Extract Summary:

As the trial of Abu Hamza al-Masri gets under way in New York, Fahad Ansari questions why the British media have tended to emphasise his disability above all else.

As the trial of Abu Hamza al-Masri gets under way in New York, Fahad Ansari questions why the British media have tended to emphasise his disability above all else.

A trial is currently underway of a man with a serious disability whose name is known across the world. He stands accused of a very heinous crime for which many would like to see him locked away for the rest of his life. Like many defendants in the public eye, he has been subjected to a form of trial by media as his words and emotions are scrutinised by reporters and experts to ascertain his guilt or innocence. His critics have accused him of lying and playing to the crowd while a sizeable portion of the population have sympathised with his alleged victims. So loathed and dehumanized has this person become within the public perception that the mass media have even been able to repeatedly mock and ridicule his disability with complete impunity.

One could be forgiven for believing that what has been written above is in reference to the ongoing murder trial in Pretoria of South African sprint runner Oscar Pistorius, but the media have not had the audacity to mock his disability which consists of double below-knee amputations. It is of course referring to the slightly more unpopular figure of hate, Abu Hamza, whose trial for alleged support of al-Qaida began yesterday in New York. For over a decade now, the print media on both sides of the Atlantic have not failed to amuse their readers by ridiculing Abu Hamza's disability which consists of double below-elbow amputations.

Whatever the reason for Abu Hamza's lack of limbs, the fact is that he is a person with a serious disability. Irrespective of the nature and gravity of the crimes for which he stands accused, his disability had little if anything to do with those crimes and should not be exploited as a means of creating catchy headlines and securing some cheap laughs. Yet, such is the public opprobrium against Abu Hamza that headlines such as 'Sling your hook', 'Captain Hook' and 'Hooky' have become commonplace without even disability rights' groups willing to challenge them.  The fact that his stumps became infected due to the US government's failure to provide appropriate medical treatment to him inside prison, was also used as a means to ridicule him by some elements of the media. His requests to be transferred as promised to a medical centre and to be provided with a disabled toilet facility were used to deride his credentials as a "jihadist".

The Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice clearly states that the Press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s physical or mental illness or disability. That clause has been routinely flouted in the reporting on Abu Hamza. One can only imagine the uproar if the media were to publish headlines ridiculing Oscar Pistorius' prosthetics or describe him as 'Stumpy' or 'the stump-legged killer'. It is inconceivable that they would even attempt to do so, no matter how deplorable Pistorius becomes by the conclusion of his trial. In fact, the Advertising Standards Agency ruled that Irish bookmaker Paddy Power brought advertising into disrepute last month when it published a Pistorius trial advert offering "money off if he walks" away from killing his girlfriend. The advertisement became the most complained about UK advert of all time drawing a record 5,525 complaints with the ASA taking the unusual step of ordering the ad to be withdrawn immediately while it investigated the complaints that it trivialised disability and the issues surrounding a murder trial. Although Paddy Power is not a media outlet, it is probably safe to assume that a similar ad playing on Abu Hamza's disability would not have triggered such a reaction

Whatever the allegations against Abu Hamza are, let us judge him according to the facts as they relate to those allegations and let us not stoop to a level where we make his disability the butt of all our jokes. By doing so, not only do we effectively dehumanise Abu Hamza (for it is universally considered morally wrong to ridicule a human being because of his disability) but we also mock all those with a similar disability. While some may see the use of a prosthetic hook as sinister, those who suffer from the same disability and use the hook (officially known as the Dorrance split hook) testify to its practicality and versatility. Although an artificial hand may look better, a hook has many advantages over it including its ability to grasp smaller objects as well as being cheaper, lighter and easier to clean and repair. Abu Hamza is not the only individual to manage this disability using a hook and by labelling him as 'Captain Hook', we legitimize discrimination against others like him due to their disability.

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)