Terrorists: Publish Their Photos or Not?

christopher_lee180-11

Christopher Lee

29July London

A terrorist slits the throat of a French priest. Newspapers and broadcasters throughout the world publish and show high definition photographs of the murderer and his partner. We know what they look like, their names, ages, something of their history and a nice quote from the knifeman’s mother who says that at heart he was a good boy.

The leading French daily Le Monde has announced (after the Nice terrorism)  that it will not give terrorists publicity and so will not publish their photographs.  The murder of Father Jaques in Normandy confirms that decision according to Le Monde.

The argument at Le Monde is that by publishing photographs the paper is in some way glorifying the terrorism. The terrorist becomes a celebrity.

By taking such a decision Le Monde’s editors have stepped aside from the code of so-called journalistic impartiality. Most societies regard the hounding, capture and even the destruction of terrorism as a role for the military, the intelligence agencies, the policy and the elected politicians.

By banning pictures – in theory starving terrorism of the oxygen of publicity – Le Monde has joined the fight against terrorism or at the very least changed editorial policy in the hope of helping to capture those who killed Father Jaques.

Le Monde’s editor Jerome Fenoglio says “We have to do this for all victims of the criminal organisation known as the ‘Islamic State’.”

The decision of an admired newspaper to publish or not sets it aside from other papers in democratic society. The Turkish government has this past week ordered the shut down three news agencies, 16 television channels, 23 radio stations, 45 daily newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses. It is not uncommon for a government to restrict the media in a crisis.  It is very uncommon for a newspaper to impose self-censorship.  Moreover, the Le Monde decision is not a one-off.  There could be more to come because the editorial board recognise IS and other groups are not passing ideologies.

As Fenoglio puts it, “After the Nice Attack, we are publishing no more images of terrorists, perpetrator of killings and massacres, to avoid potential posthumous glorification. Other debates about our practices [as a newspaper] are ongoing.”

What about other news outlets?  Le Monde has not been followed. Le Figaro says it shall wait and see. British papers will publish everything it can other than the act of killing.  Equally, the head of the Quilliam Foundation (a think tank of radicalisation analysts) says it has been a great decision.It reduces the propaganda value of the terrorist.

So what are the practical ambitions and consequences?

It is a purpose of IS to gain publicity from an act of violence. Publicity tells a global audience that IS can do something and is willing to do something and that no one is safe from such acts.  This induces a varying stage of terror – a large part of any terrorist ambition.

Secondly, by running pictures, names and backgrounds of the perpetrators the news outlet may spread among readers further disgust about what had happened but identity of the terrorist suggests a cause rather than an anonymous event of violence.

Withdrawing names etc reduces any possibility of a neutral public understanding of why as opposed to what has happened. In a bizarre sense, no picture no name removes an imagined chance of hero worship.

Yet all this is an argument of times past.

Le Monde’s decision is taken in an internet age where all is revealed and where there are few rules of what is right and wrong to publish.  The importance of the decision of Fenoglio and his editorial board is that a great newspaper is attempting to take part in what is a state venture – the prevention and eventually the destruction of terrorism.  It is not enough to rant in a newspaper editorial. Le Monde in its honourable way is being counted. Very few in these times will have the moral debate with themselves.

 

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