By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
Amnesty International is marking the World Day Against the Death Penalty today (October 10) by holding vigils to build public pressure to persuade countries to abolish execution as a form of punishment.
I have the honour of delivering a short address to the Gold Coast gathering – looking at the relationship between journalism and the death penalty – and thought I would share my comments with you here.
The last person officially executed in Australia was Ronald Ryan who was hung in Melbourne more than 40 years ago – on February 3, 1967. The media coverage of the event and its associated protests were enough to pierce my consciousness as a nine-year-old schoolboy and distract my attention from my rock collecting, kite flying, yabbie fishing and marble trading in a small town in central western NSW.
I remember being both fascinated and disturbed by the notion of a government taking someone’s life and I’m sure I asked my parents many difficult questions about both the practicalities and the morality of the event.
It is significant that it happened in a period of history when our national government was routinely issuing a different type of death penalty to a generation of young Australian men in the form of balloted conscription to two years of military service.
The Vietnam War claimed the lives of 521 Australians – many of them conscripts – and injured and scarred the lives of thousands more.
The next public execution of Australians to impact upon me was that of the heroin traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in 1986 who were hung in Malaysia on July 7, 1986.
I was working on The Australian newspaper as a sub-editor and recall vividly some of the graphic coverage and images of the event and the commentary about how primitive it was that a government should carry out such a punishment.
Yet it was only two years earlier – in 1984 – that Western Australia became the last Australian state to abolish the death penalty in this country.
Thankfully we have not seen it return since, but we need to stay vigilant in our efforts to prevent it ever being reintroduced here and to get it abolished elsewhere.
Why? Because the death penalty is still widespread and governments should not have the right to take their citizens’ lives – no matter how serious their crimes.
Amnesty International’s latest report on the judicial use of the death penalty tells us at least 680 people were put to death by governments last year and more than 1700 citizens in 58 countries received a death sentence.
Those figures are conservative, particularly when China deems such information a state secret and Amnesty estimates that at least that number are executed each year in China alone.
Amnesty argues there is no real explanation for the death penalty other than revenge because there is little evidence that it acts as a deterrent, there are alternative means of punishment for proven crimes, all major religions and human rights conventions oppose murder, and far too many of those executed have later been proven innocent.
Of course, one of the direst consequences of the death penalty is that it delivers a disturbing message to formative minds like that nine-year-old boy that was me back in 1967 – it tells children that it’s okay to use violence because sometimes even our governments are allowed to kill some of us.
As a journalism and social media professor I am particularly interested in the interface between the death penalty and the media, and today I will focus briefly on four key aspects of this relationship.
- Coverage of death penalty news. Traditional and new media channels are crucial to our understanding of who is being executed by governments and their circumstances. The truth of this needs to be circulating as reliable and verified information in news reports so that citizens are aware of its scale and are reminded of the expert advice against it.
- Shooting the messenger. Of special interest – and the situation where the death penalty is open to the greatest abuse – is the use of jail and execution by governments to silence the voices of those who disagree with them. Intellectuals, religious figures, opposition politicians and journalists continue to suffer this fate simply because they hold a certain belief or have stated a particular truth. In journalism we call it ‘shooting the messenger’. Amnesty’s report gives the example of Ethiopia where anti-terror laws are used against various people, including the journalist Eskinder Nega who received an 18 year sentence on charges carrying the death penalty. He is the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
- De facto capital punishment. Of great concern is the de facto capital punishment that happens to journalists covering wars or killed by criminal elements with suspected links to government or whose activities are not pursued by authorities because of corruption or their sheer fear of consequences. Sadly, the Committee to Protect Journalists has already confirmed the deaths of 37 journalists in these kinds of circumstances this year.
- Innocence projects. Finally, one of the best arguments against the death penalty – that sometimes innocent people are executed – has been bolstered in recent years by a combination of investigative journalism, DNA testing and legal representation. Efforts by members of the international Innocence Network reported their efforts led to 22 exonerations of convicted criminals last year. The Innocence Project reported that 18 of the 311 who received DNA-related exonerations had served time on death row.
While the exoneration of death row criminals is one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty, we do not all have the time, resources or expertise to be actively involved with innocence projects.
There is also the reality that many people sitting on death rows internationally have been convincingly proven guilty of their crimes – sometimes using DNA testing – and some even admit to them.
But our campaign against the death penalty should not be won or lost on the basis of prisoners’ guilt or innocence of their crimes.
The arguments of human rights organisations like Amnesty International centre on the guilt of the system itself.
While we might question the conviction of individuals, there is no disputing the guilt of the governments who are murdering them with capital punishment.
We do not ask for the leaders of those governments to be put to death for this crime against the world’s citizens.
Rather, we call upon them to put this archaic and inhumane form of punishment to death and we ask all right thinking and compassionate people to help us in our efforts.
Active membership of Amnesty International is a wonderful starting point.
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.