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From Across the Pond by Lananh Nguyen
Lananh Nguyen is a freelance reporter and junior copy editor for a financial newswire in London. She has worked for the Associated Press, BBC, KNTV, WGBH and various local newspapers. A Political Science graduate from Tufts University, she also studied International Relations at the London School of Economics. She will receive a British qualification from the National Council for the Training of Journalists in August.

Shoot To Kill

It makes me wonder when journalists in the UK regurgitate, almost verbatim, what they are fed by the police and government. As the fourth estate, isn’t it our function to question these authorities in the interest of the public good?

An innocent Brazilian man, 27-year-old Jean Charles de Menezes was shot seven times in the head and once in the shoulder Friday at Stockwell tube station in London.

The shooting dominated media coverage over the weekend, when police suggested that he might be connected to the botched London bombings of July 21. The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch, ran the tasteful splash headline, “One Down...Three to Go,” while the Daily Express called for police to “Shoot Them All.”

Yet since the announcement of de Menezes’ innocence, the media have softly, very softly, buried the story in supine acquiescence to the powers that be.

Official authorities have since attempted to defend their misguided shoot-to-kill policy, which was only discussed with the public after someone had been shot dead.

In the past few days, the “actual” account of events released is starkly opposed to what the police and government publicly announced this weekend as justification for this policy.

Here are some of the assertions which journalists failed to challenge at the time of de Menezes’ death.

First, a simple use of language. Police referred to the man who was shot as a “bomber.” Major media followed their lead.

I know that we, as journalists, should be able to rely on official sources like the police. But if a reporter is not presented with concrete evidence, regardless of the source, he or she should question that source’s basic assumptions.

If the police tell you someone is a “bomber” when they don’t find any explosives on the suspect, avoid using a word indicative of guilt. The word “bomber” was used by media on all sides of the political spectrum, rarely qualified with the word “alleged” or “suspected” that any responsible journalist uses when reporting criminal proceedings.

Second, police said the “suspect” de Menezes was wearing an unusually large coat, one which they thought might be concealing a bomb. The police claim that when challenged, he ran away, jumping over ticket barriers into the station.

This is what my British colleagues would refer to as a “porky,” or fib. De Menezes’ family has since been informed by police that he was wearing a normal denim jacket. This is backed up by footage from the security cameras in the tube station. Police also informed his family that when de Menezes arrived at the subway, he used a ticket to go through the barriers.

If de Menezes ran away, he must have done so after he was already inside the station. He must have seen men, dressed in plain clothes, running after him, guns drawn. Witnesses also contest the fact that police even gave a verbal warning.

Finally, anonymous sources (not the good kind) from the Home Office suggested that de Menezes’ visa to live and work in the UK had expired.

The issue of visas and asylum seekers is currently a hot button in Britain, and one that was used during the May 2005 national elections to galvanize xenophobic feelings among the white working- and middle-class public.

Playing on voters’ xenophobia is one thing, but doing so in the name of a dead man is unconscionable.

Outcry over the allegations of de Menezes’ illegal visa status forced Home Secretary Jack Straw to confirm publicly that, to his knowledge, de Menezes had the legal right to live and work in this country.

But most importantly, de Menezes’ immigration status was irrelevant. Had be been here illegally (which he wasn’t), it still would have been unacceptable to kill him on mere suspicion, without the due process that supposedly separates democracy from fundamentalist or authoritarian states.