Zero Dark Thirty: Entertainment Companies’ Human Rights Responsibilities

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The debate over how human rights abuses in films, television and video games are presented is as old as the entertainment industry itself. The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, the feature film about Osama Bin Laden’s search, reached its zenith this year. This acclaimed film was nominated to five Academy Awards at the Oscars. It contains a scene that critics claim promotes torture. They argue that it is an effective way to gain vital intelligence. While acknowledging the moral complexity to the issue, the filmmakers defend their right of creative freedom.

This debate raises questions about the responsibilities of entertainment companies in this context.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes freedom from torture as a human rights. Human rights advocates argue that the popular TV programs that depict torture have promoted the practice in real-life. This implies that production companies may not have met their obligations to respect human rights, as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

These allegations are serious, as well as raising complex ethical questions. Concepts of right, wrong, responsible, and irresponsible are hard to define, and are subject to considerable debate.

  • Films that depict torture serve to encourage torture or are they exposing torture.
  • In what proportion is this relevant to how a human right abuse is depicted?
  • Is it wrong or right to restrict the creative freedom of writers, directors, and game developers? Are they entitled to free expression that is independent of concerns about human rights violations?
  • Is there an ethical distinction between depicting torture in content that claims to be based upon true events (like Zero Dark Thirty), and content that is clearly fictional (like 24_)?
  • What are the responsibilities for intermediary companies that provide space for user-generated content displaying human rights violations?
  • Is the responsibility expanded if content is produced by a public entity rather than a private firm?
  • What is the role of entertainment and media companies in addressing these issues?

These are hard questions to answer. However, UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights states that companies must “know and demonstrate” they don’t infringe on Human Rights. Companies should have a deliberate process of considering human rights impacts and risk and come up with a rational and considered plan to address them. Entertainment companies must begin to “know and show” and explore difficult ethical issues.

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