Is the French Press Right to stop Printing Pictures, Names of Terrorists?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Le Monde is reporting that a number of French newspapers and television channels have decided to cease printing the pictures, and sometimes even the names, of those who commit terrorist acts. Le Monde itself is adopting the same policy.

France and Belgium have seen a number of nihilist attacks in the past year and a half, which has pushed the government to institute and extend a state of emergency that seriously infringes on basic human rights. (I call these attacks nihilist rather than terrorist because they hit soft targets without an obvious immediate political goal, and are often carried out by petty criminals or the unbalanced, who nevertheless claim a relationship to Daesh (ISIL, ISIS).

The editors at these news outlets have become convinced that Daesh is successfully “heroizing” the attackers, and that Western news coverage is shared back in Syria and Iraq as well as among Europe’s Muslim community as a way of glorifying the perpetrators. Denying them that glory then becomes a form of counter-terrorism.

Not everyone agrees with this tack.

France Télévisions has rejected the idea of suppressing the identities and photos of the nihilists. Michael Field, director of the channel’s public relations department, condemned the new policies at other press organs as a form of posturing and insisted that anonymizing the attacks would backfire. “Anonymous attacks, without names or faces? Nothing could better activate roving conspiracy theories or promote social anxiety, which already suspects the media of not saying everything or of wanting to silence the truth.”

Wassim Nasr, who has covered militant Muslims for France24, agreed that hiding the photos and the identities of the perpetrators would open the door to more conspiracy theories. He also thinks they do it for the organization, not for the personal glory, so it doesn’t matter much if they make the newspapers or not.

Hervé Béroud, of BFM-TV, says he has heard this critique but thinks there are other reasons to implement the policy. “I don’t think that declining to publish photos of jihadis will prevent them from acting. That would be too simple. Our choice is directed at our viewership.”

Personally, I’m all for the new policy. I’d also put the reports on page 17 and stop making them automatic headlines.

47 people were shot in Chicago last weekend without generating headlines elsewhere in the country.

We are privileging certain kinds of violence and magnifying it through the press and social media. If the terrorism were political, aimed at accomplishing a specific political task, it might warrant being closing monitored by everyone this way. But someone who is unbalanced who shoots into a mall crowd– that’s virtually random. It is a tragedy but it doesn’t mean anything. Why put that on the front page?

But my advice to the press is to go further. Devote Thursdays, e.g., to having some feel-good stories about Muslim contributions to society. Daesh is trying to destroy the grey zone, to drive Western Muslims into its own arms by arranging for white people of Christian heritage to be beastly to them. Hence my mantra: Daesh attacks because they want us to be afraid and to hate. The only effective counter-strategy is to refuse to be afraid and instead to show love to some Muslims.

The press can usefully avoid showing the negative images or obsessing about these acts of nihilism. Or it could do something

Related video:

France24: ” France church attack: priest killed by IS terrorists “devoted his entire life to church”

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9 Responses

  1. So you don’t consider pushing the French, German or Belgian public opinion into the open arms of extreme right parties as politically motivated??

  2. One needs be careful not to generalise but I would guess that a serious number of these young men whose lives seem to be pretty bleak are attracted by the prospect of their day in the sun, one recently was an admirer of Breivik, someone he can only have encountered in the media. To an extent media coverage does raise their evil to a level one might compare with the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the shock and horror backed with poignant interviews functions as a kind of Attic Chorus while the pattern of media coverage follows a recognisable narrative shape. That is what I think is wrong. However, it’s much broader than the coverage of these atrocities, it’s hard wired into all mass media coverage of almost anything; media has to be readable, not just a bleak list of happenings. Before mass media and the ‘popular’ novel, stories and theatre had an identifiable purpose to be morally improving , history was written that way, Herodotus and Plutarch were widely read, Elizabeth I translated Plutarch, and Shakespeare lifted passages almost word for word from his Lives. The tradition is still there in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Tolstoy, Dickens etc. In fact it survived into early Westerns; my grandmother took me to the cinema as a child where she would often fall asleep, and waking ask me “Is that the good posse or the bad posse?” Perhaps Freud broke the pattern by introducing a grey space between good and evil which bred the morally ambiguous characters that fill our media and entertainment today. I don’t know, but it can’t be as simple as censoring media coverage.

  3. Pointing out the chronic presence of nihilist violence at home and abroad in our popular news media would undermine the essential Western myth of economic progress (despite the fact that most of American history relied on nihilist acts to advance the national destiny). The kool people would be deeply disturbed and get the vapors. Many more would become angry at the disillusionment, and a few more would join in the violence.

    Hence we can’t.

  4. Geof Walker

    As the French have Twitter, Facebook and access to other francophone media, that would be pretty pointless …

  5. Bilqees Seema

    Agreed Juan, with this opinion, “Daesh is trying to destroy the grey zone, to drive Western Muslims into its own arms by arranging for white people of Christian heritage to be beastly to them. Hence my mantra: Daesh attacks because they want us to be afraid and to hate. The only effective counter-strategy is to refuse to be afraid and instead to show love to some Muslims”.

  6. Does that mean they’re not going to print “George W. Bush”, “Richard Cheney”, “Condoleezza Rice”, “Tony Blair”, “Barak Obama”, “Susan Rice”, “Samantha Power”, and a whole host of other names that go along with these or is it only aimed at non-western ‘terrorists”?

  7. I certainly agree that when 40 people die in a major city in one weekend, the story should get national coverage, and I agree that the Western press needs to do more to inform people about Islam and ordinary Muslims. However, I think it is a slippery slope to name some criminals and not name others. The five journalistic questions must be asked and answered–who, what, when, where, why–in every case.

    According to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims. There have been over one thousand terrorist attacks in Europe in the past five years. Less than 2% of the perpetrators were Muslim.

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