Sunday, March 18, 2007

jounalistic ethics

forgotten by The Advertiser

The Australian Journalists Association has a code of ethics which commits its members to the four principles of honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others. In the current climate, in which this country has bought into the ongoing 'war on terror', with its concomitant reductions to civil liberties and heightened sense of fear and suspicion, the duties of those journalists upon whom so many ordinary people rely for information about the claimed threats to their quotidian existence in a liberal democracy, become all the more important.

For a long time, my city, Adelaide, has been dominated by one daily newspaper, The Advertiser, owned by Rupert Murdoch. It has a circulation of just under 200,000 on weekdays and 270,000 on Saturdays, and a claimed readership of 530,000 on weekdays and 735,000 on Saturdays. Few major cities are so dominated by one newspaper. Such dominance only highlights the importance of ethical journalism – the responsibility of journalists, and their editors, to the reading public – in this city.

I have to say that I've never been a regular reader of The Advertiser. Partly this is because I tend to have a bias in my news reading toward the international rather than the local, and The Advertiser understandably doesn't have the resources of the bigger Sydney and Melbourne papers in this department. The main reason, though, is that I've too often been irritated by what appears to be a deliberate tendency toward tabloidism, that's to say, an apparent policy of sensationalism and exploitation of community concerns in areas such as law and order, welfare fraud, asylum seekers and the like.

All this by way of background to the fact that yesterday, The Advertiser's headline ''Forgotten Terrorist'' caught my eye – or rather, the picture accompanying it. It was a picture of Noorpolat Abdullah, the so-called terrorist of the headline, and his sister Zulfiyah, taken, according to the paper, in the Kazakhstan gulag where he is incarcerated. Zulfiyah is well known to me, being a worker at the Wandana Community Centre where I teach English as a second language. Many of my students there are women from Eastern Turkestan, including Rana, Zulfiyah's mother. Until I saw yesterday's paper, I wasn't aware of Noorpolat Abdullah's existence.

However, having so many students from Eastern Turkestan in my class naturally made me curious. These women were all friendly but quietly spoken. Rana, the only one of the group who didn't wear a head-scarf, was the most openly good-humoured and gregarious of the bunch, muttering over the madness of the English language, making sly comments to make the others laugh. It was she who explained to me that Eastern Turkestan was a most unwilling part of north-western China, that the Chinese were trying to suppress their language, Uyghur, and treating them like second class citizens in their own country [though Eastern Turkestan isn't a country in any legal sense, and the Chinese call the area Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)]. The people I teach are clearly European in ethnicity, and they take pride in their independent culture.

To return to the newspaper headline and article. Though I knew nothing of Noorpolat Abdullah, my friendly relations with other members of his family made me wary of The Advertiser's noisy description of him as a terrorist. The first paragraph of the article further disturbed me:

An Adelaide man jailed in a former Stalinist labour camp in Central Asia as a convicted terrorist has appealed to the federal government not to forget about him.

So The Advertiser had got wind of this appeal by a former Adelaide resident and decided to do a piece on him, and had even taken a picture of his wife and two young boys. I could well imagine how hopeful his wife must've been at the publicity these journalists would be giving to her husband's plight. How dashed those hopes must've been when she saw him branded a terrorist in huge lettering on the paper's front page.

It might be said in the paper's defence that the headline, "Forgotten Terrorist" and the description of the Stalinist gulag in which he's confined – the same gulag, incidentally, that Solzhenitsyn smuggled 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' out of – displays, if not quite sympathy, at least a degree of ambivalence about his situation. They would surely also say that he was, after all, convicted of terrorism, so the paper is within its legal rights to describe him as a terrorist.

This latter argument would be disingenuous, especially as the article goes on to say that he was tried in a closed court, though, oddly, the journalists chose not to pose the obvious question why this might have been so. He was tried and convicted, the article goes on to tell us, 'for alleged connections with a Moslem group accused of murdering two police officers'. Though this use of 'alleged', where 'proven' could have been used, based on the conviction, again shows a certain ambivalence, the journalists chose not to mention that the authorities had rounded up some 100 other ''suspects'' in this case, nor did they give anything of the background of Uyghur persecution in Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries as a result of Chinese pressure. All of this would have been known to the journalists, as it was easily discoverable by me through numerous websites, most noticeably this article from the Sunday Herald Sun, written in December and so beating our local daily by three months [so much for The Advertiser's concern for local citizens], in which Mr Abdulla is described more sympathetically, and probably more accurately, as ''Australia's forgotten prisoner". The Herald Sun goes into greater detail about the nature of the charges, the doubtful trial process, the terrible prison conditions and the background of Uyghur oppression in the region. It points out the opportunity given by the September 11 attacks for clamping down on local dissent through the use of the bogey term 'terrorism', which The Advertiser has clearly bought into. In short, the article in the Herald Sun is more informative in every way than the one in The Advertiser, as any comparison would make clear, and there is no excuse for this, especially as Mr Abdulla is a former resident of Adelaide, and his family still resides here.

The very first point made by the AJA in their code of ethics is this:

1. [Members of the AJA] shall report and interpret the news with scrupulous honesty by
striving to disclose all essential facts and by not suppressing relevant, available facts or
by distorting by wrong or improper emphasis;

The journalists and editors of The Advertiser made no attempt to supply many of the facts about this case which were available to them. They suppressed information deliberately and distorted the truth, especially in the headline they used. Why they have done this is anyone's guess, but it is both unprofessional and unethical, and does a great disservice to Adelaide and those who have come here to try to make it their home.

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At 7:54 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written Stewart. I also know the family very well and have been advocating for the Uyghur community for the past 8 years. Hopefully we can raise as much support for Noorpolat as others did for Hicks remembering in this case that Noorpolat has never pleaded guilty and was charged in a secret closed court. At the very least ou government should be pushing for a review of the case and fair and open trial with good legal representation.
Libby Hogarth; 4 April 2007

At 12:54 am , Blogger emily said...


do you happen to know which code of ethics Herald Sun adheres to?

At 8:01 am , Blogger Stewart said...

I don't know the Herald Sun well, and I may never have read it, apart from the article mentioned. the code of ethics referred to is meant to apply to all journalists, I presume.
My experience is that you can sometimes find the most unethical, distorted pieces in the most 'prestigious' newspapers, and the most thoughtful and rewarding pieces in 'tabloid' papers - though of course, not often!

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