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February 2, 2016

The editor’s job


February 2, 2016

When Pakistani media outlets report on sectarian violence should they name the groups responsible for mounting a particular attack? Or should they suppress that information? The ethical dilemma is that such reports may result in reprisal attacks. In other words, a news report could cause more deaths.

Let’s go back to first principles. There are two reasons why there should be a presumption in favour of a free press in which journalists report what actually happens in the society in which they live.

First, a free media keeps the population informed thereby making them better citizens. Secondly, it holds the powerful to account. North Korea, to take an extreme example, is a badly governed country in part because its journalists have to churn out endless rubbish about the glories of the North Korean economy and political leadership. Of course, there are many other factors behind the mismanagement of North Korea but the media could have a positive role to play and can’t fulfil its function.

But even in freer societies there are limits to what the press can publish. Typically in the West free speech is constrained by laws concerning both libel and privacy. Journalists can’t make things up about the people they are reporting on and there are limits to the extent to which they can invade people’s privacy to obtain news. These issues are interpreted differently in each country (libel laws are much tighter in the UK than the US, for example) but there is general agreement that free speech is not an absolute right.

Whilst there are laws in place to deal with libel and privacy, it is more difficult to reach firm conclusions about cases in which violent groups are killing people. Here are three cases to illustrate the point.

First, should journalists report that security personnel are about to attack a militant who is holding people hostage? During the Mumbai attacks the militants’ Pakistani handlers were watching live TV coverage and using it to inform the militants by phone about the operational situation when the security forces were closing in. “About 15 men,” a handler said to one of the militants, “have been lowered onto your roof by a chopper…. They are clearing the top floor. Position yourselves near the stairs so you can get them…”

India’s journalists did not intend to help the militants. But they did just that. Of course there could be no objection to showing the footage after the hostage situation was resolved but, when it comes to live coverage, most would agree that the need to save innocent lives would trump free speech.

Let’s consider a second scenario. What about reporting on a suicide bombing at a police checkpoint? Here the case for publication is strong. Word about the attacks would spread anyway and an officially created information vacuum would inevitably be filled by speculation – some of which could be provocative and destabilising. Bloggers and social media outlets would be able to spread false rumours. People would find it difficult to establish the truth of the matter.

And anyway, governments cannot suppress violent political movements by banning reports on them. The underlying political, social or economic grievance does not disappear simply because the media does not talk about it. In fact, without open reporting the resentments of a violent group could quite possibly fester and deepen. So while a regime such as that in North Korea would ban publication of a terrorist attack, most people would agree that, in fact, free speech should win the day and that publication should go ahead. The presumption in favour of a free press, in other words, should remain intact.

But what if the target was not a police checkpoint but had been selected on sectarian grounds? If the previous two examples were fairly clear-cut this one is more difficult.

Some Pakistani editors have chosen to report such attacks but to be vague about who carried them out. Rather like the moment, after the Peshawar school attack, when Nawaz Sharif described the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’ rather than naming them as the Taliban.

The justification for such an approach in the case of sectarian attacks is that the omission of the information about who was responsible helps keep the peace and diminishes the risk of reprisals. There is however a downside. The editor has become a censor worrying not about his job – the publication of information – but rather the jobs of men and women charged with maintaining law and order.

These are treacherous waters. The editor, after all, might find him or herself accused of acting out of sectarian motives. And let’s not forget that digital news outlets will show no restraint and may indeed put out false information about who was responsible for the attack. Furthermore, suppression of the information as to who was responsible would help prevent the leaders of the militant groups being held to account for their violence.

Context is important. If the editor were to name the group that was responsible and then go straight to quotes from a sectarian-minded cleric calling for reprisals, lives could be lost. Putting on a commentator with more tolerant views is likely to reduce the risks.

And that is probably where correct balance lies. Report the attack. And report who did it. And then do your best to interview people who will ease the tension.

It is not easy being an editor.

The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @OwenBennettJone

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