Media must understand today’s terrorism
THE media is caught in the middle between the rise of terrorism and the fight against terrorism around the world, and is on the front lines reporting what happens when attacks target civilian populations.
Such concerns have encouraged UNESCO to issue a handbook for journalists on covering terrorism, written by Jean-paul Marthoz, a veteran journalist and professor of international journalism at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.
He suggests useful tips to tackle this phenomenon. First of all, the word terrorism must be understood in the right context. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” and “Today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s statesperson,” are two popular phrases that have become clichés in the media.
Therefore, Marthoz suggests that whatever term journalists like to use, they have to understand its implications because those terms are not neutral. Since 1996, international efforts under the auspices of Unrelated agencies have worked hard to come up with a working definition of terrorism. Finally, they agreed to use the word to refer to “any action that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”
The author also raised the notion of “state terrorism” and its meaning. For the media, it refers to a state’s brutal actions against its political enemies. Torture, forced disappearances, selective assignations of opponents and widespread massacres are some extreme measures used by established powers against their opponents.
In reporting news about terrorism, journalists could face laws that penalise its glorification. Then, the frequently asked question is: what qualifies as glorifying terrorism? The answer rests with the closeness between media and so-called “terrorist” organisations. Their reports over time would determine whether they have violated the law.
Finally, the media needs to report on different forms of terrorism. During 1960-1980, the news mainly covered terrorism linked to the extreme right and left and pro-independence movements. While such terrorism has not completely disappeared, today “religiously-inspired terrorism” attracts the most attention. At the moment, attacks instigated by organisations claiming to follow Islam, generate the widest media coverage.
However, cyberterrorism has become a treat all over the world recently due to widespread internet connectivity. According to Marthoz, experts estimate that there is no great risk today that terrorist organisations will use cyberterrorism to initiate and seriously disrupt the function of a state or any of its strategic institutions or facilities.
There is a big concern that there could be a combination of a cyberattack and a “conventional” attack to disrupt the reaction of security services and hospitals.
The author believes that such attacks are more likely to be government strategies. However, there is growing awareness of the vulnerability of states and large companies and their dependence on information systems.
Other terrorism includes gangster terrorism and narco-terrorism. The first term refers to the coexistence of criminality and terrorism committed by delinquents and is sometimes used to refer to the mafia.
In the book’s forward, Frank La Rue, UNESCO assistant director-general for communication and information, said the media is critical in providing verifiable information and informed opinion. In the tense environment of a crisis, he points out, with populations on edge and tempers flared, this becomes all the more important.
He observed that the relationship between terrorism and media is complex and fraught with danger. “At its worst, it is a perverse symbiotic relationship – terrorist groups devising spectacles of violence to continue drawing the world’s attention, and the media incentivized to provide wall-to-wall coverage due to huge audience interest.”
La Rue concluded that terrorism and violent extremism will likely be with us for some time. “Yet if we can work together to reduce the explosive rhetoric, overblown coverage and stigmatisation of minority groups, perhaps some of the incentive to commit violence against civilians will disappear along with it.”