The New York Times public editor’s recent column provides an interesting foil to examine the press laws in the United Arab Emirates. The ombudsman chided his paper for publishing the names of very young children involved in a civil lawsuit. The paper’s standards editor defended the move by pointing out that the newspaper is in the business of providing information to readers, not withholding it. While the newspaper had the legal right to publish the names, Arthur Brisbane believes they shouldn’t have.
And yet, in these cases and certainly in the case of the 4-year-old and 5-year-old civil defendants, reader concerns and sometimes parental criticism have swiftly followed publication. Each time, I have come away believing the use of children’s names added little value while creating the possibility of harm.
As I see it, The Times should update its thinking to recognize the harsh effects of the electronic age. What needs revision is the traditional belief that withholding a child’s name, except under extraordinary circumstances, is some kind of dereliction of duty.
I agree — I see little news value in naming children. In the UAE, of course, newspapers have no choice. The press laws in this country not only prohibit naming children involved in legal proceedings, they ban the publication of any name involved in a legal case. The editorial policy of Emirates 24/7 explains:
When we only print the initials of individuals involved in court cases it is because they are part of an ongoing case. Consequently, under UAE law, it is considered to be prejudicial to name them and the newspaper can be sued. The individuals can only be named in full once the court has given its verdict and the timeframe allowed for an appeal has expired.
Anyone who picks up a newspaper will notice the difference immediately. Articles about arrests and trials contain plenty of details about the case. But, the accused and defendants will only be referred to with initials and their nationality.
Despite my years as a U.S. journalist, I find myself surprisingly comfortable with this type of reporting. After all, why do I need to know the name of the accused? How is society hurt by not receiving this information? And if the person is found not guilty — they won’t be hampered by having their name plastered in the newspaper. (The cases of Wen Ho Lee and Richard Jewell come to mind.) While clearly suppressing press freedoms, the UAE’s media law is certainly not without its merits. My only objection is that the government has decided how the press should behave—rather than the press making the decision on its own. Of course, the U.S. and Western courts (i.e., the government) have made other decisions about the press should behave—they’ve just drawn the line in a more liberal spot.
I’m not suggesting that the U.S. adopt draconian press laws to match the UAE’s. However, perhaps U.S. journalists should consider whether this knee-jerk reaction to publish names (“the public’s right to know!”) actually helps anyone. If a clear benefit can’t be found in the publication of a name, then withholding it appears to harm no one.