PARIS (AFP) — Two controversies around the Brussels attacks have shown yet again the thin line the media must tread between breaking the news quickly and not compromising police inquiries.
Just two days before jihadists struck the Belgium capital Tuesday, the police had criticized “the irresponsibility of a certain outlet” which had published information “far too early” about the missing Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, “causing us problems.”
Hours before Abdeslam was arrested Friday after four months on the run, the French weekly news magazine L’Obs revealed that his fingerprints had been found in an apartment near Brussels.
Police moving in to arrest Abdeslam found the outside broadcast van of a Flemish-language TV channel parked only meters from his hideout.
Then on Wednesday two Belgian news websites had to retract reports claiming that an as yet unidentified third suspect involved in the Brussels airport bombings had been arrested.
It prompted the BBC’s veteran Europe correspondent Chris Morris to tweet, “This morning’s reporting an object lesson in why all should be careful about quoting anonymous sources secondhand.”
To their credit, Belgian media had respected the news blackout demanded by police in Brussels as they carried out a series of raids days linked to the Paris attacks in November, in which 130 people were killed.
The French government watchdog had earlier praised the way its media had covered the Paris attacks after criticizing several outlets’ coverage of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket shootings which took place in January 2015.
Reporters then had managed to interview one of the Kouachi brothers who massacred some of the country’s best known cartoonists as police besieged them, as well as Amedy Coulibaly as he held staff and customers hostage in the Hyper Cacher store in the east of the city.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve warned Wednesday that “the media need to be careful to avoid putting out information that is not accurate and could be exploited” for nefarious ends.
“But I don’t believe that the news media is getting in the way of the investigators,” he told AFP with an ironic smile.
More often than not the media “are late, or you are not very precise, or you haven’t got the information,” he said. “It is this lag which means the news media does not interfere with the police investigations.”
On the ground, however, journalists confronted with a deluge of often unsourced material from social media as well as traditional sources find themselves wondering if they will be accused of not only endangering inquiries but also lives.
“We are in constant contact with the authorities to see if our leads are potentially dangerous (in these type of situations). In that case, we do not publish,” said Corinne Audouin, a crime reporter on France Inter.
“Obviously when we are broadcasting live we don’t say everything that we know in real time,” she added.
The day several suspects linked to the Paris attacks were cornered in Saint Denis north of the city, one of the public radio’s reporters learned that the police had stopped firing on the apartment because they had run out of ammunition.
“We decided not to broadcast this in case those inside were listening,” said Matthieu Aron, an investigative journalist at the station.
Several British and American media commentators, however, were more concerned that the blanket coverage given to the Paris and Brussels attacks sent the wrong message while terror attacks elsewhere were not seen to be so newsworthy.
The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade pointed out that suicide bombings that killed 44 in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks got only a tiny fraction of its coverage in the international media.
For Jean-Michel Decugis of the French rolling news television channel iTele, there are times when journalists have to kill their own stories.
“I always ask if the information I have will hamper the police. If they tell me it will, I pretty much always would not put it out,” he said.
But such self-censorship in the name of public safety has been taken to extremes in Turkey, journalists there insist.
News and social media blackouts are often imposed by the government after terror attacks, which has already an unenviable record for locking up reporters.
“These censorship measures are always disproportionate and always very vague” like the one imposed after Saturday’s Istanbul attack, said Johann Bihr of Reporters Without Borders.