How are we to “manage” images of terrorist acts, their accompanying messages and incitement to hatred? Is it in fact possible to regulate the media in this area when terrorists are becoming increasingly skilled in staging their actions, and handling images and the new technologies with great finesse? These were the questions on the agenda for a Hearing organised in Paris on 18 March by the PACE's Committee on culture, science and education.
One of the journalists attending was Timur Aliyev, editor-in-chief of the “Chechen Society” newspaper (one of the few independent Chechen organs based in Ingushia). Francisco Gor, a leader writer with “El Pais” (Madrid, Georges Malbrunot, a reporter with “Le Figaro” (Paris), Vit Pohanka, a journalist on Czech Radio (Prague), Mohamed Krichen, a TV presenter and member of the editorial board of the Arab television channel “Al-Jazeera” (Qatar), and Stephen Whittle, the Controller of Editorial Policy at the BBC (London).
One of the main problems raised at this colloquy was that terrorists are now highly adept at using the peculiar “drama” of the media, particularly the audiovisual media. As Jo Groebel, President of the Düsseldorf Media Institute, put it, “the public is used to images of violence, and so the violence has to be increasingly spectacular in order to impress them. To get a particularly striking image through is to win a battle. We are stuck in a spiral.” Furthermore, with Internet and the boom in “informal media” (blogs), any image can travel round the world within minutes and have a major impact on public opinion.
Given that MacLuhan’s “global village” has no real “global police”, the discussions touched on a variety of solutions, all of which were imperfect and unsatisfactory, combining fundamental, and often contradictory objectives and values: “saving lives, protecting freedoms, combating terrorism, retaining our core values”, said the French Senator Jacques Legendre, Chairperson of the PACE’s Culture Committee. The ideal solution would be to muster “extra democracy to tackle the terrorist threat” (Jacques Legendre), while ever since 11 September 2001 “freedom of expression has been blatantly eroded, with thousands of public documents no longer accessible, increasingly strict application of State secrecy and ever greater media self-censorship”, in the words of Agnès Callamard of the “Article 19” NGO (London).
The obvious challenge is to strike a “balance between combating terrorism and freedom of information”, to quote Josef Jarab, a Czech Liberal Senator and author of the report of the PACE’s Culture Committee on “the media and terrorism”, the text of which should be tabled before the PACE’s June 2005 session. But how can this balance be achieved?
One thing seems certain: "the media cannot be used to wage war on terrorism" (Georges Malbrunot), and, according to Agnès Callamard, even the concept of "self-regulation" of the media is not easy to apply ("self-regulation can surreptitiously lapse into self-censorship).
When terrorist acts take place, should media coverage be restricted (a position defended by the Czech journalist Vit Pohanka, former hostage of a terrorist group in Iraq) or, on the contrary, should as much coverage be given to them as possible, at the risk of "overdoing it"? According to Stephen Whittle (BBC), it is impossible to play down the facts. Moreover, Timur Aliev pointed out that censorship of the media in Russia did not prevent terrorist acts from taking place. Mohamed Krichen (Al-Jazeera) added, "When we broadcast a cassette of Bin Laden, we are criticised for doing so, and when we don't broadcast what we have at our disposal, we are reproached too".
"It is impossible to take the clear stand," according to Georges Malbrunot, journalist with Le Figaro and former hostage in Iraq. In the light of his experience (he was held captive by Iraqi terrorists for four months, from August to December 2004, with his journalist colleague Christian Chesnot), Malbrunot said, "The new media make it possible to reduce certain risks. The exchange of e-mails between our kidnappers and the French authorities was crucial as far as we were concerned. This game of ‘ping-pong’ was vital in saving our lives, for there is nothing worse than a lack of dialogue. We must avoid at all costs leaving hostages in a vacuum."
Francisco Gor (El Païs) mentioned a number of criticisms in Spain of the way in which the Spanish media had covered the attack in Madrid on 11 March 2004: "It is important to respect the dead’s right to privacy, not to show bodies in a shocking way and not to exploit the tragedy. Media sensationalism should be proscribed in such cases."
The example of the French Broadcasting Authority (CSA) (as described by Sylvie Genevoix, member of the CSA) shows how the government of a democratic country can monitor the images broadcast on its territory. The CSA supervises the situation through a series of agreements with television channels and radio stations. France is closely concerned by the monitoring of non-EU channels, in that the satellite broadcaster Eutelsat is established in France. Eutelsat has a collection of satellites that broadcast many non-EU channels throughout Europe. At the CSA’s request, a new procedure was introduced in July 2004. The CSA may now ask the Conseil d’Etat, the supreme administrative court, to order a satellite broadcaster (in practice Eutelsat) to halt or suspend a broadcast by a channel for which it is responsible that breaches certain fundamental principles common to all member states of the European Union (the protection of public order, the protection of children and adolescents, and the rejection of any incitement to hatred or violence).