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June 22, 2003 

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New challenges

Media trapped in security and terrorism quagmire

A.H. Monjurul Kabir

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 to find.

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 groups.
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.

A.H. Monjurul Kabir, a human rights advocate, is a legal and human rights analyst and researcher. He can be contacted at <monjurulkabir@yahoo.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 Asia, Thailand.


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