Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Media, Terror and the Right to be Responsible

Australia’s recent brush with mindless violence ended in the deaths of two hostages and a lone gunman believed to have been acting essentially on his own but bearing the borrowed trademark of international terror.

Among the more remarkable features of the hostage-taking drama was the role the broadcast media played in reducing the channels of public information available to Man Haron Monis who, as part of his plan, had intended to employ a mass media platform to air whatever his terrorist agenda might have been.

There was some speculation, early in the day, that Monis might have first had his eyes on an attack on the Channel 7 premises virtually across the street from the Lindt Chocolate Café where the 17-hour crisis unfolded.

It appeared that once state security established it was basically a one-man operation, the plan was to both isolate and frustrate him by wearing him down physically and limiting access of his messages to the public – in essence to stifle the primary benefit of such an effort by denying him the oxygen of a media platform.

Without armed backup he would have had to remain fully awake and alert throughout the episode, grown weary and more likely to drop his guard … which he eventually did.

It has now been reported that Monis had in fact demanded that his hostages record video and audio messages for dissemination to the media. Some of the material made it to the relatively un-moderated social media where much of it was eventually taken down.

But, for the most part, the Australian broadcast media resisted the rather compelling temptation to air what would have been some pretty spectacular material. There are reports that the police asked for the material not to be broadcast, but there is also evidence that the media themselves understood the value of not providing the hostage-taker with a channel to disseminate his several messages, among them a demand to have a live on-air discussion with Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The actions of the mainstream media, it is now being acknowledged, contributed to the success of the security exercise.

Much of this is reminiscent of developments in Trinidad and Tobago during the course of a five-day hostage crisis in 1990 at two locations. During the standoff, 114 members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, supported by collaborators outside of the parliament and state television facilities, attempted to violently wrest control of the government from the then National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) administration.

Some features of the modus operandi of the two events were somewhat similar; hostage-taking and access to public communication in particular. The latter characteristic is an essential component of effective acts of terror. If the militant message does not reach mass audiences, the impact of the attack is vastly minimised. This is why the public relations resources of international terrorist organisations are so abundantly-resourced. Remove this function and the lungs of the messages of terror are deactivated.

For this reason, some countries have inadvisedly overstepped accepted human rights norms and placed wholly unacceptable restrictions on press freedom via legislative edict. This is clearly not the way to proceed, but an attempt to understand the rationale should be made. I can understand why a government would want to legislate this, but it is another instance in which the media as an institution and the role they see for themselves is misunderstood.

There is a public interest concern responsible media recognise as a matter of course. There is no evidence of the use of coercion in the case of Australia neither was there outright use of official edict in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990 where, in the earlier stages, there was very little journalistic leadership in the broadcast media.

What there eventually was in both instances, to a great degree, was recognition of an overwhelming public interest role for the media. Observance of the public interest is a position media advocates employ to press for sustained freedoms, but it is also the impetus that drives a sense of responsibility, temperance and good judgment at times of crisis.

This is not official censorship, though it carries a flavour of self-censorship. But editorial judgment always carries with it the right to sift the beneficial from what is not beneficial. It is the right to be responsible.

Social media have changed the dynamic and such platforms need to remain unfettered outside of lawful constraints. But in these challenging times for all societies and for the mainstream media, introspection on such matters is an imperative.

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