Miraculous air crash survivor faces glaring spotlights
The media frenzy that descended on the 9-year-old sole survivor of the Libyan air crash has raised concerns over his privacy.
Eindhoven's military airfield was declared off limits to the press on Saturday after a CNN camera crew and two reporters had been expelled from the airport. Instead, the press gathered amidst aircraft spotters on the other side of the runway. At 2:15 pm, their cameras were able to catch the arrival of a small white plane. A local news reporter informed her audience that the sole survivor of the Libyan air disaster had just landed safely.
Taping the plane's landing, shooting pictures of the ambulance and making sure the "miracle kid" has landed safely - all in a day's works for the journalist on the scene in Eindhoven. But have they gone too far in their pursuit of news this time? This is a question being asked in the Netherlands.
On Friday, the Netherlands largest daily, De Telegraaf, set off controversy when it published a telephone interview with the boy who survived the crash last Wednesday but lost his parents and brother. The paper later published a justification of its actions, calling the boy a symbol of life in the middle of tragedy. The Dutch public broadcaster, NOS, aired footage of the 9-year-old lying in a Libyan hospital bed. Giselle van Cann, deputy editor-in-chief of the NOS, later defended the broadcast in a blog post. According to Van Cann, the pictures told the story of the impossible, of a sole survivor amidst 103 casualties, and of a child too young to fend for himself.
Trouw, another Dutch newspaper, explained its decision to refrain from publishing a picture of the boy in an article by its editor-in-chief, Willem Schoonen. It was "not easy" to abstain from publication, Schoonen wrote, since everybody had already seen the picture anyway. Still, doing so would constitute an "unacceptable violation" of the child's privacy, the paper found.
To publish or not to publish a photo: the decision involves a careful balancing act between the public interest and the privacy of those involved. Newsrooms' good taste is the final judge in these matters. "Responsibility always lies with the medium and its editorial staff," said Marcel Broersma, professor of journalism at Groningen University and member of the Journalism Council, a Dutch professional body charged with upholding ethical standards and arbitrating disputes that arise in the journalistic line of work. There are no clear-cut rules, but some guidelines do exist.
Code of conduct
The International Federation of Journalists' Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, also known as the Code of Bordeaux, states that journalists should "use only fair methods to obtain news, photographs and documents". But media are free to ignore the code at their choosing, and can define fair methods as they please. Once the media cross an apparent line in the sand, as they seem to have done in their reports regarding 9-year-old Ruben, it is often already too late. "This is the flipside of freedom of the press," Broersma said. "The alternative is pre-publication censorship."
According to Egbert Dommering, a legal scholar and professor at the University of Amsterdam, the publication of pictures and moving images of Ruben in his hospital bed has crossed a legal line. The Libyan hospital is to blame for the fact that it was possible to take pictures of the boy in the first place, Dommering said, but every medium that publishes pictures of him has to account for its own actions. "Every Dutch publication has to be judged according to Dutch privacy laws," he added. According to Dommering, prior broadcasts of the image on CNN and the internet did little to change that.
Dommering called the publication of Ruben's picture a "serious violation of privacy" at odds with Article VIII of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees respect for private life. "Disaster victims deserve to be protected," Dommering said, adding that, in this case, public interest did not provide an overriding justification for the publication of the disputed images.
Prior rulings favour privacy
Dommering referred to a Greek case heard by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004. A hospital had taken a picture of a newborn in an area off limits to its parents. Once the parents saw the picture, they wanted it destroyed, but the hospital refused. The court found in the parents’ favour, arguing that taking pictures of someone under the baby's circumstances, without their permission, constituted a violation of privacy.
In 2007, the European court ruled in favour of the family of an assassinated Corsican prefect. The French weekly, Paris Match, published a picture of the body immediately after the murder, which the family argued violated its right to privacy. Two judges did not agree with the verdict, because the assassination was political in nature. Dommering feels the same way. "I would draw the line at pictures or moving pictures that clearly depict the likeness of the victims of traffic accidents, acts of violence or domestic killings. In these cases, privacy should prevail," he said.
But in the maelstrom of news that follows after an unexpected disaster, it can be hard for newsrooms to draw the line. Hans Laroes, editor-in-chief of the NOS, has called upon the Dutch Journalism Council to establish guidelines governing the use of disaster victims' pictures. Debating matters after the fact, as is now happening, does little good to those involved. "You cannot rectify privacy violations," Dommering said.