you imagine how painful that could be?

Finally, reporters need some training in seeing a subject as a *human being* and not just as a “story.” And that is exactly what Bowley was doing. In his dogged quest for an article, he ignored the impact he might be having on Sahar Gul and her life. He didn’t *need* to get this story as it had already been covered by a number of other major Western media outlets. There was no need to be pushy in this situation; in fact, this was a situation in which to tread extra lightly and be sensitive to the needs of Sahar Gul.

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one disturbed by this news story. After I ranted about it on Twitter, I saw that the incredible Wronging Rights picked up the story and had apparently gotten numerous complaints about the article from readers.

There’s a reason the UNICEF guidelines for interviewing children specify that interviewers must “avoid questions, attitudes or comments … that reactivate a child’s pain and grief from traumatic events.”

The risk of retraumatizing someone you’re trying to help is an issue we’ve both grappled with in our work representing asylum applicants. You try to balance the need for convincing detail with the harm inflicted on the client, but that necessarily entails asking people questions that no one should ever have to answer, like “and what were you tied to during the second gang rape?” Questions like that have the potential to do all kinds of terrible things, like triggering painful flashbacks, or causing physical distress, so the decision to ask them needs to be weighed very, very carefully. If they have the potential to save the victim’s life through a successful asylum case, then they are probably worth it. Probably.

Here, however,  it’s hard to know why Bowley needed to interview Sahar Gul at all – he himself notes that the AP had already done so. So he was balancing the harm of re-traumatizing a tortured child who did not want to be interviewed against…what, exactly? His desire not to be scooped by the AP during his first week in Kabul? We can see why that might be a concern for the reporter, but why should Sahar Gul give a toss?

Bravo, Wronging Rights, once again for taking a stand. Wronging Rights also has a great form letter that you can send over to the NYT if you are sufficiently outraged and want to take action. I only hope this incident provides opportunity and space for news outlets like the NYT to take a critical look at the training provided to journalists reporting on particularly sensitive issues like this one.


6 thoughts on “A journalist’s quest for a story–and his traumatized subject”

  1. almostclever says:

    This makes me sick, for her to still be physically beaten and forced to talk about something that she has not even begun to wrap her head around.. Grossly irresponsible reporting.  She continues to be violated.

    1. Akhila says:

      I know… it makes me sick too. This girl has already been through enough; she shouldn’t be forced to tell and retell her stories. If she wants to speak up about what she has experienced, she should be able to do it on her own terms. That is empowering. This situation is the opposite- it’s violating.

  2. Joe Turner says:

    Absolutely right.  this idiot should be disciplined immediately.

    1. Akhila says:

      I agree. I hope the NYT learns from this incident and takes some action– I’m not as concerned with this individual journalist but rather hope they change institutions to ensure adequate training for journalists they send out into conflict zones, and elsewhere.

    1. Akhila says:

      Thanks for posting – will do my best to spread the word. 

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