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Government urges CBS, Web site host to refrain from airing Pearl murder video

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From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 44.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 44.

A carefully edited video cuts back and forth from Daniel Pearl in captivity to scenes of military action, violence and death in the Middle East. Pearl, weary and somber, narrates this documentary of his own demise forced to denounce his Jewish faith and U.S. Mideast policy.

And then the Wall Street Journal reporter appears on the floor, seemingly dead or unconscious. An unseen kidnapper slits his throat. Someone holds Pearl’s decapitated head as the terrorists’ demands scroll on the screen.

And as the video circulated across the Internet, questions of journalistic ethics arose: Is it appropriate to make the gruesome images in this video available to the public? Should it be accessible on the Internet? Is that a more appropriate medium for this type of graphic coverage than the traditional news media? And more importantly, what happens when the government steps in and urges that the information should not be made available to the public, even though it has no legal grounds for censoring the tape — does that give the media any guidance as to information the public should have?

Newsrooms make decisions about graphic images almost every day. Consider Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy photos, images of bodies dropping from the World Trade Center towers prior to their collapse, the body of an American soldier killed in action dragged through Somalian streets, photos of rape victims.

But the release of the videotape showing Pearl’s gruesome murder ignited a more heated debate among members of the media and even sparked requests from government officials to limit coverage.

“While release of the video to the public may show a lack of taste, there is great difficulty in defining what is and is not newsworthy,” said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The Pearl videotape created by his captors and entitled “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl” was delivered to the U.S. consulate on Feb. 21.

CBS News obtained its own copy of the tape from Ali al-Ahmed, a dissident Saudi journalist who discovered the video on an anti-American Arabic Web site designed as a recruiting tool for Islamic extremist groups.

Prior to airing a 30-second excerpt of the video on May 14, CBS News received appeals from officials in the State and Justice departments requesting that they refrain from airing the videotape.

Jim Murphy, executive producer of CBS Evening News, told the Associated Press that “the government called to tell us that what we were doing was helping to spread the terrorists’ word, and I don’t think that’s the case.” Anchor Dan Rather defended the broadcast as necessary to “understand the full impact and danger of the propaganda war being waged.”

Officials at the State Department issued a statement confirming that “at the request of the Pearl family, the Department contacted CBS news to confirm whether CBS intended to broadcast parts of the videotape made by the killers of Daniel Pearl and to ask that in consideration of the sensitivities of Mr. Pearl’s family CBS reconsider the decision.”

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer chimed in on behalf of Pearl’s wife, Mariane.

“I know that Mrs. Pearl has very strong feelings about the damage that can be done as a result of showing that video,” Fleischer said. “The administration has great sympathies for what Mrs. Pearl has said.”

In response to criticism from Pearl’s family, the government and members of the media, CBS issued its own statement:

“While we understand and recognize the sorrow of the Pearl family, last night we reported important and newsworthy information to the American public. The report was sound and responsible journalism, sensitively presented, and showed the audience an example of the very real threat the free world faces in its war on terrorism. Ignoring these kinds of stories not only doesn’t serve the public and runs counter to our mission as journalists, but can lead to an uninformed — and vulnerable — nation.”

The FBI also contacted several Internet sites and requested that they remove the Pearl video out of consideration for the Pearl family, while threatening obscenity charges.

“It is impossible to classify the video as obscene — under the law there must be a prurient interest, appeal to sexuality,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Tien explained that while sexuality clearly was not present in the video, it sparks talk of creating another category of obscenity centered around violence.

Pro Hosters, an Internet company in Sterling, Va., that provides web hosting for about 30,000 Web sites on 200 servers including one of the Web sites that posted the Pearl video, was one of the companies contacted by the FBI.

Theodore Hickman Jr., president of ProHosters, said he received a phone call on May 23 from an FBI agent who requested the video be removed from the site and indicated that its publication was in violation of obscenity laws. The videotape, which was posted by Hickman’s customer, ogrish.com, a Web Site that contains a gallery of graphic videos and images, was temporarily removed on May 23.

Hickman said he did not immediately censor the site but consulted with the site’s owner, Dany Klinker of the Netherlands, about removing the video. Their initial decision to remove the video was in response to the FBI’s “intimidating requests” to take it down. However, after consulting with legal counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union, Hickman returned the video to ogrish.com and posted it on his Web site with a letter to viewers.

In his letter to viewers of the videotape, Hickman indicated that the First Amendment allows for publication of the tape and that Americans can decide for themselves whether they want to watch it.

“In my opinion it should not be hidden or swept under the carpet, it should be available to anyone who chooses to watch it,” Hickman wrote. “We have a right to see what terrorism can and will do to our nation, if it is not eradicated at the source.”

Causing further debate, The Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly, published photos of Pearl’s severed head on its front page on June 6. It also placed a link to the video available at ProHosters on its Web site.

In response to the widespread dissemination of the video of his son’s murder, Judea Pearl wrote an editorial in The New York Times urging the media to “remove all terrorist-produced scenes from [its] Web sites and agree to suppress such scenes in the future.”

Citing an email message from his deceased son sent two months before his death that complained of papers in the Middle East running front-page photos of the corpses of journalists, he stressed that “displaying this murder undermines efforts to fight terrorism and anti-Semitism.”

Bob Steele, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, said there was no legitimate journalistic purpose in publishing horrific images from the video.

“The harm caused to his family in showing the murder itself and the severed head outweighs any journalistic value,” Steele said.

He also said there are other ways to send a message about the video to the public.

Journalists can “edit the video or write about it, describing the images with words and obtain the same effect.”

However, Hoofnagle contends Pearl was a public figure and an individual does not have an interest in privacy after his death. He said the Bush administration is increasingly using privacy to justify secrecy, which could explain its initial response to dissemination of the video.

Tien said: “The government must not be allowed to censor based on the nature of the content absent clearly delineated exceptions.

“People have different views of what is offensive,” he said. “The news media would have very few qualms with showing the burning of a flag as part of a news story, although many people are deeply offended by that image.” — JLW