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World: Media Face Dilemmas In Covering Terrorism

A television screen capture of Osama bin Laden in 2001 (epa) Is the freedom the media enjoy in the world’s democracies being exploited by terrorist organizations? Some people say we should stop reporting on atrocities and the terrorists would be defeated by being starved of the oxygen of publicity. Others do not agree. They say freedom of speech is too important to be stifled, even in the interest of fighting against terrorism.

LONDON, 30 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Some people have argued the media should not report every suicide-bomb attack, hostage taking, or terrorist leader's statement.

They stress such exposure gives terrorists the publicity they crave.

Others, however, maintain that in democratic countries freedom of speech comes first.

'A More Critical Debate'

“For democracies to try to shut down media reporting of political violence and terrorism would be, in my view, a great mistake," says Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "If the media are able to report factually and objectively, they can inform discussion and help to develop a more critical debate, which we hope would improve policy in the future. So, there are great advantages having free media.”

Wilkinson agrees that terrorists seek publicity, but he stresses that the public has a right to be comprehensively informed about major international developments.

Still, there is mounting evidence that terrorist groups can benefit from access to the media and even by media reports of terrorist violence.

Negotiating With Hostage Takers

“The European Journal of Social Psychology,” a respected medical journal, recently published a report claiming that 16 percent of people are inclined to negotiate with terrorists after seeing images of distressed hostages on television.

Wilkinson argues, however, that most mainstream media avoid particularly horrific images and reports, and that this is the correct way to handle things.

But some experts warn it is easy inadvertently to cross the line from reporting events to airing propaganda for a terrorist group.

Trying To Destroy Freedom Of Expression

Ali Reza Nourizadeh is director of the Arab-Iranian Studies Center in London. He says that “reporting an atrocity is a must,” but media should not air messages from the terrorists themselves.

“I don’t understand why some American and some European networks are giving such importance to [Al-Qaeda leader Osama] Bin Laden’s messages, [Al-Qaeda second in command Ayman al-]Zawahri’s latest statement -- which is broadcast by the Al-Jazeera network day and night -- what they want to achieve," Nourizadeh says. "At the end of the day, it is a statement by a terrorist who doesn’t give a damn about thousands of people who are killed in [the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States], in Afghanistan, in Iraq.”

Nourizadeh adds that terrorists abuse freedom of speech for their own goals, which often include destroying democracy and freedom of expression.

Analyzing Terrorists' Statements

Still, Wilkinson maintains that it is actually an advantage to be able to get all sorts of useful information about terrorists through the media. This includes statements from their leaders, which experts can use to evaluate the leaders' health or to speculate on their whereabouts, for example. And this may outweigh the fact that the message could persuade some people to support the terrorists’ goals.

Jordanian-born terrorist Mus'ab al-Zarqawi (AFP file photo)

Wilkinson adds that the Al-Jazeera television station -- which is often criticized by Western leaders -- verifies statements by terrorist leaders and their judgment rarely differs from that of CIA voice-recognition experts. And he concludes that media reporting of terrorist attacks against civilians has helped to turn public opinion against them.

“I don’t get the impression that, despite all their propaganda, Al-Qaeda has been suddenly winning over the opinion of the Muslim world," Wilkinson says. "On the contrary, I think there has been a very strong reaction in the recent past, particularly as a result of these dreadful atrocities in Iraq, where they are engaged in massacring the Shi'ites.”

Judge Each Case Individually

As for the media, most journalists react cautiously. Lord William Rees-Mogg is the former editor in chief of London's “The Times” newspaper. He says that media need to behave responsibly. He argues that it is not always right to give publicity to those who seek it, and each case has to be judged on its merits.

“I think it’s common sense," Rees-Mogg says. "Is this likely to lead to people being put at risk and lives being lost? That’s a question that needs to be considered. Is this genuinely important public information, even if unpalatable? There isn’t an answer which fits all cases. Newspapers have to show judgment. Sometimes it is right to publish, and sometimes it’s wrong to publish.”

Rees-Mogg concludes that the public is better off, however, when it is properly informed.

Who Is Ayman al-Zawahri?

Who Is Ayman al-Zawahri?

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI is regarded as Al-Qaeda's No. 2 authority. Although al-Zawahri is lesser known than Osama bin Laden, some observers say the deputy is just as powerful as the chief....(more)

See also:

Is Al-Qaeda Letter Sign Of Rift, Or Opportunity For Bush?

Al-Qaeda Tape Says U.S. Losing In Afghanistan, Iraq