Forgotten wars and far away places: an interview with Lennart Hofman
31 mayo, 2016
By Suzanne Vink
Lennart Hofman is a Dutch journalist who reports on so-called “forgotten wars”. He has written about Djibouti, where they used to smuggle refugees to Yemen and now are taking in refugees from Yemen themselves. He traveled to countries such as Sudan, the Western Sahara, Mali, West-Papua, Burma, Syria, Thailand and more, to write about their forgotten conflicts. I spoke with him to find out what drives him.
“What drives me is actually like a basic journalistic attitude, that you want to tell a story which you think is important. You should not be put off by the fact that it can be scary, that is why you are a journalist. I find it important to write about human rights violations. I want to find out how a situation started, who is responsible and eventually how we can solve it.“
To get to this point, Lennart made a pretty long journey. “I first studied for quite a long time. I have a bachelor in anthropology, a bachelor in religion studies, two masters, and I studied journalism. I also always travelled a lot, also in difficult areas and I learned different languages. So knowledge-wise I prepared a lot and after that I just went”
In addition, he has some advice for people that want to work in the field of human rights, or areas where there is war or conflict. “I think people that want to work with human rights should realize that there is a broad range of options, and you need to find out what suits you best. For instance, if you work for a large NGO or the United Nations, you will have to stick to their policies and those of the governments funding them. You will spend a lot of time with expats in expensive restaurants or clubs, and it will be difficult to keep that feeling of being an activist alive. I think many people who really want to change the world, will not feel happy there.”
Since a few years Lennart has been working for “De Correspondent”, which is a critical medium that does not publish without thorough research. About the media landscape in the Netherlands he says: “They often cover the same topics, Syria, refugee crisis. There is a need to also zoom out and discuss what is really going on. However, that takes research. The public debate is not always based on facts. Columnists write their opinions and it is often just what people want to hear, out of context. Columnists are very popular nowadays, but per definition they need to have strong opinions to profile themselves. This leads to extremes while reality is often more complex.”
In the past we have seen, for example with Vietnam, that the media can move people to hold the government responsible. The question is of this is still possible today. “The Dutch government will not really change its policies on large international themes because of public pressure or news articles. They follow America on these issues and work with long-term strategies based on geo-political dynamics. In the beginning of the war in Syria journalists wrote a lot about it and it made many realize we need to intervene, but that was vetoed by China and Russia in the UN. It wasn’t possible, even if the government wanted it.”
“Vietnam was a different time, I think that at that time people were maybe also more politically engaged. It was a small group, but they were very capable to make themselves heard. Now, with internet and blogs and all that, everyone can make themselves be heard. This includes people who are not really interested in the details of the situation but rather care about their own safety “
Lennart wrote a couple of articles about ISIS, which is of course a topic you cannot avoid as a war journalist. For most people it is a topic that they cannot really relate to, but with his articles about the Philippines, Lennart showed ISIS is not merely a problem of the Middle East. Filipino rebel groups are one by one joining ISIS. I asked him if he thought that the developments that are happening there, are possible in Europe as well. “I think that that is already happening. One of the things I wanted to show with that article is that through internet these ideas spread over the world easily. Especially those youths in the Philippines are susceptible for that, because the see injustice in their environment. They are angry and frustrated, they have questions. The ISIS propaganda have the most logical answers to them. You see literally the same thing happening in the Netherlands.”
Lastly, I discussed with him whether there is anything Europe and the USA could do to support the Middle East and Asia, and whether that is a battle against radicalization, or one that needs to be fought with weapons. “That is very difficult. We should think very deeply about image formation and the message that we send. I think it is important to be strict on the online radicalization propaganda and to invest much more in preventing the process of radicalization. We used to have good policies in the Netherlands, research showed we had to be very inclusive towards youth that are drifting. That was seen as leftist softness, and right wing parties that had the majority got rid of these policies and said you had to be strict and clear instead. I doubt that is more effective, and many examples prove it is not. I can see the same thing happening through my work in the field, in different countries.”
If you would like to read more about Lennart’s work, click here for his blog.
Picture belongs to Lennart Hofman