Media’s Role in Conflict and Terrorism

12 December 2003 |CCJD |by: Red Batario

KBP Seminar-Workshop on Reporting Conflict and Terrorism

11-12 December 2003                   

Cha-liBeachResort, Cagayan de Oro City


Journalists are all too familiar with conflict and terrorism.  Conflict drives many of the stories that we read, see and hear.  It is a frame so beloved of the reporter who is looking for drama…the unusual…the headline-grabber.  Acts of terrorism are almost always developing stories that have elements of tragedy and horror, easy news pegs that can be easily cobbled together as the day’s top story.

But how have we been covering conflict and terrorism? Have media contributed to a better understanding of this horrific phenomenon? Have we examined closely the ramifications and implications of terrorist acts in the context of people’s daily lives and in the practice of our craft?  Have we engaged in a more thoughtful kind of journalism that would have contributed to a sober public appraisal of these events happening around us?  Or are we being blamed for the all the bad news that have been filling the headlines? 

This is not the first seminar on media’s role in conflict and terrorism and would certainly not be the last.  The only reason I can think of, aside from the niggling thought that the media are being made a convenient scapegoat, is that we have yet to fully understand from a journalistic perspective this twin phenomenon, certainly not a modern-day invention but nonetheless a morbidly fascinating facet of our unfolding history.

 How do rebel groups and terrorists view media?

We must understand that rebel groups and terrorists, just like government and other institutions of power, the media included, have their own respective agendas to push.  Their intention is of course to project that agenda on the larger public plane in the most positive light and quickest way possible. 

Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, put it even more succinctly by describing terrorism as “propaganda by deed” the intent of which is to terrorize the greater public into immobility or capitulation.  Its intent is also to effect a change in policy or attitudes.

Dean Luis Teodoro, in his paper on The Media and Terror: The Critical Connection, said “the terror it inspires proceeds from the randomness and irrationality of the attack. There is reason in that madness.  An attack against armed opponents does not provoke as much terror as an attack against non-combatants, which delivers the message that no one – whether armed or unarmed, guilty or innocent, young or old, man or woman – is beyond the terrorist’s reach.  The mass media are the logical conduits of that message.” 

Witness how mass media had spread, wittingly or unwittingly, messages of terror around the globe.  A bombing inBaliis beamed almost instantaneously to living rooms inNorth America,Europe,Asiaand in other parts of the world courtesy of CNN.

Rebel groups like the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front also look at the media the same way: as an avenue for communicating their message and in some instances, as allies in the campaign to popularize their own ideologies or subsume other political thought into their own.

Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the coverage of the coup attempt in 1989 by rebel soldiers against the Aquino government when media, save for a few that did go out of their way to engage in what I would like to call journalism of verification, literally became a rebel propaganda platform.

Again, let me quote Dean Teodoro: “In subsequent acts of terror, among them the assassination of labor leader Rolando Olalia, in which a military group was alleged to be the perpetrator, its spokespersons justified the act through the media in terms of the supposed imperative to rid society and the Aquino government of ‘communists.’

“Media would later provide that group the opportunity to present its peculiar interpretation of recent history as well as its nebulous programs of governance to the TV-watching and newspaper-reading citizenry, thus imbuing what would have been in other circumstances only a criminal band with the aura of dedicated reformers.”

To what extent do they use media to attain their own ends?

 The very nature of the news media invites a sort of commodity exchange between two power sources: one that is forever hungry to feed its grinding news mills and the other only too willing to provide the fodder.

One of the all-too common, and one that is hard to resist, blandishments dangled by those who would want their message splashed on the six o’ clock news, is the offer of an exclusive.  Rebel groups and terrorists, of course, have refined this almost to an art form, imbuing their actions and leading personalities with a romantic aura that often is enough to get the journalist’s adrenaline pumping.

The coverage of the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping spree in Basilan illustrates this only too well, with Sabaya enticing journalists and media organizations with “exclusive” footage of beheadings and announcements of their demands in exchange for the release of the hostages.  The Abu Sayyaf later on wised up to the idea and began demanding “entrance fees” from media persons hungry for a scoop.

Although I have yet to hear of these groups bribing journalists in exchange for a 30-second spot or a radio sound bite, it is not uncommon for them to cultivate “friendly relationships” with the media as had been demonstrated by Sabaya’s almost daily statements through a radio station.

On the other hand, government is also not above using the media to put its message across.  One of the more acrimonious issues that have cropped up in the recent past was the showing by television stations of video footage showing the Abu Sayyaf beheading soldiers. 

The question that was raised then was: were the media being used by the government to increase public outrage against the Abu Sayaff and encourage support for the ongoing Balikatan exercises?  The other question was whether it was correct or ethical for media to show the footage.

It became such a contentious issue that the KBP had to step in to investigate even though the private TV stations stopped the airing after much public criticism.  The KBP found that the newscast where the video was shown had violated the KBP Code on Sex and Violence, which states that: “Crime shall always be condemned.  The details of the planning and the actual commission of a crime shall be minimized and/or eliminated so that there shall be no expressed or implied inducement and/or details on how to commit the crime, and violence and horror shall be minimized.  Unnecessary morbid and gory details shall not be allowed.”

How does the government view media in its campaign against rebel groups and terrorist movements?

Governments everywhere have their own agendas to follow, programs and policies to implement and therefore should not be viewed as neutral institutions.  Governments likewise “represent the interests of groups dominant in society” and in the words of Dean Teodoro, “the way governments deal with opponents and with conflict, as well as with other issues, is shaped by the demands of those interests.”

In the ongoing global campaign against terrorism, there is an almost tacit view by governments that media should look at terrorists and acts of terror from their own perspective, often leading to knee-jerk labeling of the usual suspects as in the case of Muslim separatists inMindanao.  We have seen how the news media, especially theUSnews media, practically adopted the government’s line in the war againstIraqsupposedly to wipe out terrorism and weapons of mass destruction by covering it as a “war against evil.”  Very few questioned the use of weapons of mass destruction to destroy weapons of mass destruction in the same way that the conflict inMindanaoin 2000 and subsequent military operations were generally covered as combat stories with one side winning and the other losing.

Because of media’s perceived credibility and independence (and here I am referring to the privately-owned media), government would necessarily view them as useful and critical conduits of information.  Certainly, government would hope for a media that would be less critical of its programs and policies, or for that matter its campaign against terrorism.

But it would do well for all of us to remember that concretely defining the relationship between the government and media becomes critical in helping media develop further their capacity to cover terrorism or conflict.  It is likewise imperative to understand that governments and media have different agendas or intentions.

“The fundamental loyalty of media is, or should be, to the facts.  This is at the heart of the imperative of accuracy.  But truth-telling is a commitment to which governments, including those that claim adherence to democratic ideals, do not necessarily subscribe (to),” says Teodoro.

On the other hand, he says, “governments besieged by social and political movements that demand changes in the structure of power and of social relations, if resistant to those changes, may resort to terrorist tactics in combating these (terrorist) movements.”        

What is media’s role in the on-going conflict and in the anti-terrorism campaign?

Media critics have accused media of breaching ethical and professional standards when they allow themselves, wittingly or otherwise, to be used by governments fighting terrorism and non-governmental groups espousing terrorism.  The media offenses that they cite are very fundamental, ranging from failure to provide accurate and unbiased information that would allow the public to act accordingly based on that information.

From where I stand, as a citizen and media consumer, the stories that come my way are bereft of one important thing: context and empowering information.  They do not allow me to make sense of what is happening around me.  The stories tell me of problems, they do not tell me that something can be done.  They tell me that everything is wrong but nothing about what’s working.  Other stories cite Muslim terrorists but I have yet to come across a news item identifying para-military groups who assassinated their victims as Christian terrorists.

I am reminded of what your Chairman, Cerge Remonde, said in one KBP workshop: “We (the broadcast media) generate a lot of heat but very little light.”

It is a telling indictment of how the media have been playing their role in the on-going conflict and in the anti-terrorism campaign. 

We have been providing the news on a regular basis, but we have not illuminated the way.  Remember that journalism exists in a social context and that citizens and societies depend, out of necessity, on the accurate and reliable accounting of events for them to function well.  Journalism, I should think, means a shared sense by citizens that they have some connection to and control over the institutions that make the big decisions, and therefore that they need the information journalism provides about public life.

Even the Greek correspondent Thucydides, writing about the Peloponnesian War, had been mindful of illuminating his audience because of the way memory, perspective, context and politics sometimes blur the recollection of events.

He left us with this:

“With regard to my factual reporting of events…I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else heard of them from eye witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.  Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eye witnesses gave different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other, or else from imperfect memories.”        

This impacts on ethical and professional issues that the media need to consider when covering conflict, terrorism or even anti-terrorism.  Accuracy, fairness, truth telling, independence and providing an opportunity for the public to act on information provided by media are signposts and at the same time principles that journalists should do well to remember.

These same principles are also the best defense that media practitioners and their organizations can have in protecting themselves from threats against their journalistic independence and integrity.

Let me also emphasize that in this new media age, it is not enough for journalists to merely play the role of getters and bringers of the news, it is incumbent for media practitioners supposedly serving the public, the audience, the consumers, the citizens to decipher the spin and lies, the lobbying and the propaganda, the image and form that are attendant to both acts of terrorism and the war against it.