Friday, 27 February 2009

Should newspapers publish terrorist proclamations?

Terrorist activity has shown a new impetus since last December's riots. In the space of just two months this year, Greece has acquired a second active urban guerrilla group, possibly more, and seen the existing one become more aggressive.

Revolutionary Sect made its first appearance this month with an agenda against police and journalists, among others. Revolutionary Struggle came closer than ever before to claiming Greece's first terrorist fatality in a decade on January 5, when they shot and wounded a policeman outside the culture ministry.

Most worrying of all is the movement away from the targeted killings of November 17 and towards acts of mass terror using enormously powerful bombs built from commercially available materials. A bomb made from fertiliser and fuel that would have razed the Citibank building in Kifisia was defused on February 18.

We may even be seeing the beginning of racist terrorism in this country. On February 24 a migrant support group meeting in Athens was attacked with a grenade, narrowly avoiding fatalities.

It is pure chance that no one has been killed so far this year. It seems inevitable that, given current trends of rising lawlessness, and New Democracy's poor track record in tracking and reining it in, sooner or later somebody will be.

Terrorists now present the media with a renewed dilemma over the extent to which paramilitary groups should be given free space to run their proclamations. Revolutionary Sect, in particular, sharpens this dilemma because of the way in which it targets the media themselves. To ignore the group is editorially impossible, but to feed it publicity is potentially to be complicit in one's own demise.

The reasons in favour of running proclamations after the junta years were mostly historical and commercial. Editors claimed press freedom, but in reality all of November 17's proclamations went to left wing papers such as Eleftherotypia, Ethnos, To Pontiki and, on one or two occasions, Ta Nea.

November 17 didn't get the press coverage it craved until after its second hit, against police officer Evangelos Mallios. Even then no one in Greece would touch the proclamation until Liberation ran it in French. It was Eleftherotypia that broke the ice thanks to the anarchist credentials of its publisher and political correspondent.

The latter, Yiorgos Votsis, a self-professed Trotskyite, in December 1976 published an article in which he supported November 17's claim to be a homegrown revolutionary organisation. Votsis found a sympathetic ear in his publisher, Christos Tegopoulos, who had taken part in the Paris riots of 1968 as part of a Marxist group.

There was an unquestionable mystique attached to publishing such tracts. Apart from raising sales and newspapers' profiles in the marketplace, they gave the leftwing press a notoriety of which it was sneakingly proud.

Attempts were made to curtail the levels of publicity November 17 was achieving. The Mitsotakis government, when it came to power in 1990, made the reprinting of proclamations illegal following fatalities. The move was understandable if extreme - Konstantine Mitsotakis' own son in law had been gunned down by November 17 the year before. Pasok repealed the law as soon as it returned to power in 1993. The mistake was to frame the debate in terms of whether the press ought to be free to publish, rather than whether it ought to publish.

There are plenty of reasons why it shouldn't. Serially publishing proclamations from politically motivated killers is bound to give the carrier an air of collaboration in the eyes of many, and to eventually control a newspaper's image to a great extent. The decades of careful journalism that go into building a reputation for independent reporting can quickly be squandered.

Eleftherotypia realised, at some point, that it was being hijacked and made an attempt to leverage some influence with November 17. In March 1988, Votsis wrote an open letter to the group entitled 'Ακου με ένοπλε σύντροφε (Heed me, armed comrade), which ended, "Your path is the wrong one." It was too late. The group verbally rebuffed him. Eleftherotypia looked even more pusillanimous in July 1992, when it published only excerpts of a 13,000-word diatribe following the attempt on then finance minister Ioannis Palaiokrassas. The group reacted by sending the proclamation to Avriani and Ethnos.

There are other dangers. News outlets can never check the provenance of a proclamation, allowing spurious claimants to humiliate them. And there is always the nagging unfairness of offering free space to opinionated killers, while opinionated non-killers pay thousands of euros a page.

Perhaps the most important reason not to publish a terrorist proclamation is that terrorism ultimately offers nothing with which to replace the democracy it eats away at. It is an inarticulate violence that is becoming ever more indiscriminate.

November 17 sent its proclamations to chosen newspapers as a way of showing favour and making sure that publishers would be flattered enough to run them. That is because when November 17 assassinated CIA station chief Richard Welch in 1975, the press reacted with complete apostrophe towards a proclamation that, initially, seems to have forgotten to mention the group's name.

November 17 was apoplectic. "Although from the first moment we claimed political responsibility for this just act as "November 17", newspapers printed everything except the truth: That it was the act of foreign agents; that it was an act of provocation; that it was done by dark-skinned Arabs with foreign accents... Is this the vaunted truth in whose service the press toils?"

In the internet age there is no reason to choose a newspaper other than to show that one is to be taken seriously. Internet publication is, arguably, too easy. The credibility of the press is thus put at the service of killers with pretentions to be acting for the put-upon masses.

How, then, are newspapers to balance a newsworthy story with integrity to the democratic values a free press exists to reinforce? One answer is for newspapers to print a story revealing the main points of the proclamation, but not the full text. That allows them to supply context and analysis, and to temper the rhetoric. It also allows them to reap the commercial benefits of the exclusive without sensationalising.

Another formula might be for newspapers to hold back the full text of the proclamation until the family of a victim had had the chance to pull itself together and offer a rebuttal. The two could then be printed side by side. That would allow readers to see terrorist claims countered where they were factually wrong, and remember that a victim was, beside his or her political attributes, human.

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