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To Publish or Not to Publish?

by AFP
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Media divided over reproducing photos of terrorists over concerns they might glorify their actions.

Does publishing the photographs of those responsible for terror attacks help glorify them and play into the hands of groups like the Islamic State? The debate over what former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once called “the oxygen of publicity” took a new turn on Wednesday when several major French media outlets decided they would no longer use pictures of those who commit attacks.

The country’s two global news broadcasters, RFI and France 24, as well as its biggest rolling television news channel BFMTV, said they would stop showing images of attackers. Europe 1 radio went further still saying it would not be “naming terrorists.”

The rethink was set off by the leading daily Le Monde, whose managing editor Jerome Fenoglio told AFP that after the Nice attack—in which 84 people died—“we were very uncomfortable” that photos showing attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel flexing his muscles might contribute to his “posthumous glorification.”

BFMTV editorial director Herve Beroud said their worry was repeated use of “photographs tend to put the terrorists and the victims on the same level.”

Anti-extremism experts and academics working on the effects of media coverage on terrorism have welcomed the self-imposed bans. And there was also an outpouring of support for the idea on social media with the British explorer Adrian Hayes and actor James Purefoy cheering the decision. “At last. A bit of sense. Will U.S. and U.K. follow suit?” the Rome star tweeted.

A French online petition backing the idea had also garnered more than 110,000 names on Thursday.

Jonathan Russell of the London-based Quilliam Foundation, which works to counter extremism, said: “I think this is a good step and we will push for it.” He said I.S. had a well-oiled routine of exploiting “what we call the ‘propaganda of the deed.’ They know there is going to be endless discussion for 72 hours about an attack, and they require that oxygen of publicity to be effective. Everything that we can do to make their work less impactful is to be commended.”

Russell said with the group under pressure in Iraq and Syria, I.S. had “moved to an ‘inspire strategy’ calling for attacks in the West. That inspiration is stronger when people know they are going to achieve notoriety when they carry out an attack.”

French psychologist Fethi Benslama said one of the strongest push factors “in those who commit attacks is to be widely known. They leave clues before their death and fantasize about worldwide recognition.”

Professor Michael Jetter, whose research at the University of Western Australia suggests that blanket media coverage can lead to further terror attacks, also welcomed the debate. “If you think about it for a second from the perspective of a terrorist organization [saturation coverage] is exactly what they want,” he said. He urged media to report the killings with the same restraint that they do suicides, avoiding giving details that might encourage “copycat” attacks.

Most of the French media however are continuing to show images of attackers, with Johan Hufnagel of the left-leaning daily Liberation insisting that “publishing photos of terrorists and glorifying them is not the same thing.” And there was little sign of the idea was gaining traction beyond France.

The BBC’s Secunder Kermani, who has reported extensively on I.S., said a more widespread ban was unlikely in the international media. “There is not quite the same impetus as in France right now because in the case of Britain it does not feel so under attack. Maybe if it was it might be different,” he said.

Nevertheless, Kermani said there was “a definite debate going on in newsrooms over how we report” attacks given that I.S. “clearly understands the news cycle and uses its very skillfully to get maximum attention. While the people who do this are not likely to be influenced by mainstream media, given how decentralized I.S. is, the argument over the copycat element cannot be disregarded.”

AFP’s global news director Michele Leridon said that since “the Islamic State group’s first bloody attacks… we have refused to carry the images they poured indiscriminately onto social media.” However, the agency will leave it up to its 5,000 clients worldwide to decide whether or not to publish an attacker’s name and photograph, she said.

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