FILE - In this March 17, 2019, file photo, a police officer stands guard in front of the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. New Zealand's major media organizations pledged Wednesday, May 1, 2019, not to promote white supremacist ideology when covering the trial of the man charged with killing 50 people at two mosques.(AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)
A police officer stands guard outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch after the massacre in March © AP

New Zealand’s main news outlets said on Wednesday they had agreed on reporting guidelines for the trial of a man charged over the deadly attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, which aim to limit coverage of statements that champion white supremacist ideology.

Australian Brenton Tarrant is due to stand trial on charges of killing 50 people and injuring dozens of other worshippers in an attack streamed live on Facebook in March — the deadliest perpetrated by a rightwing extremist since Anders Breivik’s 2011 Norway attack.

His next court appearance is scheduled for June and the country’s major media have taken the unprecedented step of agreeing a comprehensive set of guidelines to prevent Mr Tarrant from using the trial as a propaganda platform.

“We shall to the extent that is compatible with the principles of open justice, limit any coverage of statements that actively champion white supremacist or terrorist ideology,” said the agreement, which has been signed by TV New Zealand, Stuff, Mediaworks, Radio New Zealand and NZME, owner of the New Zealand Herald.

The reporting guidelines apply to the manifesto drawn up by Mr Tarrant, which includes a comprehensive description of his far-right and extremist ideology. Media have agreed not to broadcast or report any messages, imagery, symbols or signals — including hand signals — made by the accused or his associates that promote extremist ideology.

Mr Tarrant made a hand gesture associated with white supremacists at his first court appearance. Where the inclusion of such signals is unavoidable, the relevant parts of the image will be pixelated, according to the guidelines. 

Paul Thompson, editor-in-chief of Radio New Zealand and a signatory to the agreement, said the reporting guidelines were a first for New Zealand media. They reflect the significance of the trial and the challenges it creates for editors to ensure their media do not become an echo chamber for extremist ideology, he said. 

Media reported after his first appearance that Mr Tarrant wished to represent himself in the trial — a move that suggested he may want to use the high-profile proceedings to propagate his extremist views. However, Mr Tarrant is now being represented by a lawyers’ firm in Auckland.

Concerns were raised by some media commentators and some victims’ families during the trial of Breivik, who killed 77 people, that he used his trial to propagate his anti-Islam ideology by being allowed to make lengthy statements during his cross examination.

Mr Thompson said he did not think the guidelines would chill media coverage in terms of giving people robust and incisive reportage and analysis. “We will, for example, all still make our own editorial calls in terms of level of coverage, angles and approach to the various stories that unfold,” he said.

Peter Fray, professor of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, said the editors should be commended for joining together to address the issue. “Responsible news media does not amplify white supremacy, racism and bigotry. But let’s not forget it is also the responsibility of news media to face the truth and bear witness,” he said.

“This statement appears to have the balance right,” Mr Fray added. “It will be interesting to see how this plays out in practice.” 

Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul

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