Norwegian television has been banned from broadcasting the testimony of confessed killer Anders Behring Breivik as he goes on trial, yet his chilling declarations about why and how he killed scores of people have still made headlines around the world.
The deluge of reporting on Breivik has caused a backlash from disgusted Norwegians; one Norwegian newspaper website allows people to browse a Breivik-free edition by clicking a button. Many complain that Breivik has gotten exactly what he wanted: a platform for spreading his views.
Yet experts disagree on whether airing his ideas will spread them. Very little is known about how people become radicalized, let alone how the media play into that, said Ben O’Loughlin, a Royal Holloway University of London professor who studies media and security.
Censoring his words could easily backfire, he said. “If you tell people these views are too extreme for us to show you, people immediately go on to the Internet to look for them,” O’Loughlin said.
The news that Breivik has a Massachusetts pen pal who calls his actions "atrocious but necessary" seemed to bear out the worst fears about the media blitz. Tad Tietze, a Sydney psychiatrist who contributed to a book on the murders, said Breivik is targeting his message to others who believe that Muslims are "invading their lands," hoping to convince them that violence is needed.
"His ideas can get out there via media and win them over," Tietze said. "Journalists are in a very, very difficult position, because the trial is of obvious public interest and does need to be reported."
Others believe that Breivik is ultimately more likely to turn people against extremism. Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, called as an expert witness in the case, told British television station ITN that Breivik was so distasteful that airing his views would be more like “a mosquito repellent,” showing people "how bad it could get if they are attracted to these crazy notions of purity and cleansing."
Radical right-wing parties that believe Europe is under threat from immigration have toned down their rhetoric since the killings, said Jamie Bartlett, head of the violence and extremism program at the Demos think tank. The Norwegian Progress Party, which Breivik once belonged to, has lost support.
"I think the interest in censoring him is that we want to punish him, rather than fear of these ideas themselves," said Padraig Reidy, news editor of Index of Censorship, a free-speech group.
Though copycat killings are a known threat, exposing the killer as pathetic can stop them: In one Malaysian incident, British colonial forces put a halt to killing rampages by ensuring that the perpetrators were sent to mental hospitals, something seen as highly humiliating, experts Ramon Spaaij and Raj Persaud recently wrote.
“Exposing [Breivik] as a narcissistic, computer-playing terrible human being is far more effective than letting him be glamorized as a glorious terrorist freedom fighter,” Bartlett said.
However, Tietze said that the media haven't really exposed Breivik, reporting too dispassionately on an attack that should be clearly labeled as fascism. "It doesn't matter how much you let him talk, as long as it's labeled correctly," the Sydney psychiatrist said. "This is a modern variant of fascism."
The Breivik trial has been better handled than other cases in which journalists have extended the reach of extremist rhetoric, said Sheldon Himelfarb, who directs programs on media and conflict at the United States Institute of Peace.
Several experts singled out the media circus over a Florida preacher burning the Koran, saying that it awarded undue attention to someone on the fringe who had no other claims to newsworthiness. That, in turn, triggered outrage and violence in Afghanistan.
The problem arises not with reporting on extremism, but when journalists inflate isolated, inflammatory acts into media events with little context, Bournemouth University professor Barry Richards said.
“If someone burns a Koran in Florida, is it clear that this isn’t what the American people feel as a whole?” Richards asked. “Is it apparent there was a great deal of revulsion about it in the U.S.?”
Presenting the Breivik testimony in the proper light has been especially difficult for journalists using Twitter, a micro-blogging service that allows only 140 characters for each update, to send news from the courtroom. Helen Pidd, who has been reporting on the case for the Guardian, stopped tweeting at one point in his testimony, saying it was “too heartless.”
“I'll put it in context in a story at lunchtime. Seems irresponsible to just put it out on Twitter unadulterated,” Pidd wrote on her Twitter account Tuesday.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: The back of defendant Anders Behring Breivik's head in the courtroom at the start of proceedings on the fifth day of his trial at the courthouse in Oslo, Norway, on Friday. Credit: Heiko Junge / European Pressphoto Agency