From ISIS fighter to Japan cult: India advisory points to an old tightrope between headlines, ethics

The advisory, which did not mention any channel, came a day after a Khalistan proponent appeared on ABP News.

WrittenBy:Aban Usmani
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The Indian government’s advisory asking news channels to “refrain” from giving a platform to individuals facing “charges of serious crimes, including terrorism” and those belonging to banned organisations, has reopened an old debate.

While the advisory did not mention any show, it came a day after Khalistan proponent Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, declared an “individual terrorist” by the Indian government in 2020, made an appearance on an ABP News show hosted by Jagwinder Patiyal.

After all, few issues are as contentious as the choice to interview terror suspects or members of banned organisations, or those labelled “traitors”. On one hand, there’s a promise of unprecedented access and insight. On the other, a moral storm with legal and social implications.

And amid all this, there are some fundamental questions.

When does a gripping interview become lurid infotainment? Can media coverage influence public opinion, potentially jeopardising an individual’s right to a fair trial? Can eagerness to get a scoop sometimes overlook the pain and trauma of families who see themselves as victims of the actions of such suspects? And does the thin line between providing a platform for dialogue and promoting extremist views always blur?

Let’s take a look at examples across the world.

The American press, from Snowden to Unabomber

When Brian Williams of NBC News interviewed Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who leaked classified documents, it opened a Pandora’s box. Was Snowden a whistle-blower or a traitor? Did the interview legitimise his actions (which challenged the national narrative) or provide a critical platform for public discourse?

Williams assured viewers that multiple sources had confirmed Snowden’s account of expressing his concerns in writing at least once to his supervisors about the NSA gathering personal data from American devices. But the NBC’s framing of the interview was problematic, telling viewers to make black-and-white judgments with tweets hashtagged #patriot or #traitor.

Years before the Snowden interview, several American networks had grappled with the ethical implications of airing propaganda after they broadcasted messages from Osama bin Laden post 9/11. 

In 2017, The New York Times published an interview with an ISIS member, offering insights into the mind of a terrorist but also prompting ethical questions about giving a platform to such individuals. (Much more problematic was the NYT podcast series Caliphate, which fell apart in 2020 as officials found it fabricated.)

When The Washington Post and The New York Times published the manifesto of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, after consultations with the FBI, it was hoped that the publication might lead to his identification (and it did). But it also raised concerns about the media being used by criminals. Kaczynski offered the two newspapers the chance to save lives if they gave him several pages to print his 56-page treatise against modern society. 

In UK, Thatcher’s angst

The British Broadcasting Corporation has long been scrutinised for its stances. 

In the early 1980s, when the BBC began interviewing Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, which was then seen as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), it sparked debates on impartiality and responsibility. Margaret Thatcher despised the IRA and did not want to see individuals such as Adams on television. After the IRA targeted a Conservative Party conference, the then prime minister made a speech in 1985, saying that terrorists should be denied publicity and must not be allowed on broadcast platforms.

However, the BBC continued to report on the IRA and Sinn Féin, until the government imposed a ban on such voices in 1988. The IRA has seen fluctuating media portrayals. While they were involved in acts labeled as terror, Sinn Féin framed their actions as part of a legitimate struggle for Irish independence. Decades later, the BBC was accused of using an anonymous former IRA agent to “smear” Adams in 2016.

The BBC landed in another controversy in Nigeria last year with the federal government vowing action against it over “unprofessional” documentaries that “glorified” terrorism in Nigeria.

The 50-minute documentary featured Abu Sanni, a self-proclaimed bandit, who claimed that ‘‘insecurity has become a lucrative business”, and that everyone, “including the government, is benefitting from violent attacks”.

Ultras in Norway and Germany

Anders Behring Breivik, responsible for the 2011 Norway attacks, was given a vast amount of media attention during his trial. While some lauded this as a testament to the transparency of the Norwegian system, others questioned the wisdom of granting Breivik a platform to spread his extremist views. The courts ordered that his statements not be broadcast live, even though several media outlets wanted to.

In Germany, the Red Army Faction saw its members and sympathisers interviewed over the years, often bringing public broadcasters like ARD and ZDF under scrutiny for potentially glorifying terrorism.

In Asia, a cult, terrorists, and militias

Post the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack, Japanese media houses faced the challenge of reporting on the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Broadcasting interviews with its members or showcasing their ideologies was often seen as contentious.

In Pakistan, after Islamabad witnessed the Lal Masjid operation in 2007, sections of the national media aired interviews with radical clerics. This move was seen by many as the media legitimising their extremist views, while others argued it provided crucial insight into the unfolding standoff.

In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was involved in a protracted conflict with the Sri Lankan government. During the peak of their activities, the LTTE leadership occasionally found a voice in the local and international media with the ethics of these interviews being hotly debated.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, post the Bali bombings, some Indonesian media outlets featured interviews with suspected members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, which was suspected of a role. This sparked debates on whether such exposure was ethically right, especially given the raw wounds of the tragedy.

In Myanmar, the media’s portrayal of the Rohingya crisis too has been a matter of international debate. Should Rohingya militants be interviewed? Is there a risk of perpetuating biases or misconceptions? 

In Afghanistan, Al Jazeera’s interactions with figures from the Taliban have been both lauded for their exclusivity and criticised for potentially legitimising extremist views.

In India, news outlets have on occasion featured interviews with leaders advocating for Kashmiri separatism. Remember the famous Bitta Karate interview with Newstrack in which he admitted to killing Kashmiri Pandits? 

While some see such coverage as a necessary perspective in a democratic setup, others believe it risks amplifying secessionist ideologies. There has been similar criticism over interviews with Maoist leaders.

‘Terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’? Depends on govt, mostly

After the Indian media advisory, some users on social media objected to the media’s use of the term terrorists for only extremists from minority groups and never for criminals from the majority community. But in most cases, the media’s lexicon stems from how the government categorises certain elements – Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, for example.

The same goes for coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Groups like Hamas are seen as “terrorist organisations” by many Western governments and media outlets. However, in several Arab countries, they might be portrayed as freedom fighters resisting occupation.

Similarly, in South Africa, the African National Congress, which Nelson Mandela was a part of, was once labeled a “terrorist organisation” by some Western governments due to its armed struggle against apartheid. However, for millions, the ANC and Mandela were emblematic of freedom and resistance against racial oppression.

UNESCO handbook on covering terror

The delineation between “terror suspects” and “freedom fighters” is not inherent but constructed, often influenced by political, economic, and cultural factors. Media, as the primary source of information for the masses, plays a pivotal role in this construction, often egged on by governments for various reasons.

The UNESCO’s handbook for journalists covering terrorism points to the risk of the impact on human rights of coverage that leans heavily towards the security narrative.

“The consequences of the drone war on Pakistan’s civilian populations were also long undercovered, because the attacks were considered legitimate by media that were convinced of the necessity to harshly fight terrorist organisations. Journalist Tara McKelvey noted ‘when drones strike, key questions go unasked and unanswered. While there are reasons for such framing, it cannot lead to deliberately partial forms of journalism,” it notes.

The onus is on media houses to introspect on the societal implications of their coverage choices, ensuring they inform without causing undue harm. Honesty about why certain controversial interviews are conducted can bridge trust deficits. And for consumers of news, understanding the dynamics that influence media coverage can offer a more well-rounded perspective on global events. Sometimes the truth may lie somewhere in between the polarised labels of “terrorist” and “freedom fighter”. 

The UNESCO handbook says journalists must avoid a moralist ideological approach that blurs reality. Whether Jagwinder Patiyal’s interview with Pannu on ABP News had any is open to viewer discretion.

Also see
article image‘Media declared me a terrorist…cops asked me about namaz, Pak, Dawood’: MP law intern labelled ‘PFI spy’


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