Can Journalists Publish Whatever They Like?


In the early morning of Wednesday May 12 2010, Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771  crashed in Tripoli, Libya. Of the 104 passengers and crew, only one child, a nine year old Dutch boy called Ruben, survived the crash. The miraculous survival was front page world news. Pictures of the bruised and battered little boy lying in a hospital bed were broadcasted by the media all over the world. One can question whether the right to privacy and  human dignity of victims such as Ruben is sufficiently safeguarded by the media.

The young boy and his family were not given the possibility to decide whether or not to allow reporters with cameras to take images of Ruben. The physician that took care of Ruben in the hospital of Tripoli made this choice for them. Also in The Netherlands close up pictures were shown in the media of the little boy. The Dutch Broadcasting Foundation (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (NOS)) showed images during their news broadcasts. A reporter from the Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf, even managed to get direct contact with the boy. The journalist called one of the Libyan physicians who was responsible for the medical care of Ruben. The physician eventually handed his cell phone over to the young boy. This phone call led to a controversial article which was published in De Telegraaf. This article led to discussion in The Netherlands.

Also other Dutch media were condemned for broadcasting images and disclosing information about the young boy and other victims from the aircraft disaster. Journalists, ethicists and media experts have mixed opinions about the issue. Many journalists and experts are of the opinion that the concerned reporters have disregarded the right to privacy of Ruben. In this case, press freedom clashes with the right to privacy. According to Jurist and professor Egbert Dommering from the University of Amsterdam, making images of the young victim Ruben constitutes a serious breach of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (EHCR) which is concerned with the right to privacy. Dommering is of the opinion that victims of disasters have a right to privacy and need to be protected. [1].

Many experts such as theologian and former professor of communication studies Anne van der Meiden, are of the opinion that it is best to keep a certain distance towards the victim and thereby respecting his wellbeing and privacy. With regard to the Tripoli crash Anne van der Meiden says: "The moral limits of media are shifting and as an ethicist I say that it is a natural and unstoppable process. In case of such a horrible calamity, journalists are forced to ask themselves whether it should be better to keep a respectful distance." [2]

The Libyan hospital was confronted with the breach of the privacy rights of young Ruben. Dutch politician Femke Halsema blamed the Dutch embassy in Libya for taking insufficient care of the protection of the rights of the young Dutch child to privacy [3]. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands did not agree with Ms Halsema. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it insisted on safeguarding the privacy of Ruben and that it insisted on keeping the press away from his bed and the disaster area.[4]

Hans Laroes, editor in chief of the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation (NOS) calls for the creation of guidelines by the Dutch Council for Journalism regarding the protection of the rights to privacy of calamity victims such as little Ruben in his personal weblog. [5] The NOS stated that it would not use the image and name of the young survivor of the crash without pressing reasons.[6]

The media confronts us with dreadful images of wounded bodies and corpses on a daily basis. We come face to face with personal and private images of the agony, suffering and hardship of fellow humans who have become victims of dire, horrible and ill fated circumstances such as severe poverty, conflict, a war, a natural disaster or an airplane calamitiy. With the help of radio, tv, internet and satellite communication we can follow the news very closely. Globalization and technological development have given the media more vivacity and realism. We watch the spectacle of life as a reality show on our tv, computer, cellphone and on paper.

However, these images often concern the bodies of persons, living and dead. One can question whether their right to privacy and their human dignity are sufficiently safeguarded by the media. On the one hand the shocking images of disasters can be necessary eye openers for the world which encourage to take action, such as offering humanitarian assistance and humanitarian intervention. But on the other hand one can ask how often these images can be shown without risking the breach of the right to privacy or disrespecting the human dignity of one or several persons. It depends on the journalist's moral sense, the ethical awareness and sense of what is appropriate and what is not whether he will pursue a story in an unethical way or in a way which will respect the rights of the person(s) involved.

Journalists have different opinions about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate journalism. Moral sense and moral awareness are not uniform and universal. However, there should be a minimum standard for journalists. In my opinion, more specific guidelines for journalists are needed. More attention should be paid to the code of conduct of journalists and enforceable regulations to safeguard the rights of the persons involved.


[1] See Verdeeldheid over privacy slachtoffers. From Villamedia.
[2] Quoted and translated from ibid.

[3] See Ministerie boos op Halsema om verwijt Ruben. An article from De Volkskrant.
[4] See Ziekenhuis aangesproken op privacy Ruben. An article from De Volkskrant.
[5] See Rubens privacy. Weblog from the Editor in Chief of the NOS, Hans Laroes. (Link no longer working). See this other source which quoted the original source. See also this Dutch article from the NRC for more information.
[6] See NOS Twitter messages concerning the Tripoli aircraft disaster of May 12 2010. and Laroes: richtlijn van RvdJ wenselijk. From Villamedia.