Sunday, August 16, 2009

It's a media war!

By Sajid Hussain

“Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.” — Margaret Thatcher

Everyone knows terrorists need the media to propagate their cause. But it is hard to believe that the media are attracted towards terrorist activities for increased audiences and profits. In the competing market, news outlets are engaged in more emotion-generating news reporting than purely informational one. News channels love to run a ‘breaking news’ ticker on their screens to attract viewers. And terrorists can help more than anybody else in providing them with a breaking news item. There is a blast, and here is a ‘news alert’.

The primary aim of a terrorist attack is to get attention or publicity. By covering such events, the media in a way help terrorists in their cause. Though we can suggest terrorists -- as our innocent leadership often does -- to stop their terrorist activities, there is no logic behind asking media persons not to cover acts of terrorism. They cannot afford to ignore it. They have a ‘responsibility’ to inform the people. So, rephrasing my previous statement, the media cannot avoid helping terrorists.

One can agree with the government that reporting of terrorism events has its disadvantages, but putting restrictions on media not to cover such events has far greater adverse effects on society. The Musharraf regime, by overemphasizing the damaging aspects of media coverage of terrorist activities, had purposefully put restrictions on the media in the form of the Pemra Ordinance.

All governments love to restrict the media freedom in the name of national security -- a vague concept which is almost impossible to define. The government can stop the media from covering all issues of importance in the name of national security.

Though it is not to restrict the media from reporting acts of terrorism, the nature of such reporting could be debated. Despite the fact that the media are primarily supposed to inform the people, news outlets seem more interested in entertaining them. The logic behind this is not hard to understand. Media organizations can win an increased viewership/readership by sensationalizing events. Therefore, despite naively asking media organizations to stop giving coverage to terrorists, they could be requested not to sensationalize terrorism events.

Media should understand that terrorists are fighting a psychological war. They are far inferior militarily to the NATO or Pakistani forces. They know they cannot win the war with military means. Therefore, they are more focused on using psychological tactics to defeat their adversaries. A suicide attack is not only meant to kill people. Taliban’s suicide bombings are primarily targeted against the morale of their adversaries. They want to defeat their well-armed ‘enemy’ at the psychological front as they know it is not doable on the battlefield.

For terrorists, media coverage is the only measure of success of a terrorist attack. It’s not the number of people they kill, which amuses them. They use the yardstick of media coverage to measure their success.
Maulana Fazlullah’s FM channels, Tehrik-e-Taliban’s spokesman Maulvi Omar’s regular media interactions, Al-Qaeda’s media productions house As-Sahab, and militant’s video messages to news channels all suggest that militants are fighting a sophisticated, propaganda warfare.

As-Sahab produced 58 videos in 2006 and 97 videos in 2007. In February 2006, the then US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld warned that his country was losing a media war against Al-Qaeda.
"Our enemies have skilfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but... our country has not," he had said. From all appearances, terrorists seem to have a highly-developed propaganda mechanism. They are using the means of mass communications, including the print and electronic media, in their benefit.

Britain's former spy chief and former governor BBC Dame Pauline Neville Jones accused the BBC in September 2007 for being used for Al-Qaeda’s propaganda. "Is the BBC so naive as to take Al-Qaeda's propaganda at face value? Or is there something more sinister at work here?" she had asked.

She is right, but why blame the BBC alone? Almost all the media organizations are being used by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to propagate their cause. But, unlike Pauline, I don’t suspect that “something sinister” is at work. I rather believe the media cannot avoid being used by terrorists in the given market conditions. However, media owners would have to voluntarily forgo some of their profits to avoid a terrorist takeover in the country.

This is a media war. Journalists and media owners can fight it more impressively than the troops. As terrorists carry attacks mainly for media coverage, they will get frustrated and eventually demoralized if they do not get their desired coverage.

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