International Media Coverage of Iraq and Shosei Koda's Capture
Gordon Corera (Security Correspondent, BBC News), Dr. Jef McAllister (London Bureau Chief, Time Magazine) and Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
Sean Curtin: How realistic, or possible, it is for a democratic government to try to control or moderate what information is released about any given hostage situation or terror threat? Let's take the example of the Japanese hostage Shosei Koda. The video of his capture was released [on 27 October] at around 6am Japan time and soon thereafter the international news media started reporting it. It was broadcast on CNN, BBC World and all the major wire services carried the story. All this happened while most of Japan was sleeping. It awoke to find the kidnapping of one of its citizens a leading news story around the world.
The international coverage meant that Japan had very little control over how the story was initially managed and the government was unable to protect the family and friends of the hostage from seeing him first on TV before they heard about his capture through official channels. This incident illustrates the difficulties any democratic government faces in trying to manage what is or isn't reported in these kinds of cases. The Japanese government was obviously concerned about protecting the feelings of the parents and family members, but what could they realistically do?
Should democratic governments try to censor foreign media reports from Iraq? Should the media be restricted in what it can report about terrorism or potential terror threats?
Gordon Corera: On the question of censorship, as a journalist I don't think it's particularly effective or works, and it's not in anyone's interests. I think there has to be a presumption that the public should know. There are clearly some times when dealing with terrorism that this may not be the case and we should restrain ourselves from broadcasting immediately. For example, when we need to inform the family, identify someone in a video, if you are doing live coverage of sieges or anything like that, tactical issues of whether an operation is taking place or will you make life more difficult [for the authorities or victims].
I think you start to get into a more complicated area when you start to talk about should we be hearing stories about vulnerabilities in homeland security. I think this is one interesting area that has come up sometimes. Should we be pointing out that a nuclear plant somewhere is not as secure as it should be? Is that tipping off the terrorist or by bring it to public attention will you tighten up security? This point really does bring out the key question of whether having an open and free media creates the kind of scrutiny that leads to a liberal interaction between the policy, the media and the public.
Also looking at issues in a serious way rather than letting the government obscure them. This might apply to knowing about what is happening on the ground in Iraq or not. I think that without the media critically looking at these things, the government is free to make its case without anyone pointing out problems or needing to correct them. I think that most people would agree that that in itself would not be a good thing.
Dr. Jef McAllister: I just simply feel that it is a fundamental matter that the truth shall set you free. In the long run, the only way our complex society can operate is to have an engagement with the facts as they actually are on the ground. My Time Magazine colleagues are holed up now in a Baghdad hotel, our bureau chief was almost abducted several weeks ago and it is a very tricky and difficult environment in which to operate. But unless people back in the world capitals have a true understanding that things are not going very well, and so do the parliamentarians and the public, then we would be operating in a vacuum. That would be dangerous for society and we would fail. In order to not keep doing the wrong things that aren't working, you need to know the facts. That is one of the functions of the media.
There has been a lot of criticism of the American media for failing to be tough enough on President Bush since September 11. Because we have been wrapped up in a patriotic collective response meant that a lot of questions did not get asked properly. I think that some of this criticism may be true. I think there was a collective fear and a sense that we as a nation were in a battle which made the reporters somewhat less stroppy than they traditionally are. I think also however that it is not censorship in the true sense of the word.
The Bush administration has been very good at hiding things – although I worked in the second half of the Clinton administration and they were quite good at it too, they made their mistakes in the first half, and they were a mess, and then they learnt how to control them quite well – I think the Bush administration, from what all my colleagues in Washington have said, have really taken this to a very high level. We can see things that are coming out now about Guantanamo Bay or about 9/11. These things have come out in Congressional committees and they are things that publishers needed to know at the time, but didn't know and are only learning about now.
The above comments were made at Chatham House in London on 27 October 2004