National interest or information? - Huma Yusuf - Monday 28th March 2011

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THE German news organisation Der Spiegel recently published graphic photos showing US troops posing with the corpses of Afghan civilians. In one image, a soldier smiles as he crouches over a bloody corpse; in another, the bodies of two Afghans are propped against a small pillar. Needless to say, the images are upsetting.
The publication of these images, however, has not been accompanied by the same international outcry that followed the release of images of detainee abuse by US troops at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. At some level, the shock value of rights violations by American soldiers has decreased in the past seven years.
Also, members of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, pictured with the Afghan bodies have already been charged with murder and are awaiting court-martial proceedings — indeed, the photos were three among dozens seized by US army investigators. It also helps that the US army issued an immediate apology and reiterated that the soldiers pictured are already subjects of a war crimes probe.
While the reaction to the photos has been proportionate, debate surrounding the wisdom of Der Spiegel’s decision to publish the same has been heated. Some have argued the photos are sensationalist adding nothing to the pursuit of truth or justice, especially since the photos are already serving as evidence in an army investigation. The lawyer of one of the soldiers on trial rejects this argument. He has not been able to use the photos to build his client’s defence because the US army has issued a protective order to prevent the circulation of such sensitive images. The lawyer has complained that he should not have had to obtain “potentially exculpatory evidence” from a German newspaper.
Beyond the legal aspects, some media monitors have claimed that Der Spiegel was bound to publish the photos once they had access since it is important not to censor the horrors of war. Still others have denounced the decision as irresponsible; they contend that the circulation of the photos puts US troops still serving in Afghanistan at extremely high risk — in other words, the photos exacerbate the horrors of war.
Acknowledging these moral ambiguities, Der Spiegel has defended itself. A spokesman assured the public that the paper showed restraint, publishing only three images though it had access to more. He pointed out that the paper pixilated the faces of the victims. The paper’s journalistic justification for its action is that it could not make claims about the US soldiers on trial without providing some documentation.
This incident is just the latest in a series of ethically troubling decisions taken by prestigious news organisations enjoying global audiences. For example, The New York Times and other outlets withheld information regarding Raymond Davis’s CIA ties at the request of US government officials who said the revelation would endanger his life.
Meanwhile, The Hindu earlier this month became the latest news organisation to grapple with US diplomatic cables made available through WikiLeaks. Since last year, media outlets have questioned whether WikiLeaks is a source or a news agency; whether the online platform practises traditional journalism (by publishing leaked information) or promotes unethical information theft; and whether to trust WikiLeaks’ ability to responsibly sift through information and redact appropriately.
Such thorny questions are a consequence of journalism being practised in an era of globalisation. Certainly, people primarily consume news produced and published within their national boundaries. But media outlets know that the international or diaspora audience is increasingly as important as the domestic one.
This reality that journalism is both a product and reflection of the global village disrupts the conventional notion that a national press serves the national interest.
News outlets now have to question which public’s interest they are meant to prioritise. Depending on the news event, the parameters of the relevant polity are amorphous, shifting between the hyperlocal community, the nation state, and the world at large. What do objectivity and truth mean if the ability to evaluate a situation is no longer grounded in the values, expectations and laws of one country?
These are the questions the above-cited examples get at: Der Spiegel, despite being a German organisation, had to balance the rights of Afghans and international groups tracking civilian casualties in the ongoing war with the safety of US troops still in the field.
Similarly, NYT had to decide whether Davis’s welfare and Washington’s diplomatic stance should be sacrificed to its readers’, including those in Pakistan, right to information about a suspect. The fact that it was a British newspaper that ultimately broke the news about Davis suggests that national interest still matters to the media, but increasingly makes for poor journalism.
Journalistic ethics are further hijacked by the marketing concerns of a new media age. Media outlets know that if they opt not to publish or broadcast certain information, some other entity will put the story online any way.
The thought that information, no matter how compromising, eventually comes to the surface no doubt weakens the ability of editors and producers to take the moral high ground. Sadly, while media around the world scrambles to cope with the shifting paradigm of journalism, Pakistan’s news producers are weaving absurd conspiracy theories or plotting how to incite rival politicians on the next political talk show. In this debate, as on many other issues, Pakistan is tuned in to the wrong channel.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

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