#PoliticsAndThePressSaturday, June 28, 2014
Crime and journalism
For The Herald
For very different reasons, journalists were convicted in courts in Egypt and Britain this week, a harsh reminder that the trade that brings the news that informs citizen opinion is threatened by State abuse but also by professional malpractice.
In Egypt, a court slapped three Al Jazeera journalists with prison sentences ranging from seven to 10 years for allegedly reporting “fake news” to inflate the political crisis and violence that followed the ousting of the elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The journalists were also accused of helping the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious/political movement that endorsed Morsi and has since been declared a terrorist organization by the new Egyptian authorities. One of the convicts is an Australian citizen.
The ruling triggered an international outcry at a time the new government of Egypt led by the military strongman and (also elected) President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is trying to persuade the world that the North African country is moving toward democracy, two years after the Arab Spring movements that in 2011 ended Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade regime. The White House said that the ruling was “a blow to democratic progress in Egypt” and that it follows a number of prosecutions that are "incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance.” Secretary of State John Kerry called the decision "chilling and draconian."
British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, said that he was “completely appalled” by the conviction. Cameron dropped his line via his spokesman on June 23. But the next day, he had to personally apologize for another media man he had hired a few years ago.
A day after the Egypt verdicts, a British court found former News of the World editor Andy Coulson guilty of conspiracy to phone hacking. The now defunct paper’s chief executive Rebecca Brooks was left off the hook. The hacking happened before Coulson was appointed as director of Communications for the ruling Conservative party in 2007 and for the prime minister himself in 2010 (a.k.a. spin doctor).
Coulson quit his government job in January 2011, under pressure as the phone hacking scandal started to escalate. Cameron said all along the way that he believed in his aide’s word that he knew nothing about the phone hacking taking place at the paper under his command but that he would apologize for hiring him if he were to be found guilty.
Something he did this week.
“I am extremely sorry that I employed him. It was the wrong decision,” the prime minister said on national TV, “I take full responsibility for employing Andy Coulson.”
(Note: This is a political leader of the highest rank acknowledging a mistake for an appointment that turn out to be a bad call – you might not have to think hard to find a good local example on that).
The question for journalists the world over – including Argentina – is how much the profession can stretch the limits of its relationship with politics and other powers that be. Coulson’s News of the World, as the Leveson Inquiry on the British press showed, went to bed with the police to hack phones of ordinary citizens and run gory details of dramatic crime stories. Al Jazeera, owned and managed by the rulers of Qatar, shed some of a hard-won credibility during the Arab Spring events. And yet it is easier to defend a guilty verdict against a chief editor with a political shield in the ruling party whose newsroom hacked ordinary people’s phones than one against three reporters collecting sound bites on the streets of Cairo.
Another limit dilemma is growing in the US over the use of drones as reporters. A story on the most recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review (Eye in the Sky http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/eye_in_the_sky.php?page=all ) features how these unmanned flying devices, mostly associated with military action, are increasingly being used by journalists trying to get footage, angles and information they would be unable to get without them. Like smartphones, drones are becoming cheaper by the minute and are as easy to fly as a toy-plane. CNN announced on Monday the launching of a research project with the Georgia Institute of Technology on how drones could be used for newsgathering by media organizations.
The United States prohibits the use of drones for commercial purposes. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grants few exceptions for government and law enforcement use. But outside the US, the Pentagon is increasingly relying on drones in its counterterrorism work. A report released this week by the Stimson Centre, a think tank in Washington, warned that the drone wars could get out of hand. Earlier this year, 16 major US news organizations joined their voices to accuse the FAA of curtailing freedom of the press by restricting the use of drones for newsgathering.
Media outlets including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gannett Co., Inc., Tribune Company and Hearst Corporation – filed an amicus curiae writ before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in defense of Raphael Pirker, a drone hobbyist who was fined 10,000 dollars by the FAA for shooting a promotional video of the University of Virginia with a drone. Their argument: drones are a First Amendment or constitutional rights concern. Somebody will have to establish the limit.