When terrorists silence society

2004-04-30 16:38

Through their attacks, terrorists try to instil fear and silence. The role of the journalist is to help ensure that that people's voices are heard, argues Mariane Pearl, when asked about the importance of press freedom in the fight against terrorism.

Interview with Mariane Pearl

WAN: How did the murder of your husband and fellow journalist Daniel Pearl change your perception of the right to free expression?

Mariane Pearl: The right of expression remains fundamental, but what may be questioned is the quality of that expression. Danny's murder made me even more convinced that journalists have a crucial role to play in the years to come. Though physically violent, terrorism is really a mental battle. By their attacks, terrorists are trying to instil fear and distrust. Journalists need to help voices to be heard, particularly in the Muslim world where people have fear of expressing themselves. Sometimes only extremists use that freedom of expression right. They yell and shout, occupying the public space. There can be no peace without communication. The fact that expression is a right also makes it a responsibility. You have the duty to reflect and have the general interest at heart before expressing an opinion. It is complicated to achieve, but journalism with the tools of moderation and objectivity is extremely valuable in our present context.

WAN: Your husband was the victim of an act of terrorism - what role do you think a free press should have in combating terrorism?

Mariane Pearl: I think new kinds of journalism should emerge, which would allow intentions to change as well. For instance, it doesn't seem to me that to be the first to get the news is valuable in itself. On the contrary, in order to beat their competitors, people make basic mistakes like neglecting to double check information before broadcasting it. We need education even in developed countries, for instance, about Islam. We need empathy and a press that would also take interest in positive changes. We need independence. The fight for independence can be forcing your editors to publish a story even if they are afraid to offend their readers, but it can also be the struggle to free yourself from your own ego. The fight of journalists against terrorists is pretty obvious. Speak up when they try to silence you. Bridge the world when they try to widen the gap. Have the courage to question yourself when there is nothing to expect in that regard from terrorists. Embrace a complex world when they reduce it to caricatures and labels.

WAN: Since 11 September, many governments have imposed restrictions on the press. According to you, is it legitimate to do so in the context of fighting terrorism?

Mariane Pearl: It is a dangerous path. A free press is a pillar for democracy; once you question the right of citizens to be informed about their elected governments deeds you are affecting the very principle of democracy. Look at what just happened in Spain. People are angry because they feel their government was hiding Islamist involvement in the Madrid attacks for electoral reasons. It is a legitimate anger. Restrictions on information are also a way to maintain people's ignorance, and ignorance is about the worst way to fight against terrorists. Particularly in the case of terrorism because who is dying? Ordinary people. Thus people have the right to know how their leaders respond to terrorists and they have the right to disagree with them. Theoretically, the government serve the people, and not the other way around. Of course sometimes there are exceptions due to security and police work. But people are not dumb and they can understand that, if they feel their leaders are being honest with them.

WAN: You have worked extensively for Radio France Internationale, which in many countries is considered to be the only trustworthy news source. How has this influenced your view on the importance of press freedom?

Mariane Pearl: I am not sure how independent RFI really is. After all, it is financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Though it has this quality you find in public service I am not sure we can rely 100 percent on it. Plus, it has very little means, so a lot of journalists cover stories because their plane tickets or hotel rooms are paid by whoever is interested in their coverage. This said, there are a great number of amazing, low-key, dedicated journalists. A lot of them feel discouraged by the lack of means.

WAN: How would you describe the status of press freedom in the Western world of today - is it a right that is defended in an equitable way?

Mariane Pearl: Again, to me it is the quality of our press that we should defend and demand. And this is the responsibility of readers too. In many Western countries we are witnessing a shrinking amount of quality journalism and lots of flashy, partial and unethical work. What should be defended, for instance, is the border between news and entertainment. Freedom of the press doesn't mean that we can do without ethics and flexibility. New issues are coming up, such as safety. Should we carry arms and defend ourselves in hostile regions, for instance? I think we should have an international and transnational convention on journalism where we could express a whole range of concerns. From the restrictions on the freedom of press to the pressure of the ratings for TV people for example. Why don't we have an international chart for journalists for instance? Like doctors, we should have an ethical committee or Conseil des sages.

WAN: Your work has taken you all over the world. Where have you witnessed the most positive effects of press freedom?

Mariane Pearl: What I have witnessed is the eagerness of journalists from developing countries to experience freedom and gain quality in their work. Those people I have met, in Bangladesh or Cuba for instance, know the prize of such an endeavour. In their faith lies what made me become a journalist. They hold it like a torchlight.

Mariane Pearl gave this exclusive interview to the World Association of Newspapers for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

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