December 06, 2007

Denying "terrorists the oxygen of publicity“

Kidnapped Britons tape condemned” a headline on read on Tuesday. The blurred picture next to the headline showed one of five British hostages that had been seized from Baghdad's finance ministry building on May 29, 2007.
As I read through the article I learn that Al-Arabiya, an Arab TV station, had broadcasted a video that shows two armed militants with machine guns, pointing towards a British hostage. The kidnappers, a militia group calling itself the Islamic Shia Resistance in Iraq, demanded on Britain to pull out of Iraq - otherwise they will kill the British hostage.
To my surprise, the article even featured an extract of the video.
I am surprised, because it is not a matter of course to broadcast a video that shows hostages or that was issued by kidnappers or terrorists.
Although the code of conduct, like the one set by the National Union of Journalists, does not condemn broadcasting such videos, some broadcasters decide to keep their hands off it.
To broadcast such a video means skating on thin ice and having to answer difficult questions:

Should terrorists be denied access to the media?
Should the media limit what is published about acts of terrorism in terms of quoting terrorists about why they committed a crime or what acts they intend to commit in the future?
Is it true what the European Commission argues, that by according terrorists publicity the media actually helps them to recruit and spread their ideas?
What is more important: providing people with all the information and material available or denying terrorists the ´oxygen of publicity`, like Margaret Thatcher demanded when she was Prime Minister?

In recent years, journalists, media corporations, politicians and governmental authorities have taken different positions in this matter and, regardless the consequences, pursued what they thought was the right thing to do:

1) Al-Jazeera airs Osama Bin Laden tape
One of the most well-known cases in this matter is the decision by the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera to broadcast messages from the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, after 9/11.

After Al-Jazeera broadcasted the video, in which Osama Bin Laden tries to justify the 9/11 attacks, the Arab TV station has been criticized for being a mouthpiece for the terrorist.
Defending Al-Jazeera’s decision to broadcast the video, Yosri Fouda, who is working for Al-Jazeera as a journalist and TV presenter, argues that any other news network would have done the same. Fouda, who interviewed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was involved in the 9/11 attacks, thinks it is ironic that the US administration tried to prevent the broadcast of the video:
"This, from a country entrusted with defending free speech. Here we had politicians interfering in the name of protecting Western values," he said.
Read more: Al-Jazeera and Bin Laden

Although I don’t share Fouda’s opinion that any other station would air such a tape, I think that Al-Jazeera made the right decision to show it. After all, we are talking about a video issued by the man, who was behind the terrorist attacks that changed all our lives forever. The 9/11 attacks did not only take the lives of more than 3,000 people, they also had huge economic consequences and caused the US war against Afghanistan.
I honestly think, that the magnitude of this event definitely legitimates broadcasting the video, no matter if Osama Bin Laden tries to justify 9/11.

2) Taysir Alluni interviews Osama Bin Laden
Just a few weeks after 9/11, Taysir Alluni, a popular reporter for the Arab TV station Al-Jazzera, interviewed Osama Bin Laden. Four years later, in October 2005, Alluni was sent to jail for seven years by a Spanish court, after he was found guilty of collaborating with al-Qaida.
Although Alluni was not jailed for interviewing Bin Laden, but due to his relationship with members of al-Qaida and the fact that he carried money for them, the judgment mentioned that „not everything goes when it comes to chasing a world exclusive. The judgment also said, that „journalistic truth, like all other truths, cannot be obtained at any price.“
In July 2007, the Spanish Court rejected an appeal by Alluni against his seven-year prison sentence, but due to his ill-health Alluni they agreed to transfer him from prison. He is now under house arrest.
Read more: When a reporter got too close to the story

Although I think that the seven-year sentence is quite harsh, I would say that the Guardians headline, “When a reporter got too close to the story”, hits the nail on the head.
“He was found guilty of doing his job,” his wife Fatima al-Zahra said, trying to defend Alluni’s relationship with al-Qaida. But if you ask me, acting as a money courier for an al-Qaida leader, no matter if he is your friend or not, has nothing to do with journalism. For the same reasons I think it is not unethical to broadcast Osama Bin Laden statements after 9/11, I think it is not unethical that Alluni interviewed him. But everything that goes beyond information gathering is, in my opinion, extremely questionable and unethical.

3) BBC refuses to show videos of kidnapped Margaret Hassan
When reporting on Margaret Hassan, an aid worker in Iraq, who was kidnapped in Baghdad on October 19, 2004, the British broadcaster BBC refused to air a video that shows Hassan pleading for help and the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. The broadcaster used stills of the hostage instead, although several viewers complained of censorship.
Defending its decision, the BBC published the following statement, which I think is reasonable and comprehensible:
“We believe that the use of disturbing pictures of television news must be based on a case-by-case basis. You could have a black-and-white policy to decide to show all terrorist-made videos or you could ban all terrorist-made videos. But we believe that's wrong. We make a new decision on each new piece of footage and one of the key factors in that decision is the level of distress that the hostage is in. In the case of the videos that Mrs Hassan is in, she seemed to be extremely distressed and we saw no benefit in showing that. Showing people in tears, breaking down in cages on national TV is not in anyone's interests.”
Read the full statement: Should hostage videos be shown?

The chosen examples show, that journalists come to different conclusions when they have to decide whether to air a tape or hide in the drawer.
Hoping to be good journalist one day, I asked myself what I would do in such a situation. The only answer I could think of was that I don’t know. There are so many things you have to take into consideration when you hold such a tape in your hands or when you have the chance to interview someone like Osama Bin Laden. You have to ask yourself the question whether it is more important to provide the public with ALL the information you have or to deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity. Am I willing to accept the possibility that I will offend victims of a terrorist attack or relatives of hostages with broadcasting such a tape? What does the viewer gain from watching the tape? and so on.
Given the questions that would come up in such a situation, it is just impossible to give one valid answer that leaves no ifs and buts. The best way to deal with this complex problem is probably to follow the BBC’s example and decide case-by-case to avoid black-and-white policies.
But if all else fails and it is impossible to come to a reasonable decision, I would probably decide to show the tape or to do the interview anyway. After all, we are talking about journalists and it is their job to inform the public as good as possible:
„A journalist at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed“ (NUJ, code of conduct)

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