9 October 2003, Volume 3, Number 35
WALKING A FINE LINE: THE MEDIA AND TERRORISMBy Roman Kupchinsky
"Terrorism is theater," Brian Jenkins observed in a 1975 paper titled "International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict," published in London by Croom Helm. "Terrorist attacks," Jenkins continued, "are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press."
It is well documented that many underground organizations call the press to claim credit for an attack while others avoid this and rely upon other methods to inform the public of "who did it." This has been the pattern in the past and seems to be part of the mindset of terrorism.
Terrorist acts are also news events of major importance, and therefore certain to attract the legitimate and immediate attention of most major news organizations.
The old adage that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" applies directly to the media. Is the reporting of the Arab-language television station Al-Jazeera tilted in favor of terrorism, as many in the West would believe, or is the station simply reporting on a struggle for national liberation? And is Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah right in broadcasting lurid shots of masked men calling for the murder of members of Iraq's ruling council? Such questions illustrate the fine line the media must walk. The issue is further confused by the ambiguous relationship between publicity and terror: publicity can help terrorists' causes, but it can also hinder them.
The theatrical aspects of terrorism were certainly part of the planning and thinking of the leaders of the pro-Palestinian Black September group, during the massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. They were able to perform their acts in front of a global television audience watching the Olympic Games. During the 1975 kidnapping of oil ministers at a Vienna meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Ilich Ramirez Sanchez -- better known as "Carlos the Jackal" -- patiently awaited the arrival of camera crews before departing with his hostages. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said that the media supplied "the oxygen of publicity on which [terrorists] depend."
The relationship is symbiotic: television networks thrive on the high drama and human interest that terrorist acts provide and terrorists are able to gain access to large audiences. However, the relationship can be a cause of conflict. On 5 May 1986, the NBC television network in the United States broadcast an in-depth interview with the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), Abu Abbas. Little more than half a year earlier, the PLF had seized an Italian liner, the "Achille Lauro," and murdered American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Shortly afterwards, Abbas, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) executive committee, struck a deal with PLO leader Yasser Arafat to release the ship and its passengers. The four teenage hijackers, along with Abbas, left on an Egyptian airliner bound for Tunis but were forced down by U.S. fighter jets and landed in Sicily. Italian authorities, according to some versions fearing possible retaliation, allowed Abbas to escape to Yugoslavia. The U.S. State Department offered a reward of $250 million for his capture.
Coming under strong criticism for airing this interview, NBC News President Lawrence Grossman defended the network's controversial decision claiming: "We like to interview all leaders.... I think it is important for the American people to understand, be informed, and make their own judgments."
MEDIA AND CONFLICTS
Media coverage of terrorism is not unlike coverage of wars and ethnic conflicts. Media outlets from the countries directly affected by the conflict sometimes present a biased or "patriotic" position. This was true of many state or party owned media outlets during the two Balkan wars where not only were many radio and television stations supporting a particular ethnic group but actively inciting violence and spreading rumors about the intentions of their enemies.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), in its July 2001 report on media coverage in the former Yugoslavia -- "The Media War and Peace in Bosnia" -- writes: "Months before shooting broke out, Milosevic loyalists prepared the ground by taking control of a strategic asset -- television transmitters. Serbian forces seized a transmitter outside Banja Luka on Mount Kozora in August 1991, and took over five of the 11 main transmitters of 'Radio-Television Sarajevo' by March 1992. The transmitters were adjusted to beam the Belgrade television signal to northern Bosnia. Before outright war began, Milosevic's sectarian propaganda covered half of the republic, warning Serb citizens that their Muslim neighbors were allegedly creating an Islamic fundamentalist state.
"'Every bullet shot in Bosnia was supported by media activities. The war definitely wouldn't have been so cruel and bloody without media hate speech,' said Senad Pecanin, editor in chief of the Sarajevo magazine 'Dani.'"
The report states: "Through the media, ideas about the past can be very quickly produced, sharpened or reconstructed. These are processes of utmost significance for the re-shaping of national identities and transforming these into aggressive nationalism in situations of ethnic unrest."
In the current Kashmir conflict, as in Bosnia, people on both sides of the "Line of Control" between India and Pakistan are left with little choice in what they hear, see, or read, and must therefore find their own way to the truth.
An example of this is seen by comparing the description of the same event, a firefight in Kashmir, as reported in an Indian newspaper, "The Times of India" (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com) on 1 October and in the Pakistani "Dawn" (www.dawn.com) on 2 October.
"The Times of India" writes: "In continuing action along the volatile Line of Control the Army killed four more terrorists in Gurez sector.... The Army, over the weekend, had taken a group of 22 defense attaches from foreign missions based in New Delhi to acquaint then with the ground situation."
"Dawn," however, sees the same events somewhat differently: "Indian troops overnight shot dead four freedom fighters along the Line of Control...after they allegedly infiltrated into occupied Kashmir, a police spokesman said.... Four Indian troops were injured in these shootouts."
THE 'BAD BOY ON THE BLOCK'
Satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera has become the most controversial television news station in the Middle East, broadcasting its fare of Arabic-language news round the clock. Many of its critics, including the U.S. government, say that the station is merely a mouthpiece for terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda in particular. Its defenders counter that Al-Jazeera is nothing more than an "Arab CNN," providing an Arab perspective on the news. "The New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in March 2001 that Al-Jazeera is "not only the biggest media phenomenon to hit the Arab world since the advent of television, it also is the biggest political phenomenon."
In a sense, Al-Jazeera was the indirect result of a 1995 deal between the BBC World Service and a Saudi-owned company, Orbit Communications, to provide Arabic-language newscasts for Orbit's Middle Eastern broadcasts. In April 1996, when the BBC broadcast a story on human rights in Saudi Arabia that showed footage of the beheading of a criminal, Orbit pulled out of the joint venture.
Shortly afterwards, the new emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, established Al-Jazeera and hired many of the BBC Arabic Service's editors, reporters, and technicians. According to an October 2001 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, al-Thani contributed $140 million to finance Al-Jazeera's operations for the first five years, after which the company was to fund itself through advertising revenues -- something that has never materialized. According to some reports, the emir of Qatar has been spending around $100 million each year to sustain the station.
According to an article, "Perspectives on War: Inside Al-Jazeera" by Rick Zednik, which appeared in the "Columbia Journalism Review" (http://www.cjr.org/archives.asp?url=/02/2/zednik.asp): "Al-Jazeera generated only $15 million in ad revenue in 2000. In contrast, the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center garnered $76 million in ad revenue in 1998, while Lebanon's entertainment network, LBC -- the region's most watched -- took in about $93 million, according to the Pan Arab Research Center in Dubai."
Al-Jazeera has grown rapidly, according to Zednik, "expanding from its original six hours a day to twelve and then, on January 1, 1999, to twenty-four hours. It employs 500 people, including seventy journalists. Among its twenty-seven bureaus are offices in Washington, New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Djakarta, and Islamabad."
In June 1999, the station broadcast an interview with Osama bin Laden, who is believed to have orchestrated the 1998 bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. Audience response within the Arab world was overwhelmingly positive, and it appears that it was then that a relationship of sorts between Al-Jazeera and Al-Qaeda began.
On 8 October 2001, less than one month after the Al-Qaeda attacks in Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania, the BBC reported that Al-Jazeera was the only foreign broadcaster permitted in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. This raised many questions about the relationship. That same month, the station aired an exclusive, pre-recorded video statement by bin Laden in response to U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan.
According to "Newsweek" on 22 September, Tayssir Alouni, a native of Syria, was Al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau chief at the time. Alouni had secured the first publicly broadcast interview of bin Laden after the devastating 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. "Alouni says he scored the interview after being led, blindfolded, to a bin Laden hideaway. But internal Spanish police documents obtained by 'Newsweek' show that Alouni, 48, has been under scrutiny since at least early 2000, when phone wiretaps revealed he was in 'frequent and continuous' contact with Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the suspected leader of Al-Qaeda's Spanish cell," "Newsweek" reported. Alouni was arrested by Spanish police on 5 September on suspicion of membership of Al-Qaeda.
Soon afterwards the Al-Jazeera website (http://english.aljazeera.net) began publishing a stream of letters protesting Alouni's arrest. None apparently had been sent welcoming his arrest. "It is an attempt to silence those who are well aware of the realities of the Middle East, those who are willing to challenge the view of the neo-conservative agenda of the US. I do encourage you to keep reporting the truth," wrote a viewer from Canada.
A message from Italy stated: "Just two years ago his [Alouni's] office in Kabul was bombed while the world saw the massacre of civilians. Alouni was there. Was he a terrorist under the bombs or a witness of a global tragedy? In my opinion, Alouni's reportage for Al-Jazeera was correct and more accurate than CNN or FOX."
British media have alleged financial links between employees of Al-Jazeera and the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. On 11 May, reporter Marie Coyle wrote in the British "Daily Mirror" tabloid that a document found by coalition soldiers in Iraq with the letterhead, "Presidency of the Republic, Mukhabarat Service [Iraqi Intelligence Service]," indicates apparent contact between the intelligence agency and Muhammad Jasim al-Ali, the station's managing director. While Coyle reported that there was no evidence that al-Ali had been paid off, "the documents directly implicated two other Al-Jazeera employees." Al-Ali was fired in May, and the station denied the charges that he was in any way connected to the former Iraqi leader.
"The Weekly Standard," based in the United States, reported on 28 May: "According to one document, authored by an Iraqi operative working in the regime's embassy in Qatar, an Al-Jazeera employee Iraqi intelligence referred to as Jazeera 2 passed letters from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. '[Jazeera 2] has a distinguished stand in the cooperation with us, continuously providing us with the information we request. I made him aware of the appreciation of his efforts. He has been presented with a set of gold jewelry for his wife.'"
BALANCED REPORTING OR INCITEMENT TO KILL?
Since the 11 September attacks, Al-Jazeera has broadcast a number of audio and video recordings -- first of bin-Laden and his lieutenants, and later of Hussein -- telling its viewers that those Al-Qaeda and Iraqi leaders are alive and well and able to conduct operations against the United States. The tapes have been authenticated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but critics have questioned the practice of airing messages from terrorists, particularly at length.
One of Al-Jazeera's more controversial programs appeared on 12 September 2002, when the station aired an account of the 11 September attack on the World Trade Center and featured two suspected terrorists sought by the United States in connection with the attacks. One suspect, Ramzi Binalshibh, who was described in the program as the "coordinator of the 11 September operation," told the audience how he and others were watching the attack live on television. "Suddenly our brother Marwan was violently ramming the plane into the [World Trade Center] in an unbelievable manner! We were watching live and praying: God...aim...aim...aim."
Bruce Hoffman, in his 1998 book "Inside Terrorism," quoted a chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who once asked rhetorically whether "a rapist in Hampshire or a burglar in Berkshire [would] be accorded the freedom through the media to justify rape and burglary and be allowed to threaten more of the same?"
Another example of what some might consider incitement was broadcast by Al-Jazeera on 28 September (as reported on the website http://english.aljazeera.net) when the station aired an audiotape of Osama bin Laden's spokesman, Ayman al-Zawahiri, calling for the overthrow of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. "Musharraf...is seeking to send Pakistani forces to Iraq so that they, rather than American soldiers are killed," al-Zawahiri said. He also warned Pakistani soldiers that the president would "hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret [bank] accounts" if India attacked their country.
The U.S. government has protested such broadcasts to the emir of Qatar, saying they stir up anti-American feelings in the region. Al-Jazeera, however, has interviewed a number of senior officials in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
In the two years since 11 September, Al-Jazeera has seen a steady growth in popularity. But its popularity does not stem from newscasts. It currently reaches some 35 million people in the Middle East, and is widely regarded as the medium in the Arab world where the views of organizations advocating Islamic fundamentalism can be heard regularly. Some argue that Al-Jazeera does not seek to present a balanced view of events that are of importance to its viewers, but rather is a highly biased outlet that ultimately aids and condones terrorism. Al-Jazeera not only informs, according to critics, but molds attitudes in the Arab world. Unlike its Western counterparts covering acts of terrorism, critics charge, Al-Jazeera has covered such events from a particular, some say "positive," slant. The station, they claim, is being used as a soapbox by extremists from which to proselytize the mostly Arab viewers and this is the feature that has made Al-Jazeera's ratings (although not revenues) skyrocket.
THE ARAB COMPETITION
Al-Jazeera's main competition in the Middle East comes from a new 24-hour news station, Al-Arabiyah. Formed in February 2003 and based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Arabiyah has in less then a year managed to evoke a similarly negative response to its broadcasts from the U.S. government.
On 28 August, the U.S. State Department sent cables to its embassy in Dubai instructing U.S. diplomats to formally protest a broadcast by the station in which a group of hooded armed men threatened to kill members of the Iraqi Governing Council and others who cooperate with U.S. forces. "We find Al-Arabiyah's decision to air the remarks of these masked terrorists to be irresponsible in the extreme," said Philip Reeker, a deputy spokesman at the State Department.
"The Guardian" reported on 24 September that the Iraqi Governing Council has "banned the Arab world's two leading television channels (Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah on 23 September) from government offices and news conferences, accusing them of broadcasting 'poison.'" The paper added, "Iraqi officials accused Al-Jazeera, the pioneering news channel based in Qatar, and Al-Arabiyah, based in the United Arab Emirates, of encouraging violence against the U.S. military and Iraqi officials and of promoting sectarian divisions."
Al-Arabiyah has a staff of about 400 and is backed by the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), Lebanon's Hariri Group, and investors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states, according to Malaysia-based "The Star" from 23 February 2003. (http://thestar.com.my)
The "Financial Times" on 3 February wrote that two other "Arab satellite news projects have been started in the past year, one Algerian backed, the other a Saudi-Lebanese partnership. They are entering a crowded market in which state-controlled and private satellite channels will be vying to make their name in a war. Ali Jaber, executive director of Future Television, a Lebanese station, says: 'All the stations are competing to be the one to watch in an Iraqi war.' A lot of the new effort is aimed at combating al-Jazeera, particularly when countries such as Saudi Arabia cannot afford to have a hostile station as the sole news source on Iraq."
PREACHING TO THE CHOIR
Author Hoffman summed up the dilemma the media face when covering terrorism by quoting David Rapoport's essay, titled "The Media and Terrorism -- Implications of the Unabomber Case": "The relationship between publicity and terror is indeed paradoxical and complicated. Publicity focuses attention on a group, strengthening its morale and helping to attract recruits and sympathizers. But publicity is pernicious to the terrorist groups too. It helps an outraged public to mobilize its vast resources and produces information that the public needs to pierce the veil of secrecy all terrorist groups require."
Do the broadcasts of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah stir up anti-American and pro-terrorism sentiments among their viewing audiences? Are they merely fronts for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups?
It seems fairer to conclude that they, as well as Western news outlets, are preaching to already-converted choirs. The same broadcast (a statement by bin Laden for example) is bound to elicit considerably different reactions from some Western viewers, who will most likely turn livid and renew their determination to fight terrorism in all its manifestations, from that of certain Islamic viewers who will see in it a source of pride and a call to further violence.
The attitudes prevalent in the Middle East were formed some time ago and it is highly doubtful that beyond reinforcing prevailing views, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah are turning the tide of public opinion against the West. Their sensationalist practice of providing a forum for extremist views, while reprehensible to some, has not generated massive anti-Western riots and demonstrations in the Middle East. More people (presumably regular viewers of the BBC and not Al-Jazeera) demonstrated in London against the war in Iraq than in Cairo or Damascus.