The Ethics of Reportage

One of non-fiction’s most enduring ethical dilemmas is balancing the public interest against the interest of its subjects. The dilemma has come to the fore again following news that Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad has won an appeal that clears her of a claim that her book, The Bookseller of Kabul, invaded the privacy of its subject. In 2010, a court ordered the author and the publisher to pay about US$18,500 each to Rais.

The 2002 book of reportage - an international bestseller, since translated into 42 languages - was researched while Seierstad lived with Shah Muhammad Rais and his family for three months in Kabul soon after the Taliban government was toppled. It depicts Rais - a bookseller and intellectual - and his extended family, painting a portrait of an educated man who has suffered greatly as a result of government repression. It also depicts Rais as an authoritarian patriarch whose wives and children are obliged to lead highly cloistered lives.

Although Seierstad changed the names of her subjects, Rais claimed that locals recognised him in the book and that his family was made unsafe as a result. He withdrew his support of the book following its publication, claimed that it insulted him, his country and his religion, and flew to Europe to campaign against it. He wrote his own memoir, Once upon a time there was a bookseller in Kabul - which, predictably, was not an international bestseller - and in 2005 sought political asylum in Norway.

The case gained a great deal of media attention in Norway, leading Seierstad to admit that she harboured some regrets about the book. More recently, she’s retracted those sentiments. “There is nothing I would change,” she told The Guardian. “To change it I would have had to write a totally different book.”

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