Reporting Terror: The Ethical Challenges that Link Paris, Cairo and Johannesburg

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The scale and brutality of the Paris terrorism attacks has prompted political outrage, a massive police operation, and increased fear and uncertainty on the streets of Europe.

The blanket media coverage of the deadly events has placed an enormous responsibility on journalists to do good work. The story is full of professional challenges – to provide accurate, fact-based information; to show humanity and sensitivity in coverage of the victims and their families; and above all to avoid sensationalism that might inspire hate-speech and incitement to yet more violence.

Journalists across Europe who reported in the last decade on a number of unconscionable terrorist attacks, particularly in Paris, London, Madrid and Oslo, know that to tell these stories in a way that will help their audience understand the complex background they must share a professional agenda of ethical values.

It’s an agenda which is not just European. The EJN global campaign against hate speech is being rolled out in other parts of the world where acts of terrorism and community violence are depressingly routine.

In the days before the Paris attacks two EJN activities – one in Cairo and a second in Johannesburg –illustrated how, for journalists in the Arab World and across Africa, the issue of ethical reporting of conflict is a top priority for media everywhere.

In Cairo, at a regional meeting organised by the EJN and the Norwegian Institute of Journalism, editors, reporters and media academics from around the Arab world discussed how to confront the threat of unscrupulous politics and religious bigotry.

The Syrian civil war and violence in Iraq, Palestine and Egypt have made the Middle East the most dangerous hotspot for journalists. Media struggle to maintain standards in the midst of all the political pressures.

The meeting agreed to prepare a style guide and glossary to counter intemperate language, to promote the EJN’s five-point test to combat hate speech and to establish a regional media hub to promote tolerance in Arab media.

The meeting appointed a steering committee of media leaders from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Palestine to work on these proposals in the coming months. The work will involve an innovative approach bringing together media academics, journalists and civil society groups to work together to strengthen journalism and free expression.

The agenda for action includes:

  • a campaign against laws that legitimize hate speech;
  • to provide continuous training of ethical journalism;
  • to monitor digital games and gaming as proponents of hate speech;
  • to involve advertisers and sponsors;
  • to promote the Accountable Journalism database and to create a database of case studies;
  • to create a curriculum for the ethics of journalism/hate speech in all universities and journalism training schools;
  • to raise public awareness on the dangers of hate speech and the need for responsible public communications which will be supported through the production of a handbook for ethical communications.

In Johannesburg at the African Media Leaders Forum, the EJN Director spoke at a special session at the University of Witwatersrand on plans to develop the EJN’s Turning the Page of Hate campaign in the continent. This work with be in co-operation with the African Federation of Journalists and the Organisation of News Ombudsmen.

The results of the Cairo meeting will also be on the agenda for EJN work in sub-Saharan Africa.


Photo: Flickr CC Susan Sermoneta