Broadcasting a massacre

In March 2012, self-proclaimed jihadist Mohammed Merah strapped a camera to his chest before killing seven people in France. Al-Jazeera TV channel opted not to show the footage, writes Jeff Howard.

The case

Between 11 and 19 March 2012, a self-proclaimed jihadist and French citizen of Algerian dissent named Mohammed Merah killed seven people and injured five others in a series of attacks on French soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren in Montauban and Toulouse. On 22 March, after a protracted standoff, the French police killed Merah, who claimed to have been avenging Palestinian children and protesting France’s participation in wars on Muslims. Merah professed to have been an agent of al-Qaida, though it remains unclear whether he has ever had any official communication with terrorist organisations. A Pakistani branch of the Taliban claimed to have trained him.

Shortly after the attacks, the Arab media station Al-Jazeera received a video of the murders taken by Merah, who had a camera strapped to his chest during the shootings. Quranic verses and religious music overlaid the footage. Family members of victims requested that Al-Jazeera not air the footage, a plea reiterated by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who entreated: “I ask the managers of all television stations that might have these images not to broadcast them in any circumstances, out of respect for the victims – out of respect for the republic.” Al-Jazeera, citing its own code of ethics, decided to comply with the request, contending that the video added no new information – merely sounds of gunshots, screams, and the voices of the killer and his victims. Al-Jazeera’s code of ethics pledges that the organisation shall “[t]reat our audiences with due respect and address every issue or story with due attention to present a clear, factual and accurate picture while giving full consideration to the feelings of victims of crime, war, persecution and disaster, their relatives and our viewers, and to individual privacies and public decorum.”

Author opinion

There are two decisions in this case that flag the attention of free speech defenders: firstly, the decision by Sarkozy to pressure a news organisation into withholding material; and secondly, the decision of a news organisation to withhold such material on the grounds that it adds no new information and is disrespectful toward victims. Neither decision should be seen as an affront to free speech. Crucially, Sarkozy was not suggesting that the coercive powers of the lawbe marshalled to suppress the footage; that suggestion would rest in far greater tension with free speech principles. Rather, his exhortation rested of the simple idea that some exercises of free speech are wise and some exercises of free speech are unwise. He was, in order words, counselling the adoption of an ethic of free speech according to which private citizens and organisations ought to employ discretion in deciding when and how to use their legally protected freedoms.

Al-Jazeera's decision embraced Sarkozy's proposed ethic of free speech. Of course, there should always be a presumption among news organisations in favor of releasing, not withholding, material. Any argument underlying a news organisation's decision to withhold material has to be an excellent one. While I believe this was a close call – as citizens have some interest in being able to see the video to help them appreciate the moral gravity of the situation – Al-Jazeera's decision can be justified. Releasing the video would enter no fresh facts into the public discussion; rather, it would merely intensify the national trauma, upset families whose lives have been shattered, and potentially inspire copycats. Even if Merah were alive, he would have no rights under any free speech principle to broadcast footage of him violating others' rights. The footage is not subjectively offensive to some oversensitive group; videos of murders are objectively offensive. The principles of free speech stem from the equal dignity of every individual. Watching individuals have their dignity destroyed in the most fundamental way possible is not an activity plausibly protected by such principles.

- Jeff Howard

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Comments (2)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. To the author opinion, it is patently wrong to describe murder as “objectively offensive”. One need only look as far as the glorification of violence in nearly all commercial media to see this. It is not only depictions of it that are popular; real life footage is hungrily devoured by voyeuristic viewers as well. For example:

    The video has over 1,000,000 views, and an overwhelming “like” ratio. Why is it allowed? Is it because the victims are little white blobs? Is it because we cannot see their faces? They are the “bad guys” getting “what they deserve”?

    This, to me, is far more disrespectful of identity and individualism than broadcasting murders. Picking and choosing which individual deserves respect undermines the entire argument to an extreme degree.

    Perhaps the video related to the case study should not be aired on public television. Perhaps it should not be made available. But the reasoning behind this is inherently hypocritical, and disgusting at that.

  2. From my personal point of view, i think that the omision of the footage was a totally right decision.
    First of all i am totally agree about citizens getting freedom of speech and the most accurate information possible about anything that is relevant to anybody. But on the other hand, i think that the murder has been cover very good, as all the details have been explain. Furthermore, the information about the arrest and death of the terrorist has been covered very accuretaly.
    Why i am against the diffusion of the video? First of all, most of the victims are kids, by this i mean that they are underage, therefore under the responsability of the parents. And which mother/father wants to recreate and live again the death of their kid? I think that it is not necessary and image or sound in this case. With some written information is enough.
    Secondly, i think that the video could be a source of “Inspiration” for other terrorist attacks, and therefore i think we don’t need to do more publicity about the terrorist attack. Because everybody knows that positive/negative publicity is the best way to get known and increase the followers.
    Finally, i think that besides those ideas, in order to respect the victims, it should be somehting private, for respecting their privacy and honor.
    In conclusion, it was an excellent idea to ban the video, and i don’t see that the political pressure was something negative, at this moment i think it was an act showing respect for the victims. Sometimes is better to avoid information, because it is not going to add more details, but just some macabracy.

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