How Does the Media Affect Terrorism?
The Terrorists’ Basic Need for to be Known
Terrorists act for a reason. There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism; but a survey of different attempts at defining terrorism tells us that it is aimed to achieve a political or ideological goal. In the United States (US) alone, three agencies – the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Defense (DoD) – have given three definitions that differ only on emphasis. The most complete among these definitions is that of the DoD which defines terrorism as: “the unlawful use of – or threatened use of – force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious or ideological perspectives.” It stresses that even the mere threat to use violence suffices to categorize an act as terrorism; and that terrorism aims to overpower both societies and governments (Hoffman, 1998).
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It is for this political or ideological end that the terrorists want its targets to know when they have committed a terrorist act and why they did it. Before the printing press was invented, terrorists struck in the most crowded places to make sure that a lot of people would know about their acts. (Nacos, 2006) Today, there is no other more effective and efficient way to get their message across — to multiple audiences at a given time — than by using the mass media. The terrorists need the media as the “rhetorical amplifiers” in their assertion of their existence and their cause (Cited in Lockyer, 2003). Through publicity, terrorists seek to obtain “leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change” (Hoffman, 1998). Osama Bin Laden, the infamous leader of Al Qaeda terrorist group, had long believed in the importance of tapping the power of international media for the group’s benefit. That is why Al Qaeda’s leadership structure includes a professional media and communications committee tasked with issuing statements in relation with its operations (Bin Ali, 2007).
According to Robert Pape, other than “destructive” and “suicide” forms of terrorism (most lethal form of terrorism), there is also the so-called “demonstrative terrorism” which is directed mainly at gaining publicity in order to recruit, gain attention from soft-liners of the other side, or gain attention from third parties. Groups that use demonstrative terrorism usually employ high impact operations such as hijacking, hostage-taking and pre-announced explosions, which are really intended to “bring the issues to the target audience” rather than inflict harm indiscriminately. In Brian Jenkin’s words, these terrorists, examples of which were the Italian Red Brigades and the Orange Volunteers of Northern Ireland, “want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead” (Pape, 2005).
Because of the media’s response to the terrorists’ need for publicity, there seems to be a symbiotic relationship — which straightforwardly means they feed off from each other — that exists between terrorism and the media. Jeff Lewis asserts that the media is “profoundly implicated in terrorism” merely for being the “cultural conduit and bearer of information” from the terrorist to the public (Lewis, 2005). Proponents of the symbiotic relationship perspective also believe that the media helps the terrorists achieve their propaganda or psywar ends, and even measure the success of terrorist acts in terms of its media coverage (cited in Communicating Research Trends, 2002). As an example, it was even argued that the London 7/7 attacks was more successful than the Munich massacre in 1972, because they were able to catch and sustain media and government attention for months, and most importantly, they were able to undermine the G8 summit which also took place at that time by dominating the headlines of the international news media. (Nacos, 2006) Still, even if there were others who argue that terrorism, as the “propaganda by deed” or “armed propaganda” already speaks for itself, the media is still needed to report whenever “a bomb goes off, who exploded it and why.” To complete the terrorist propaganda, “bombs must be accompanied by words”, and as such, there is still the paramount need to explain and convey the message because the meaning of a terrorist act is not always clear (Rapoport, 2001; Cordes, 2001).
On its part, the media fulfills the terrorists’ hunger for publicity because it also benefits from it: by covering terrorist acts, the contemporary media is rewarded by the ingredients of human interest stories, increased audience, circulation and, most of all, profits (Nacos, 2006). Unfortunately, some see this relationship as “enabling” terrorism: certain segments of the media, who care more about “scoops” and less about their ethical responsibility, encourage more terrorism and mass killings by eagerly providing coverage to them (Neuwirth, 2006). It is what Kevin Barnhurst describes as the culpable-media model wherein the media is directly accountable for terrorism: because by committing to cover terrorist acts, the media becomes and intrinsic part of the vicious cycle that produces terrorism. It is to echo Walter Laqueur’s earlier notion that “without media coverage there would be no terrorism” (Cited in Communicating Research Trends, 2002). This terrorism-media nexus therefore calls for media regulation by the government and poses a problem in a democratic society — in Margaret Thatcher’s words, since media censorship is against the principle of liberal democracy, the society must find other ways “to starve the terrorists” of the “oxygen of publicity on which they depend” (Thatcher, 1985).
Vulnerability of the Media to Terrorist Propaganda
It is also possible that the media is only a victim and not the conscious perpetrator of terrorism, as discussed in Barnhurst’s vulnerable media model. Unfortunately, this is more problematic than the first model for at least two reasons. Firstly, when unwittingly used towards the political ends of the terrorists, the media may reproduce and transmit a constructed “reality” to the general public based on false or misleading claims of the terrorists. According to Janny de Graaf, there is a tendency for journalists to adopt the language of the people they interview, as evident when they interchange the word “terrorist” with “insurgent” or even “freedom fighter” (Lockyer, 2003). While there is no one definition of terrorism, the semantic obfuscation further hinders attempts to define terrorism and accurately pinpoint which are terrorist acts and who are the terrorists.
Moreover, portraying a terrorist a “freedom fighter” not only endows legitimacy to his cause but also provides justification to his acts. Hence, the process of presenting terrorism can also be a method of challenging the established values of the society and redrawing the moral boundaries. When terrorist events are reported as something else, new moral norms are constructed, which may be favorable to the terrorists as its violent acts may become accepted by the public because the media have presented them to “make sense” and morally justified (Lauderdale and Oliverio, 2005; Ben-Yehuda, 2005). In his analysis of the presentation and representation of terror, Nachman Ben-Yehuda reminds us that:
“…The rhetoric involved in using violence for political ends is as its name implies, political, but a much stronger aspect of it lies with the moral assumptions and challenges on which it is bases. The discourse that accompanies the political violence attempts to shape our consciousness and infuse meaning into some questionable situations. Those resorting to these tactics try their best to persuade us that their use of violence is legitimate, justified, and geared to an important and worthy cause. Such discourse and rhetoric are geared not only to do that but to justify future actions” (Ben Yehuda, 2005; 49).
By using the mass media, the terrorists aim to make violence a part of the “real world” that the public should accept, basically because those who perpetrate violence are supposedly fighting for a cause that has already become morally justified and therefore legitimate. At this point, it is important to note that the current War on Terror is ultimately a “war of ideas.” To Al Qaeda, it means that it should persevere on persuading particularly a very important target audience: that of the broader, less radicalized population which it claims to represent, because that has the power to confer a degree of legitimacy on terrorists. On this aspect, the challenge is how to marshal norms to stigmatize terrorism and push the terrorists outside the mainstream community (Bin Ali, 2007).
Secondly, the media is susceptible to magnify terror — while it believes that it is only performing the duty of informing the public, the way it presents the “facts” may serve the purpose of the terrorist of intimidating a targeted population, sow terror, and undermine the values of the society. This propaganda of fear has served the Al Qaeda, as noted in the public opinion polls in the days and weeks following the September 11 attacks. Unfortunately, the media amplified the terrorist propaganda as it was also observed that those who followed the news closely were more traumatized than those who did not. Bin Laden was very satisfied when, after the attacks, he described the American people as “full of fear from north to south, from west to east” (Nacos, 2006). Bin Laden was even reported to have maintained a collection of news reports on the disaster caused by the September 11 attacks, as if to repeatedly evaluate the success of the terrorist act (Ressa, 2003).
Another disturbing trend among the international news media is the tendency to air terrorist acts in vivid images such as in, among others, hostage-taking situations wherein the hostages are depicted in inhumane conditions which are really intended to influence the decision of the government, and in broadcasting videos of beheadings of hostages wherein the terrorists intend to shock not only the target government but also the people on the level of brutality that the terrorists are capable of. In one occasion in the US invasion of Iraq in 2004, the terrorists were able to persuade a government which joined in the US-led “Coalition of the Willing” to pull out its troop from Iraq when it was able to hold hostage one of its undocumented citizens in the war-torn country. Pressured by the domestic public opinion — facilitated, of course, by the blow-by-blow international news media coverage of the hostage-taking crisis – President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines succumbed to the demands of the terrorists to withdraw its contingent from the coalition (New York Times, 2004 April 14).
Worse, the terrorists, on their part, tend to make hostage situations and executions more dramatic – by slicing off the head of a hostage while he pleads for his life – because they believe that by doing so they have more chance to get international media attention. Doubting that the terrorists would do such gruesome acts if they knew that they would get media coverage, investigative reporter Mark Bowden calls for the adoption of “more sensible and prudent standards for covering all acts of terror” and resist being driven by sensationalism. He believes that the terrorists depend on the cooperation of the media and thus, the media should stop providing it (Bowden, 2004).
Information Technology and its Utility in Terrorist Operations
Unfortunately, even of the news media would finally adopt a certain code of conduct that would prevent its manipulation by the terrorists, the terrorists have the capability of circumventing the traditional gate-keepers of the international media through at least two ways. Firstly, large and well-funded terrorist organizations such as the Hezbollah’s Al Manar and Hamas’ Al Aksa, are already media-savvy that they even have their own printing presses, radio transmitters, and even own television channels. (Nacos, 2006)
As stated earlier, the Al Qaeda has devoted a significant part of its organizational structure for media and communications. The world did not know that Al Qaeda also maintained professional video producers until its Afghanistan headquarters was raided in September 2002, when some 251 videotapes, now known as “terror tapes”, were recovered from Bin Laden’s personal collection. These tapes contain instructional materials on the basics on chemical weaponry, urban guerrilla warfare, assassinations, hostage-taking and other terrorist tactics, that were all recorded before September 11, 2001. There were also tapes of motivational propaganda for the purpose of recruiting new muhajideens or fighters. (Ressa, 2003). As if to attest the effectiveness of using videotapes to recruit terrorists, one of the participants in the failed London bombings admitted that he was convinced to join the would-be bombers when he was shown images of the war in Iraq, wherein women and children were killed by American and British soldiers (Nacos, 2006).
Secondly, the advent of the open and uncensored Internet technology has become very useful in facilitating terrorist communication. The Al Qaeda has capitalized on the open global society by conducting a campaign consisting of faxed statements, audio and video recordings, and internet postings in the form of hate speeches and conspiracy theories directed at the US and its allies. Through this increasingly globalized culture, Bin Laden was able to influence the beliefs and actions of the militants around the world with a speed and reach unimaginable decades ago (Bin Ali, 2007). In my own survey of internet websites, I have discovered that several forums and blogsites and even the Youtube, wherein Islamic militant views were propagated, have become a convenient venue for gaining public sympathy and support to jihad, and recruitment of militants to fight the jihadist cause.
More disturbing is the observation that Al Qaeda’s messages that were disseminated in the global media may contain signals that inform and instruct operatives to prepare for and carry out attacks. (Bin Ali, 2007) Even militants who are not affiliated with Al Qaeda find the Internet as a useful site to acquire information related to terrorist operations, that there was a time when homemade bomb-making techniques proliferated in the Internet. There were also noted case of emulated beheadings that resulted in copycat killings in places outside of the Middle East such as in Haiti, Thailand, and even the Netherlands. Thus, the Internet has become extremely instrumental for terrorist organizations through the following ways: as the carrier of propaganda; means of planning and coordinating internet operations; source of retrieval of information; virtual classroom for teaching terrorism; tool for recruitment; and as a vehicle for fund-raising (Nacos, 2006).
What Should Be Done?
Before we detail some measures to deal with the problem associated with the relationship of media and terrorism, it is important to capture the basic arguments of this paper. Firstly, the importance of the media to terrorism is basically due to the terrorists’ need for publicity. The terrorists also need the media to seek sympathy or support to their cause; seek legitimacy to their organization and viewpoints; and aid them to amplify terror (Nacos, 2006; Ben-Yehuda, 2005; Perl, 1997).
Secondly, the relationship between terrorism and the media has characterized the media to be either culpable as cause of terrorism, or vulnerable, as victims of the propaganda of terrorism themselves. As such, there should be conscious efforts on the part of the media to prevent being culpable by developing an ethical code of conduct that will make responsible journalism over the desire for increased audience and profits. In order to make the media less vulnerable to terrorist propaganda, then they should also be apprised of the importance of the semantic debates in the discourse of terrorism and coordinate more closely with the government for them to be guarded against unwarranted manipulation by the terrorists.
It is paramount that the media knows how it can help the government, especially since the War on Terror is also seen as a war on ideas. The government and the media should share the responsibility of denying the terrorists the propaganda effect that they need to effectively sow terror and intimidate populations and governments. Basically, the government wants from the media to: advance their agenda and not that of the terrorists; deny the terrorist a platform; present the terrorists as criminals; provide information to terrorists; diffuse tense situations; overemphasize emotional factors during crisis situations; control terrorist access to information; not reveal government secrets; and be careful about misinformation (Perl, 2007).
Even if the terrorists have acquired the capability to circumvent traditional media, it remains the central connection in the terrorism-government-public nexus. It has the power to shape the “reality” to be shown to its targeted audience, and redraw the values of the society. However, such great power comes with great responsibility, that the media, on its part, should fulfill its moral obligations of reporting to the public.
On the other hand, the government should court, not compel, cooperation from the media, by providing them the information they need, yet not impose on them. It should inculcate values of shared vigilance with the media and the public by being transparent enough in presenting an honest-to-goodness assessment on the imminent dangers of terrorism. It also has to perform its role in policing the global media, particularly the Internet, by actively watching, blocking and countering poisonous terrorist propaganda. I have observed that this is being done already; hence, efforts at this should be continued and intensified in order to erode the usefulness of the open, unregulated and anonymity-driven Internet world to the terrorists.
Even the strong-willed Margaret Thatcher did not agree on the imperative to constraining the media because the freedom of the press is rudimentary to liberal democracy. However the media should be able to draw the line, prevent the terrorist from using them, and commit to help the government in guarding democracy, especially since the terrorists know how to use the democratic processes and guarantees to their advantage.
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