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"War on Words" conference examines national security vs. media freedom

Journalists, human rights lawyers and advocates, and counter-terrorism experts gathered in Vienna last week to discuss the tension between media freedom and terrorism laws.

The "War on Words" conference on terrorism, media and the law, organised by the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Salzburg-based Centre for International Legal Studies (CILS), took place 5 and 6 October.

IPI Director David Dadge opened the conference by suggesting that there is a link between terrorism and a lack of information.

In the first panel session, moderator Hamid Mir, executive editor at Geo TV in Pakistan, pointed to the difference between fighting a war on terror and a war on civil liberties. A discussion followed about the need to find ways to strengthen national security without curbing media freedoms.

In other sessions, the media's detrimental use of terms like "terrorist" and "torture" and its failure to provide the right historical context to explain news and policy was examined.

On day two of the conference, the 2005 Prophet Mohamed cartoons controversy was analysed. Endy Bayuni, editor-in-chief of "The Jakarta Post" in Indonesia, said it was important to uphold free speech, without giving too much space to extremists to hijack the news. Although Bayuni argued the cartoons were in "bad taste," he defended the right of journalists to "make mistakes" without fear of retribution.

The final session discussed a draft declaration on terrorism, media and the law. The draft states that access to diverse, uncensored information is the best antidote to terrorist ideology. It adds that a robust pluralistic media is invaluable in holding state power in check and combating terrorism by countering misinformation, secrecy and rumour.

The declaration lists 11 points such as: policies and laws adopted to combat terrorism should be consistent with international and constitutional standards, including guarantees of freedom of expression; blasphemy laws cannot justify restrictions on freedom of expression; and counter-terrorism laws should not be arbitrary or capricious in nature and should always be subject to independent judicial oversight.

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