The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published on news.com.au on 1 November 2015. The article was headed “Brutal torture of four women captured on camera" and contained an embedded video. A homepage item headed “Sickening torture caught on camera” linked to the article. The embedded video was positioned near a map of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and captioned “WARNING: The following video contains extremely disturbing images”. The article stated: “The footage shows at least four naked women tied up, burned and beaten while being prodded with hot wire and interrogated by a group of machete-wielding men". The video was reportedly “uploaded to YouTube by the Commission for Social Concerns, Catholic Bishops' Conference of Papua New Guinea”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice requiring that reasonable steps be taken to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The publication said the video highlighted an issue of strong public interest in the affairs of a neighbouring country. It said the video had been uploaded to YouTube by a local group concerned by the number of incidents of sorcery-related violence, in order to get international attention. It said the video was freely available and had received worldwide media attention and public debate.
The publication said it took a number of steps to avoid causing distress. The stand-first on the homepage item linking to the article included the text: “Warning: extremely disturbing footage”. The main article carried a similar warning at the top of the article in bold lettering. The headline in the article accompanying the video and the first two paragraphs also gave a description of its contents which it said afforded readers who did not wish to view the video ample warning.
The publication also said it elected to publish the embedded video in the article because, as explained in the story, the PNG Government had been disregarding sorcery-related violence and this issue was of significant public interest. The publication said the article highlighted issues with the internal security of PNG, which is of interest in it being a close neighbour and recipient of substantial aid from the Australian Government. It said news.com.au is a national news website which provides strong and detailed coverage of the Asia-Pacific region for its readership and as such, regularly reports on issues of social and civic concern in the region. The publication said it was important for its readers to clearly understand these issues from an uncensored viewpoint.
General Principle 6 of the Council’s Standards requires that a publication take reasonable steps not to contribute to offence and distress unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council accepts the matter reported was of significant public interest to readers in promulgating awareness of this form of violence in a neighbouring country. It noted the article was prompted by the YouTube post apparently by the Commission for Social Concerns, Catholic Bishops' Conference of Papua New Guinea, and its attempts to highlight this serious matter.
The Council considers some readers would find the contents of the video to be distressing, however it acknowledges the publication’s steps to alert readers to this in providing sufficient warnings on both the homepage item and the linked article. The Council is of the view that the steps taken to avoid causing distress were reasonable and that any distress caused was sufficiently outweighed by the public interest.
Accordingly, the article did not breach the Council’s Standards in relation to General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following Standard of Practice of the Council:
6: “Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”