Media: journalists and the right to silence

16 Jun

Peter Preston

These were journeys down a menacing memory lane. The BBC journalist Alan Johnston talked about life in the dark with his Gaza kidnappers. Giuliana Sgrena from Il Manifesto talked about her month of captivity in Iraq. Hamid Mir from Geo TV Pakistan and Peter Bergen from CNN relived their various interviews with Osama bin Laden. The world’s biggest press freedom congress this year was talking about talking to terrorists. But we didn’t get round to discussing Suzanne Breen.

Breen works in Belfast for the Dublin Sunday Tribune. She got the phone call from the Real IRA claiming responsibility for killing two British sappers at Massereene Barracks this March. The police want her to hand over her notebooks and computers. They’ve won one stage of that case already. Breen is hoping to win round two this week.

Not watchdogs

All journalists will hope she does. It’s a matter of simple principle. Reporters can’t operate as watchdogs and investigators if they and their informants have no protection when detectives knock on the door. Information sources wither along that road. If you want to understand what’s going on in perilous places, you need contacts and the freedom to cultivate them. Breen has to say no to the cops and the law. It would be utterly wrong to send her to prison for doing a job that Northern Ireland needs doing.

Yet principle, however straightforward, is seldom the whole of the story. Every affair has its individual problems. Every dilemma comes with a fresh twist. And that’s why it’s sensible to talk about talking to terrorists, because Breen offers two arguments, not one. She believes that she and her family stand at imminent risk if she complies. Assassination threats have been issued already. She could be the next victim of Massereene. Her own life is on the line, too.

Nobody who knows her doubts her sincerity, nor the peril she perceives; but this argument has little to do with defending RIRA identities. To the contrary, it merely confirms what killers they are. Breen, on this ground, is like any other citizen with testimony the police want to hear. Help them and the men they want to catch may wreak bloody revenge: simple intimidation to set alongside a principle growing more complex by the minute.

If you ask Mir why Pakistan’s army is clearing the Taliban out of Swat and pushing deep into Waziristan, he’ll say that the media did it. Perplexed politicians and reluctant generals needed an outraged press and TV to spur them into action at last — and thus, in some small way, to avenge the death of Mosa Khankhel from Geo TV, shot three times in February as he tried to cover the Swat peace negotiations that failed. Khankhel’s murderers tried to hack off his head as well. Now: where’s the duty to defend them?

These people kill journalists. One reporter or editor a month died in 2008. Do they, and their sources, deserve due confidentiality and all the ethical courtesies of our trade? Where does reporting turn to campaigning in self-defence?

You may look at Mir and Bergen’s interviews with Bin Laden and ask related questions. Did they have a duty to debrief authority on their secret route to Osama’s caves in 1998 or 1999? If that was true in 1998 or 1999, after early al-Qaeda attacks but long before 9/11, was it also true after the World Trade Centre destruction and so many dead? And after the destruction of the World Trade Centre? Does the scale of the tragedy trump acceptability?

Wider dilemmas

If Sgrena had the right to refuse official reporting authorisation in Baghdad, did she then have a right to appear in a kidnap video pleading that Italy get its troops out of Iraq? Where, as Alan Johnston tells us about his ordeal with the Army of Islam, does Johnston the journalist end and Johnston the victim begin? Here are principles caught in a grey zone of debate, tossed by the winds of public opinion, always beating against precise circumstance. Watch for the Breen decision. There are vital verities attached. But press freedom (in the way that the International Press Institute constantly seeks to define it) is increasingly lumbered with wider dilemmas in the uncharted territory where the law is both enemy and friend — and where terms like “citizen journalist” contain the seeds of visceral ambivalence. It ought to be so simple. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009


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