5 Sep 2021

Media confront thorny questions raised by terror attack

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 5 September 2021

When terrorism struck again on Friday, the media were confronted with shocking reports and images - but also thorny questions about what happened and why - and how much they could reveal. 

TVNZ 1 News on Friday began with on Friday confronting scenes of the attack.

TVNZ 1 News on Friday began with on Friday confronting scenes of the attack. Photo: screenshot / TVNZ News

On Friday morning the man making New Zealanders angry was the Ellerslie MIQ escapee who busted out of a Novotel Hotel just hours after beginning his stretch - and who had already been reported for not following the rules after his positive test.  

Some asked why we didn’t hear about it sooner from the prime minister, who knew about it by the time of the daily 1pm briefing that day - but said nothing. 

But by Friday afternoon another man who was also known to the PM and the police as a danger had taken over as public enemy number one - Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen.

Accounts and images from the LynnMall Countdown posted on social media made it evident this was a terror attack before the PM labelled it as such in a 5pm media conference.

They were images of the sort of thing we used to say only happened overseas - but just last May people were stabbed in aisles of a Countdown one afternoon in Dunedin. 

After a terrorist’s own images on 15 March 2019 were aired by some local media during the breaking news frenzy after the mosque attacks, the media and regulators acknowledged they can cause harm to viewers and exposure can even serve terrrorism’s cause.

Understandably, some people reacted badly to the media pushing out raw images - again - from the LynnMall on Friday. 

A New Zealand Herald push notification for example: 

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Photo: screenshot

The video wasn’t explicit and didn’t show victims - but it was indeed ‘chilling’ as the Herald website labelled it. 

TVNZ also copped criticism online for tweeting a subtitled compilation of eyewitness images with the sound of gunshots. Some Twitter users said they reported it as violent content.

TVNZ’s 1 News at 6 on Friday kicked off with eyewitness images of the attack without warning. 

Newshub at 6 also screened the same and similar footage, but gave viewers a warning its coverage might be distressing.  

While police urged people to submit videos and photos of the attack, the BBC also asked online readers to get in touch with what they saw or captured from the scene. 

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Photo: screenshot / BBC.com

At a special news conference on Friday, the PM - well aware speculation can fill an information vacuum - said it was in the public interest for New Zealanders to know more about the attacker  - still unnamed at the point - as soon as possible.  

But that wasn't straightforward due to suppression orders issued by the courts.

This was a considerable frustration for the media, because some reporters - like the PM and police commissioner - also knew it was Samsudeen. 

Herald investigative reporter Jared Savage explained why the identity of Samsudeen still couldn’t be revealed even after name suppression was lifted. A High Court judge on Friday night delayed his order by 24 hours to give his family an opportunity to seek suppression orders of their own. The reason for the suppression order granted in 2018 also could not be reported at that time.

But on Friday afternoon the Herald was still able to publish an eye-opening story first published on 16 August which detailed Samsudeen’s past crimes and convictions and sentences. 

Herald reporter Sam Hurley has been following Samsudeen since he first emerged as a danger five years ago. 

The article also explained he couldn’t be charged as a terrorist earlier because of a longstanding gap in New Zealand's counter-terrorism law that one judge called “an achilles heel”.

Sam Hurley also revealed later that day Samsudeen had been out on bail and was facing other charges for assaulting prison guards while in custody.

Stuff revealed on Saturday Samsudeen was ordered to undergo a psychological assessment after being sentenced for possessing banned ISIS propaganda - no such assessment ever happened. 

Did the law let us down? 

The Herald's David Fisher in the Weekend Herald on our anti-terror laws.

The Herald's David Fisher in the Weekend Herald on our anti-terror laws. Photo: photo/ RNZ Mediawatch

At this point questions about the gaps in our anti-terror laws were being raised. Specifically: would it have prevented this attack if they’d been filled? 

On RNZ’s news special yesterday a specialist on terrorism and counter-terrorism at Massey University told RNZ New Zealand's terror laws have been "outdated and deficient basically since they were passed." Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis said it my have have made no difference. 

And for those claiming counter-terror measures failed, Jack Tame pointed out on his Newstalk ZB show it was likely Samsudeen didn’t have the freedom to plan a more sophisticated terror attack. Because he was being so strictly surveilled, he was previously arrested just for buying a single knife. 

In the Herald on Saturday David Fisher, a senior writer with experience in security and defence issues - pointed out on Saturday police and security services could not have done any more to stop Samsudeen without breaking the law.

Shortcomings in the The Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 were recognised by The Royal Commission into the 15 March attack, he said, and the law will now change into one which would have put this young man in jail. 

But David Fisher said that would not solve the problem posed by a small number of dangerous extremists. 

This man had already been jailed but remained a problem.  

On RNZ’s news special yesterday the chair of the Federation of Islamic Associations Abdur Razzaq urged the media  - and people on social media - to stick to facts and not to “raise the temperature”.

It wasn't hard to find kneejerk reactions and finger pointing on social media this weekend, but no-one engaging in that has been given a platform for it by mainstream news media since the attack. 

While some media outlets still seemed to want to shock us with details of stuff that was self-evidently shocking when the news broke, some - especially the New Zealand Herald, the biggest newsgatherer in Auckland where the attack took place - worked fast and hard to answer big questions on people’s minds. 

Even technical questions about the law were well explored within hours of claims it was not fit for purpose. 

“An independent judiciary and appropriate limits on power help to give us the freedom and security that events and people like this, threaten,” Jack Tame told listeners of his Newstalk ZB show on Saturday. 

“They are part of what makes New Zealand a good country to live in,” he said.  

So too are news media that reveal and explain crises to people desperate to understand them - and ours are getting more practice than they would wish for reporting terrorism at home.