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Concern over "bans on interviewing terrorists"

WPFC expresses concern over UN Secretary General's apparent approval of "bans on interviewing terrorists"

SOURCE: World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), Reston

No New U.N.- Sanctioned Censorship

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has recently issued a report on "a global counter-terrorism strategy" in which he appears to speak approvingly of "bans on interviewing terrorists."

The Secretary General's 32-page report to the UN General Assembly contains his recommendations for the international community to fight back against terrorism. Amongst his recommendations is an offer to convene an international conference with journalists' associations and press freedom groups for them to consider codes of conduct on dealing with terrorists. The sole example Mr. Annan gives of measures for them to consider is "bans on interviewing terrorists."

His report closely follows the distribution by the Russian Delegation to other major UN delegations of a journalist's code of conduct, as an example to follow. It was adopted last year by a pro-Kremlin newspaper publishers group, the Mass Media Industrial Committee. That code bans interviews with terrorists, unless approved by police, and it calls on journalists to give the police "without delay" any information "that may be used for the purpose of saving human lives." Russian forces have for years blocked journalists from trying to report the Chechen side of the ongoing war and often treated them as treasonous.

Kofi Annan's report, UN General Assembly document A/60/825, says in its paragraph 25: "Mass media may also wish to study the experiences of those countries that have adopted voluntary codes of conduct for journalists covering terrorism, including, for example, bans on interviewing terrorists.

The United Nations stands ready to work with journalists' associations and press freedom organizations on this issue, including by convening an international conference to facilitate consideration of this topic, if so desired. In turn, Member States must give due attention to the need for measures to promote the safety and security of journalists."

Whether such bans are adopted as part of "voluntary codes" --amounting to imposition of self-censorship -- or by law, the World Press Freedom Committee views them with alarm as serious infringements of the very spirit of press freedom. Giving all sides of a story, including quoting or giving voice to all the major protagonists, has traditionally been considered basic to good journalism.

The Annan report's suggestion that, as a counterpart for a ban on terrorist statements, UN member states might consider "in turn, . . . measures to promote the safety and security of journalists" is very troubling. A free press should surely not be offered a bargain of accepting censorship in return for a hypothetical physical safety. The safety of journalists is something people should expect as essential to insure the free flow of information needed by their societies.

When terrorism strikes, people need to know and have the right to know why the perpetrators claim to act as they do, no matter how misguided the reasons they state. Nothing could be worse for the public than to be targeted without knowing by whom and why. If justifications for illegitimate actions cannot withstand normal discourse, publicizing them can only serve to demonstrate that.

It is normal journalistic practice to provide context for any important statement. When allegedly terrorist statements warrant such treatment, news media outlets are both free and bound by good journalism to point out irrational, misinformed or false arguments.

If terrorists are to be converted to normal political processes, they must be allowed to state their grievances. Blind violence often arises from frustration over an inability to communicate verbally. Russia's own history is a prime example. In 19th Century Russia, where there was little press freedom, terrorists justified assassinations of public figures (including the Tsar who freed the serfs) as "propaganda by the deed."

A UN-sanctioned ban on interviewing terrorists is bound to be subject to overly broad applications by authorities in conflict with violent or non-violent rebel or dissident movements, be they, for example, in Belarus, Burma, Chechnya, Mexico, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Ulster, Uzbekistan, or elsewhere. Such bans would have precluded hearing the voices of movements in countries that the United Nations has helped to secure the freedom of, countries like East Timor, Namibia or South Africa.

As the Annan report rightly says (Paragraph 5): "Effective counter-terrorism measures and the protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing ones. Accordingly, the defense of human rights is essential to the fulfilment of all aspects of a counter-terrorism strategy." Mr. Annan's report also states (Paragraph 77):

"The fundamental basis for our common fight against terrorism is respect for human rights and the rule of law."

Introducing new forms of censorship is certainly neither the way to preserve human rights against terrorism, nor the way to show up terrorist reasoning for what it is. The open scrutiny provided by unrestricted press freedom is a far surer means of undoing false or inhumane doctrines.

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