4th June 2017
By Tom Law

Reporting Terror: Media Can Tell the Story Without Targeting Muslims

Aidan White

The issues of terrorism, internet freedom, and hate speech have been put centre stage by the British government in the aftermath of the terror attack in London at the weekend. Within hours the government announced plans to force internet companies to close down online communications and radical websites that spread hatred and inspire acts of terror.

The attack claimed seven lives and was the third time in just over two months that terrorists have struck in the United Kingdom killing 34 people, injuring hundreds more and increasing public fears of extremist violence. This has encouraged the government to announce hard line policy changes which may lead to renewed pressure on journalists and media.

The reports that knife-wielding killers were yelling “this is for Allah” as they slashed into their victims will raise new fears of a fresh wave of political and media messages directed at Muslim communities at large.

The urgent challenge to journalists will be to keep a lid on political rhetoric that may create fearfulness and incite further hatred, this time targeting religious minorities. This may be easier said than done.

At two meetings in Brussels last week, the EJN joined discussions involving European Union policymakers, Muslim leaders and European-wide civil society campaigners on the often fraught relations between media and Muslims. There were ringing complaints of bias, intimidation and a spike in hate crimes against Muslims following recent terrorist violence.

The EJN argues strongly for careful and sensitive reporting of terrorism which is often linked to Islamic extremism, but we are against acts of self-censorship that undermine the peoples’ right to know about the circumstances of terrorism when it is inspired by a tiny minority of religious extremists.

Hate Speech As part of our work the EJN has developed a five-point test for journalists to help them identify hate speech and we call for media to avoid bias and discrimination.

We promote journalism at its best, and in Brussels we highlighted how the British press praised the role played by Muslims in the care and treatment of the victims of terrorism, particularly following the mass killing at a pop concert in Manchester.

But this is not just a British challenge. In response to attacks in London, Paris, Stockholm and Berlin the EJN is now working on plans to develop fresh cross-border dialogues that will help media ensure the terrorism story includes all sides of the Muslim community.

The EJN has been asked by ODIHR, the human rights office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to help develop a programme for new dialogues between media and Muslims.

At the Brussels meetings, held in the European Parliament and at the mission of the Canadian government, the EJN proposed

  • organising a model workshop for Muslim groups and media leaders on reporting challenges;
  • targeted discussions on media reporting of Muslim women and young people;
  • gathering and disseminating information on good media practice; and
  • promoting dialogues on combating hate speech between editors and journalists who work for religious media.

The British government’s bullish response to internet voices spreading hate and incitement to violence will add to the growing calls for internet companies such as Google and Facebook to recognise that they have publisher responsibilities and that they need to act quickly to take down abusive communications.

As the EJN has argued before, this is a responsibility that these companies must take on, but it would be better if they do so voluntarily without being strong-armed by the law.

There will be much political rhetoric about “balancing” free speech rights and public security, but there are dangers that if new laws are used to force internet companies into line it may lead to new pressure on journalists.

Just as it is vital for journalists to make sure they do not contribute to an expected backlash against Muslims, it is essential that media are free to report without the threat of censorship through anti-terrorism legislation.

Britain has, of course, been here before. In the 1970s the UK’s sizeable and law-abiding Irish community came under fierce scrutiny during the terrorism campaign led by the IRA and knee-jerk rules were brought in by the government to stifle voices of extremism. These proved to be ineffective and caused widespread unease.

Forty years on, the British government, and a new one will be elected this week, should think twice about a rush to legislate in the heat of outrage.

“Colloquium on the role of media actors in confronting terrorism”

On 19 June 2017 the Ethical Journalism Network will be taking part in a “Colloquium on the role of media actors in confronting terrorism” organised by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The Colloquium will bring together media actors and other relevant stakeholders, such as audio-visual regulatory bodies, media self-regulatory bodies, government representatives, civil society representatives and academics to look at:

  • Dilemmas and challenges faced by media professionals covering terrorist acts and threats in today’s changing media environment
  • Use of digital media and platforms and the role of internet actors
  • Regulation/co-regulation/self-regulation responses in such difficult contexts which protect the right to freedom of expression and media freedoms and other fundamental rights

Registration deadline: To take part in the works of the colloquium please register by sending an e-mail here by 3 June 2017.

The EJN will be taking part in the event in the following ways:

  • The EJN’s Director of Campaigns and Communications, Tom Law, will be contributing to the panel about the “Use of digital media and the rights and responsibilities of actors on the Internet”.
  • Chris Elliott, the former readers’ editor of the Guardian and EJN board member will take part in the panel on “Reporting on terrorism acts and violence: dilemmas and challenges”. Chris dealt extensively with this issue during his time at the Guardian.

Earlier this year UNESCO published a handbook for journalists related to the coverage of terrorism, authored by EJN adviser Jean-Paul Marthoz. Jean-Paul will be presenting the highlights of the handbook at the event including outlining how journalist can inform the public while avoiding furthering the aims of the terrorists by dividing societies.

The publication is available in French and English.

According to UNESCO:

The publication aims to raise journalists’ awareness of the need to exercise caution and examine carefully who they quote, what messages they relay and how they contextualize the information they give, despite the pressures to win readers, viewers and listeners.

Available in English and French and over 110 pages, the report examines the challenges of balanced reporting on the inevitably volatile and emotionally charged subject of terrorism.

In the words of UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Frank La Rue, terrorists’ ultimate purpose is to “cleave society down the centre, turning people against each other, including by provoking repression, discrimination and discord. They aim to simultaneously prove themselves correct in their predictions of widespread persecution and to attract new followers to their violent cause. They seek to create a mood of defeatism in the face of attacks and polarised reactions.”

With numerous examples taken from recent events, the handbook also addresses issues pertaining to the way journalists report on the victims of terror, handle rumours, report on the authorities’ investigations, conduct interviews with terrorists and report on their trials.

A separate chapter is dedicated to issues pertaining to the safety of journalists, including kidnappings, and traumas that may be incurred by reporters. 

Main photo: Manchester respects the 22. Sea of flowers. Taken Friday 26th May 4 days after the terrible terror attack at Manchester Arena (CC BY-NC 2.0)