Should papers, TV publish terror suspects’ pix?

31 August 2007

The police in Hyderabad, have released the “sketch” of  the suspect (above) who they say was behind the bomb blastswhich killed several dozen people at an auditorium. The computer-aided sketch was then carried by all newspapers and television stations to help solve the crime.

It will be a happy ending, of course, when the guy bearing a likeness to the guy in the picture is caught and found to be the guy who planted the bomb. But what if he isn’t?

What if the wrong guy has been sketched, and what if there is somebody, alive and breathing, with a similar face? How right is it for the media to give full flight to the imagination of a “police artist” without breaching the privacy and civil liberties of that innocent individual?

In Hyderabad, as indeed in several Indian cases, an “artist’s impression” (with the words computer aided design thrown in for good measure) provides a convenient escape route should the wrong person feel the heat, “any resemblance with any person living or dead being unintentional and coincidental”.

In July this year, Mohammed Asha, a doctor of Britain’s National Health Service became the “human face” of the (failed) attacks on Glasgow Airport and London nightclubs when newspapers printed his picture on their front pages.

Ironically, though, Scotland Yard emailed editors of media organizations not to publish photos or artists’ impressions of people involved in the case, saying that identification of the suspects could be an issue in any trials. But at least two tabloids, The Sun and the Daily Mirror (above),  ignored the request. The Daily Telegraph printed the picture as-is on its front page, but the Times pixellated the face, just as the BBC did.

In the world before 9/11, the fear of contempt of court prompted news organizations to only publish basic information like an accused person’s name and age, as well as the charge against him or her. But in the age of terror, those parameters  seem to have collapsed.

Earlier this week, in Seattle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer refused to print a photograph of two suspects provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation who were spotted by employees of a local ferry service for “acting suspiciously”.

This is what the editor of the paper David McCumber said in defence:

“We have no confirmation that these men’s behaviour was anything but innocuous, and to forever taint them by associating them with terrorism under these circumstances is not consistent with our policy.”

It can be argued that publishing pictures is a duty of newspapers and TV stations in the “War on Terror”. After all, journalists are citizens first, journalists next, and have a bounden duty to protect a country. But what is the hit rate with such pictures? How many sketches do really end up catching the culprits? How many are just face-saving tactics, intended to deflect the heat from the police to show as if they are on the right track?

The case of Mohammed Haneef should be a signal lesson on how the media might like to go easy.

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