Whilst ordinarily, when someone has not been proven in a court to have been guilty of a crime, the media exercises tremendous restraint in ensuring it does not enter into libel nor enter into behavior that may prejudice judicial processes.
The alleged Australian Taliban fighter, David Hicks, has not been charged with any crime, and there is still considerable uncertainty as to whether the allegations against him even constitute a crime under Australian law.
Despite that, sections of the Australian tabloid media have gone to extraordinary lengths in demonizing him, labeling him a traitor and entering into behavior that would be unconscionable in any other context or with regards to any other accused.
In the middle of December, 2001, it was discovered that an Australian convert to Islam has been captured by the Northern Alliance. Whether he was with al-Qaeda or the Taliban was a matter of some controversy, although it is rapidly becoming critical to his case given the US's recognition of Taliban prisoners as POWs and al-Qaeda prisoners as "illegal combatants."
The Murdoch press seemed to be confused as to whether he was an al-Qaeda fighter or a Taliban figher. For instance, Mark Dunn (Herald-Sun, 13/12/2001) termed him one of Bin Laden's "terrorist fighters." In the same issue, an opinion poll labelled him a "Taliban fighter." The aforementioned newspaper, (14/12/2001) stated he was with the Taliban. In the 16/12/2001 edition, he was depicted as has having fought for al-Qaeda.
Yet, regardless of under what circumstances he was captured, there seems to be no ambiguity in the minds of Herald-Sun jounalists that he is a traitor and a terrorist. It appears that there is no need to prefix such allegations with terms as "alleged" or "accused" just as there is no need for a fair trial in a court of law to test these allegations.
In a December 13, 2001 article entitled "Traitor," Mark Dunn wrote that Hicks has been revealed as one of Bin Laden's "terrorist fighters." The following day, December 14, Dunn wrote that he was a "Taliban traitor."
Another article in the same issue was entitled, "Traitor faces death," and stated that the "captured terrorist" could be guilty of treason - the only crime still punishable by death under Australian law.
Later the Herald-Sun conducted a macabre opinion survey asking whether Hicks should be killed. Despite not having been charged with any offence, Hick was tried in the court of public opinion. The results, published on December 14th, announced that 86.7% (19,721) of respondents answered "Yes," and 3.3% (300) answered "No."
Herald Sun reader Bob McWhirter (15/12/2001) wrote a letter entitled, "Please don't call this traitor an Aussie." In it he posited, "STOP calling this Hicks fellow an Aussie. It angers me to hear him being referred to as that." One can only wonder why McWhirter is so adamant. It seems he had already tried and, subsequently convicted David, without a shred of evidence.
In the same issue, in an article titled, "Rebel trained for jihad," Mark Dunn pondered the reasons "why David Hicks chose to betray his country (and) train with terrorist group al-Qaeda and fight for the Taliban?" I believe it is more important for David to receive a fair trial, one which will (hopefully) be truthfully and accurately reported; so that all Austalians can decide for themselves whether David chose to betray his country, or if this so called bertayal is a complete fallacy.
On December 18, 2001, Dunn reported, "CIA grills Aussie traitor aboard ship," and on December 21, "Named Interrogators find two new traitors." The following day, he reported, "Sad news for army; General laments traitor's history."
In an editorial entitled, "Betrayal of Trust" (December 21, 2000), the Herald-Sun editor wrote regarding ASIO "They knew about traitor David Hicks," once again using emotive language to vilify David and producing no hard evidence on which to base this assumption.
On February 6, 2001, Damon Johnson wrote, "Jail breaks terrorist": "THREE weeks in a tiny cage surrounded by razor wire and armed guards has tamed Australian terrorist David Hicks."
After labelling Hicks a terrorist and a traitor, it was then pointed out that Hicks was once married to an Aboriginal woman, "Dad ... I fight for the Taliban," (December 13). One can only imagine what purpose it serves to investigate the racial origins of the ex-wife of an accused terrorist. One can also only imagine whether the newspaper would have printed her ethnicity if she had been Italian or second-generation Irish.
May I point out that not all of the media reports were bad. To his credit, Andrew Bolt's December13 opinion piece referred to Hicks as "the Australian allegedly caught working in Afghanistan for the al-Qaeda terrorists." In a later piece "How we fail many kids," published (December 17,2001), Bolt used the wording, "the more I hear about alleged traitor David Hicks." Bolt understands the difference between an accusation and a fact proven in a court of law.
One cannot help but think that some members of the media feel that the war on terror and the events of September 11 have rendered them free from the usual constraints of reporting in a democracy. Let me remind them this is not so. All Australians are innocent until proven guilty in a (civil) court of law.
Why the dichotomy between the treatment of David Hicks in the media and the treatment of others accused of crime? Why has he been labelled a terrorist and a traitor with no supporting evidence? Is it because his parents aren't wealthy? Is it because he is poorly educated and left secondary school before completing Year 9?
One can only wonder at the agenda of the Australian government in this matter. The sychophantic response of John Howard towards the Americans and George W. Bush, in particular. The condemnation of government ministers, Williams, Hill and Downer, and the damning statements they have made since David's capture. Where has their evidence come from? ASIO or Commonwealth Police? The American CIA? And under what conditions has it been obtained? Torture? (Recall the photos of the prisoners leaving the Cuban flight. Manacled, hooded and in leg chains. Also the photos of the prisoners kneeling in front of their jailers, deprived of sight, sound and touch and handcuffed, too. Does this constitute reasonable treatment for men as yet to be charged with any crime?)