Zero Dark Thirty: The Human Rights Responsibilities of Entertainment Companies

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Zero Dark Thirty: The Human Rights Responsibilities of Entertainment Companies

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Monday, February 25, 2013 - 3:30pm


Faris Natour, Director, Human Rights. BSR and Dunstan Allison Hope, Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR

The debate about how human rights abuses are portrayed in movies, television, and video games is almost as old as the entertainment industry itself. It reached a new peak this year with the controversy about Zero Dark Thirty, a feature film about the search for Osama bin Laden. The acclaimed film, which was nominated for five Academy Awards at this year's Oscars, contains a scene that critics argue promotes torture by showing, erroneously, that it is an effective tool to gain vital intelligence. The filmmakers acknowledge the moral complexity of the issue while defending their right to creative freedom.

For the entertainment and gaming industries, this debate, as well as earlier allegations about scenes in popular U.S. TV shows 24 and Lostand video games such as Splinter Cell, raise the question of what responsibilities entertainment companies have in this context.

Freedom from torture is recognized as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many other international legal conventions. Human rights advocates claim that the depiction of torture in popular TV shows has had the effect of promoting the practice in real life, implying that the production companies may have failed to meet their responsibility to respect human rights as articulated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

These allegations are serious and also raise some complex ethical questions, for which notions of right and wrong, and responsible and irresponsible, are difficult to define and subject to considerable debate:

  • Are films that portray torture serving to promote torture, or are they actually exposing torture?
  • To what degree is it relevant how a human rights abuse is portrayed?
  • Is it right or wrong to interfere with the creative freedom of directors, writers, and video game developers? Do they have a right to freedom of expression that overrides concerns about how human rights violations are portrayed?
  • Is there an ethical difference between the portrayal of torture in content claiming to be based on true events (such as Zero Dark Thirty) and in content that is obviously fictional (such as24)?
  • What are the responsibilities of intermediary companies providing space for user-generated content depicting human rights violations?
  • Does the scope of responsibility change if the content is produced by a public institution rather than a private company?
  • What is the responsibility of media and entertainment companies to address these topics?

While these are difficult questions to answer, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that companies should “know and show” that they do not infringe on human rights—that they have undertaken a deliberate process to consider human rights impacts and risks and have reached reasoned and considered conclusions on the best course of action to address them. The renewed controversy about how human rights are portrayed on the big screen, on television, and in video games illustrates the need for entertainment companies to begin this process of “knowing and showing,” and, in doing so, explore these difficult ethical questions.

BSR would like to explore these questions through a collaborative initiative. If you are interested in learning more, contact Faris Natour at or Dunstan Allison Hope at

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Keywords: Media & Communications | Oscars | Zero Dark Thirty | academy awards | entertainment industry | human rights abuse | torture