Offensive Video Raises Questions About Censorship

Last week, after the controversial anti-Islamic film Fitna was released by a Dutch parliamentarian, questions resurfaced about how the media should best handle sensitive and offensive material. Hayden Hewitt, co-founder of LiveLeak.com, which initially aired the film, and NPR Ombudsman Lisa Shepard discuss media and censorship.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We wanted to talk about a short film that raises big questions about free speech and religion. The film is titled "Fitna," which translates to strife or conflict in Arabic.

(Soundbite of Muslim prayer)

MARTIN: It's only 15 minutes long, and it was made by a member of parliament in the Netherlands named Geert Wilders, the leader of a small nationalist party. He strongly believes that Islam poses a threat to western civilization and should be suppressed, however possible. To that end he created the film, which shows bloody footage of the aftermath of terrorist attacks interspersed with verses from the Koran. There's no dialogue, only the sung passages to the Koran like you just heard.

And the film opens with a cartoon image of the prophet Mohammad. Since that was one of the images that sparked violent protests around the world two years ago when it was printed in a number of Danish newspapers, you might wonder why Wilders would do this. But Wilders seems to be clear that his goal is to get attention for his views. What's not so clear is everyone else's role in the drama. Should media outlets showcase the work or not? Is there a greater responsibility to circulate controversial ideas even if they give offense, or to protect known sensibilities as a gesture of respect in a diverse society?

Here to talk about all this are Hayden Hewitt, co-founder of liveleak.com. It's a website that agreed to host the film after no Dutch broadcast outlets would air it, and Lisa Shepard, National Public Radio's ombudsman. She is tasked with helping the organization adhere to best practices. I thank you both for joining me.

And Hayden, I apologize for butchering your name. If you would - tell me about Live Leak. What's its mission?

Mr. HAYDEN HEWITT (Co-founder, LiveLeak.com): Well, liveleak.com, in essence, is a video sharing site predominantly dedicated towards political videos, current event videos, and also member opinion.

MARTIN: Why did you choose to broadcast the film? And do I have it right that you only had it up for a day?

Mr. HEWITT: Yes, well essentially we were contacted asking if they could upload it. Our only reply was you'll have to do what everybody else does - join, upload, and if it's approved, if it meets our rules, it will be shown.

MARTIN: And what are the rules that it had to meet to be shown?

Mr. HEWITT: Well I mean, we have our whole FAQ on the site about what is acceptable on Live Leak and what isn't, and it met those rules, so we showed it.

MARTIN: And why did you take it down?

Mr. HEWITT: Because we received some very serious threats to staff members and their family, and we had to take some time to basically improve our security measures to deal with these sort of things.

MARTIN: Lisa Shepard, I want to go to you - do you think that this film should be shown?

LISA SHEPARD: I applaud Live Leak for putting it out there. I think that this video could be a starting point for a conversation, Michel. I think it's news, and it's the job of the media to educate, to inform people, responsibly, about what is going on. And clearly, these are extremist views, and I think that the rest of the world needs to know about them.

MARTIN: Should then organizations like NPR take responsibility for either hosting the video or linking to it?

SHEPARD: Well, I think that what NPR could do to be responsible is to bring in a mainstream Muslim to talk about whether or not the things in the video are accurate. I'd want to know, you know, what a mainstream Muslim thought of this. Does the Koran really say that Jews eat monkeys and swine? Does it say that Allah really is happy when non-Muslims are killed? I find that hard to believe, and I think that these are extremist views, and it's a good point to have a discussion.

Should NPR link to this video? I think not. I think it's an offensive video, and I think that you can let the viewers, listeners, know, hey, it's out there. You can find it. It's on YouTube. You watch it. You decide.

MARTIN: But wouldn't one argue that the ability to make an informed judgment about this film - it's crucial to see the film? You saw the film, right?

SHEPARD: I saw the film, but I had a pretty good idea just from talking with your producer about what it was going to be like. We've all heard some of these extreme views. I didn't feel like I really needed to see it. I didn't feel like I learned that much from it. I wanted to know what was it about, and it raised that question to me. Is this stuff really accurate?

MARTIN: But if you had the opportunity to view the film and to make an informed judgment about it, don't other adults have the same right? Or shouldn't they have the same right in a free society, and how do you weigh that against the fact that it does seem to be deliberately provocative and deliberately intended to cause offense? Of course, the maker of the film, Wilders, says that he doesn't intend to cause offense. He has a right to express his views, that's what he's doing. If others take offense, then he's not responsible for how they feel. That is his perspective, and he's been quoted in the Dutch newspapers as saying that. But why isn't there a responsibility to allow people to make an informed judgment, even if it does cause offense?

SHEPARD: Well, I think we're talking about two different things. We're having a discussion about the video right now. It will raise interest in it. I'm saying that NPR doesn't have to link to it on its website because it is offensive, but NPR is also discussing it and also saying hey, it's out there. You can go to YouTube, but we don't want to, you know, give a lot of credence to this. We don't want to say this is an important story. We're telling you - we're taking it as a starting point.

That's what I would like to see the media do is, you know, why do these feelings exist? Why does someone like Wilders make this kind of video?

MARTIN: I'd like to ask each of you if you think that so-called traditional media or old media organizations like NPR have a different responsibility than so-called new media outlets like Live Leak. Do you think there's a difference in what each of them is tasked with doing? Hayden, what do you think?

Mr. HEWITT: Well, certainly there's a very large difference in the responsibilities. The mainstream media is quite often broadcast directly into people's homes, directly into their cars. They will listen as they go or watch as they go. Whereas with the new media and online, it's an absolute choice to choose an item to view, read the description, decide if they wish to view it or not. So obviously, you know there are far different precedents for how we should handle things between the mainstream and new media.

MARTIN: Lisa?

Ms. SHEPARD: I agree with that, but I'd also want to say that it's important for the mainstream media to establish itself as a credible brand and a place where you can go for reliable information.

MARTIN: And to that end, though, do you feel that sort of the gate-keeping responsibility is different?

Ms. SHEPARD: I don't think it's really - again, we are passed being gatekeepers, Michel. Anything that is news gets out there. You can get it on the Internet. You can hear it on talk radio. There are lots of ways that information is disseminated now. So I think it's more the responsibility again to talk about this stuff and talk about why it's out there, why it's being made, and to use it as a starting point for really educational discussions.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're speaking with Live Leak co-founder Hayden Hewitt and NPR ombudsman Lisa Shepard about the Dutch film, "Fitna," that was released last week. Hayden, and of course you also had a balancing act yourself weighing your commitment to free speech and disseminating ideas with the safety of staff members - taking the film down after, I believe, it was 25 hours.

Mr. HEWITT: Yeah, thereabouts. But we did actually put the film back up once we'd made all the necessary arrangements, of course.

MARTIN: And now, it is available to be seen now?

Mr. Hewitt: No, ironically the users themselves apparently just took it down for copyright reasons.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. Hewitt: With a short note on the deletion notice saying a new version is coming. I obviously can't give you any more information about that. I've got no idea. But, so, that was kind of strange.

MARTIN: That is, that's interesting. And Lisa, is that something that you find yourself confronting, too? The question of the safety of the disseminators of the news compared to sort of the goal of making this news available - is this something that you find, as a member of a mainstream news organization, as something that's being weighed?

SHEPARD: I think that the safety of your reporters always has to be taken into consideration. You know, NPR has a policy of giving very limited information about any of its staff that are in Baghdad because they're constantly thinking about the safety. There's - I did a piece last week about the reporters in Baghdad, and I was asked to not include certain things that listeners or readers of my column might think might give too much information.

MARTIN: So as we enter this world where issues of safety as issues of sensibility and of course freedom of speech are all being weighed, Lisa, do you have any common-sense guidelines for how you evaluate these three competing values? Or really, does it all have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis?

SHEPARD: You know, I think anytime some big controversial story comes out every - you always have to challenge your assumptions, and you have to evaluate - is it - seek truth and minimize harm is part of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics code. So you are always having to ask questions about - should we air this? Who could be harmed? Who do we - who needs to learn from this? And just always challenge our assumptions.

MARTIN: Hayden, just briefly, if you would in the minute or so we have left, love to know what kind of reaction that Live Leak has gotten to posting the video?

Mr. Hewitt: When we first went off, obviously, a lot of support for sharing something that no one else seemed to want to show. Also a lot of hate mail and threats. And conversely, when we took it down, a huge volume of hate mail, in all honesty predominantly from the United States. Accusing us of cowardice, stepping down and no death threats, wishing death on us perhaps, but no death threats. So mostly, it's just been a rough ride for the duration really.

MARTIN: And also, were there the kinds of opposing views that Lisa Shepard talked about? Were there answer videos, as it were?

Mr. HEWITT: Yeah.

MARTIN: People answering the argument made by "Fitna"?

Mr. HEWITT: There were some from members. We did actually invite the Muslim Council of Great Britain to make a video in response, so we could get a balanced response on there. We offered them the same exposure. We never heard back from them after the initial couple of contacts, so it's clear that the hype won on this occasion, and people are happy to let it play out however it may.

MARTIN: Hayden Hewitt is the co-founder of LiveLeak.com. It hosted the video "Fitna," and Hayden Hewitt joined us from the United Kingdom. We are not disclosing his location because he has been the subject of threats, as he discussed. Lisa Shepard is the ombudsman for National Public Radio, and she joined us from member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HEWITT: Thank you.

SHEPARD: Thank you.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, the conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News.

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