Fake News and False Balance undermine Victims’ Human Rights

Last weekend was the second anniversary of the rightsinfo.org website. To mark the event, a panel discussion took place during which the site’s founder Adam Wagner stated that “fake news was old news in human rights” and that people “have been convinced by newspapers for years and years that human rights are a villain.”

He was joined at the panel discussion by Buzzfeed Special Correspondent James Ball who said “The bigger problem is…essentially the much wider ecosystem of material which is distorted or exaggerated, but which still has a kernel of truth, while being mostly untrue.”

These observations came back to me this afternoon when I saw some social media commentary regarding the setting of the date to commence the inquest into the shootings of eleven people in Ballymurphy by the British Army in 1971.

Before going any further let me state clearly that I believe all victims of the conflict – those who mourn and those who were injured – deserve truth, justice and acknowledgement to the fullest extent possible. No equivocation, no hierarchy.

That’s where the rightsinfo.org conversation comes in to play in an Irish context. Our politicians are trying to create a false balance by exaggerating a situation which has a grain of truth to it.

That grain of truth is that there are many, many people who still seek information and resolution regarding what happened to them or their loved ones and we don’t have a comprehensive system to deal with that.
What we have is a judicial system, a Police Ombudsman whose scope is limited to certain types of cases and a failed Historical Enquiries Team. And if you were someone who had the “luck” to survive and be left with life-changing injuries, no-one wanted to help.

What is fake news, though, is this notion that some victims are getting more than others in terms of legacy investigations.

In every case where a conflict-related incident is unsolved, that investigation remains open and it is the duty of the PSNI to gather and assess evidence and pass it on to the Director of Public Prosecutions to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

It is logical, therefore, that the first port of call for victims would be the PSNI to say to them “what are you doing about his?”

Yes I know what you’re going to say: the PSNI don’t have the resources to investigate 40 year old cases.

Ok, I hear you.

So who allocates resources to the PSNI?

The British government.

That’s where the pressure needs to be brought to bear.

In simple human rights legal terms, where the State has breached the right to life enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, or where it has failed to conduct a proper investigation into a death, then the state has a duty to right that wrong.

The DUP and UUP know this. They are attempting to create false balance by saying that investigations into state killings should not proceed, that soldiers and police officers implicated in wrongdoing should be given amnesties. They have even gone so far as to try and make the removal of the Director of Public Prosecutions a pre-condition for future Stormont talks because he has recommended prosecution of a former soldier. And they don’t want families who have been victims of the state to be allowed pursue truth and justice through the existing judicial structures.

This is victim blaming at its worst – a situation where mainly unionist politicians and commentators are putting forward a position which says “these families are not entitled to pursue truth and justice through the means available to them because those families can’t.”

They are entitled, of course, to hold an opinion about the rights of victims and survivors, but they need to be challenged when they present fake news. When they misrepresent the facts and are given airtime and column inches to do it, it leads their position a legitimacy that is unwarranted. Presentation of this one-sided viewpoint doesn’t encourage debate or discussion on the real issue.

That real issue is why have our political leaders failed to come to an agreement on dealing with the legacy of the conflict almost 20 years from the Good Friday Agreement?

Why are unionist politicians not focussing their energies on lobbying the British government to make available the resources to examine other unsolved conflict-related deaths?  Why did they fail to put in place the proposals contained in the Stormont House Agreement?

For as long as we continue to treat dealing with the past as a zero sum game, it will be victims and survivors who will continue to lose.