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Media trapped in security and terrorism quagmire
The public's overwhelming dependence on the Western, particularly American
media establishment for news and information presents several challenges
to the ideal of a reasoned deliberative democracy. History, from the First
World War to the last Iraq War (2003), suggests that media coverage will
increasingly turn hegemonic, driving out alternative considerations or
information in deference to a prevailing majority perspective that mirrors
closely official U.S. government sources (Reuters has stuck to a distinctive
approach for decades. "As part of a policy to avoid the use of emotive
words," the global news service says, "we do not use terms like
'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter' unless they are in a direct quote or
are otherwise attributable to a third party. We do not characterise the
subjects of news stories but instead report their actions, identity and
background so that readers can make their own decisions based on the facts."
Since mid-September, the Reuters management has taken a lot of heat for
maintaining this policy -- and for reiterating it in an internal memo,
which included the observation that "one man's terrorist is another
man's freedom fighter." In a clarifying statement, released on Oct.
2, 2001, the top execs at Reuters explained: "Our policy is to avoid
the use of emotional terms and not make value judgements concerning the
facts we attempt to report accurately and fairly." Reuter's reports
from 160 countries and the "terrorist" label are highly contentious
in quite a few of them. Behind the scenes, many governments have pressured
Reuters to flatly describe their enemies as terrorists in news dispatches.).
Here several forces will be at work. First, many journalists are prone
to certain cultural or national assumptions and a bias in their reporting
that is often magnified in times of national security crisis. Second,
in instances of military action, the media are highly dependent, and sometimes
exclusively dependent, on official government sources for the release
of information. Third, political leaders from both parties are likely
to unite solidly and uniformly behind the perspective and the policy choices
of the President, meaning that voices of dissent or minority perspectives
on courses of actions or the nature of the events will be scarce or difficult
It is the role of the public authorities to combat terrorism, but not
that of the media, whose only role was to present and disseminate information
on terrorism, putting it into perspective for the benefit of the public.
In the face of the excesses sometimes observed in the race for audience
ratings, the media, and particularly public service broadcasters, have
a special responsibility not to add to the fears and insecurity terrorist
acts can trigger or to contribute inadvertently to the goals the terrorists
were out to achieve.
While terrorists seek publicity and therefore attempt to use the media
in their communication strategy, they actually fear information. It is
up to the media, therefore, to act responsibly and not only present information
but also help to explain it and even denounce acts of terrorism. This
responsibility does not make the media's task any easier, considering
that they sometimes had difficulty gaining access to information, for
example, or were manipulated, even by the authorities, and in some cases,
they had to make do with only one source of information. The responsibility
of the media goes beyond simply reporting acts of terrorism. It is also
their role to explain the possible causes of terrorism and to help foster
mutual understanding and tolerance.
Media often lend themselves to the political use of human rights issues.
The war against terrorism proves that once again. Many newspapers in South
Asia have used the term 'terrorism' to substantiate different political
agenda. The arbitrariness of the governments often receives media support
in the wake ultra-nationalistic attitudes.
Privatisation of human rights brings in newer challenges. The non-state
actors also appear to be powerful player in governance discourse. They
also show their strength as potential violator of human rights. Media
has not yet sensitised enough to cover this aspect substantially.
Accuracy in and sensitivity of human rights reporting is still a great
trouble. Lack of human rights sensitive reporters and writers adds fuel
to the difficulty. Integrating human rights law with human rights coverage
and reporting is also not an easy task. The ongoing anti-terrorism campaign
aggravates the situation even further.
Striking a balance
It is widely recognised that human rights abuses, or infringements of
civil liberties and of the rule of law are less likely to recur if there
is a high level of public or international awareness of such practices,
derived from exposure in press or other media campaigns. The independence
of the judiciary is more readily preserved where cases of executive interference
are brought to light by the media. Regional and national organisations
should keep a watchful eye on any steps the governments of member States
might take to strengthen their stockpiles of legal measures for dealing
with terrorism, to make sure they did not question the fundamental freedoms
enshrined in the international human rights regime, particularly freedom
of expression and information.
All these responsibilities mean, possibly, introducing self-regulatory
measures such as codes of conduct where they do not already exist, or
reviewing their content and how well they work when they did exist, to
ensure that they provided effective answers to the ethical problems involved
in covering terrorism. Media adopts special self-regulatory measures concerning
terrorism, but many expressed reservations about this idea and also about
co-regulatory measures taken in conjunction with the state. However, the
importance of developing training for journalists and encouraging a policy
of diversity in the media, not only through the production and dissemination
of programmes or other content conducive to mutual understanding and tolerance
between majority and minority groups in today's multicultural societies,
but also by encouraging the recruitment of editorial staff from minority
Many advocates for striking a balance between newer methods of war against
terrorism and recognised human rights. It is hardly possible to balance
when talking about human rights violations. Pro-active media personnel
have to be squarely on the side of the victims; respect for human rights
should be something that transcends political affiliation. However, in
exceptional cases, media could be encouraged to adopt and apply rational
and objective self-regulatory measures, paying special attention to their
effective implementation, while bearing in mind the considerable differences
of situation from one country to another.
Monjurul Kabir, a human rights advocate, is a legal and human rights analyst
and researcher. He can be contacted at <email@example.com>.
This is a modified version of his presentation made at a recently held
National Workshop in Dhaka organised by Odhikar in co-operation with Forum