Many people see terrorism as only about taking innocent lives and wreaking havoc on property with bombs and bullets, but to view it in these terms alone is surely to miss the point.Horrific as these outrages are, they are neverthless a means to an end. The ultimate goal of most terrorists is not to perpetrate carnage, but rather to demoralise public opinion and delegitimise state institutions. Therefore, many analysts argue, one of the most important battlefields in the real war against terror is in the media.
This is a complex issue, as became clear at a seminar I attended last week in Abu Dhabi on the media's role in combating terrorism, organised by the National Media Council, the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, and the Arab League. The discussions drew on personal experiences of terrorist incidents in the region, and threw up significant disparities between journalists and government spokesmen on the issue.
It was clear, however, that both sides saw the importance of partnership in communicating information about terrorist incidents to a regional audience within well-defined professional, ethical and political parameters. To establish this partnership, however, there needs to be sustainable mutual trust and cooperation between journalists and government sources. Building such trust is not always easy, especially when the goals of each side appear to be in conflict; official spokesmen often strive to control the flow of information about terrorism in what they see as the interests of national security and public safety, while journalists are locked in a competitive race for news "scoops", in which accuracy can sometimes be sacrificed for speed. Closer alignment of these concerns would serve the region better in the media war on terror.
There is perhaps one central feature of flawed relations between government spokesmen and journalists: the perception by many of the former that media coverage of terrorism is no more than a sensational spectacle. I believe this type of thinking is morally unfounded, and does a great deal of injustice both to innocent victims of terrorism and to dedicated, professional journalists. Victims who suffer death or injury in terrorist attacks deserve to have their sacrifice recognised, and so do the journalists who risk their lives in providing that recognition.
In addition, the view that media outlets inadvertently serve as conduits for terrorists casts a cloud over the dedication shown by many journalists who adhere to the highest professional standards in reporting terrorist incidents. As Unesco has observed, many have paid dearly for that professionalism. Dozens of journalists in Algeria, Iraq, the Balkans, Colombia, Spain, the Philippines and elsewhere have been intimidated, kidnapped and assassinated.
According to the French non-governmental organisation Reporters sans Frontières, 176 of the 243 journalists who died in conflict zones between 1992 and 2001 were murdered. Only this week the British Sunday Mirror defence correspondent Rupert Hamer was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. It is high time that journalists covering such stories, and paying such a price, receive the dignified treatment they deserve.
However, it is also clear that without government-supplied information, media coverage of terrorism would be a lot more difficult than it already is. Because of their central role in combating terror, governments remain the most extensive, credible and visible sources of information; but for some journalists, governments sometimes turn into the most limiting and the least credible and visible sources.
It was reassuring at the Abu Dhabi seminar to see how aware security spokesmen from countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were of the difficulties faced by journalists working in crisis situations. Some journalists complained that restricted flows of information gave rise to distorted representations of events and issues, but government spokesmen argued that in an age of highly sophisticated terrorist communication networks it was sometimes necessary to put the concerns of state security above those of journalistic free expression.
Sadly, it seems clear that terrorism will be an issue for years to come. And in this age of globalised information and communications, the media is a new frontier in the war. As one speaker at the seminar noted, the opportunities offered by new communications technologies have been harnessed not only by governments and media organisations, but also by the terrorists themselves. An astounding amount of evidence presented at the seminar suggested how subtle terrorist organisations are proving to be at using such media.
Only a united front between government spokesmen and journalists, a durable partnership that enhances understanding of the enemy, will win this communications war.Muhammad Ayish is professor of communications at the University of Sharjah