Saturday 2 December 2023




Some eminent writers and scholars argue that too often the media helps promote terrorists' agenda. Others disagree. I tend to go with the former, and in this short Paper, will show how terrorism can be seen from at least two perspectives, those of the victim and the perpetrator. Using three examples, I will prove that the media would not mind terrorist acts coming up on their own on the agenda, however distasteful and disagreeable they may seem, as much as the terrorists want the media, as it suits the interests of both these parties.         Noel Moitra


The horrific events of 9/11 brought terrorism centre stage. Terrorism had existed well before that date, but remained largely underplayed, till Uncle Sam got bearded in his own den. Without attempting to add to the plethora of definitions of terrorism, let me just say that there is a fundamental difference in the way it is seen, related purely to perspective. The victim and the perpetrator portray an incident affecting them quite differently.

             For example, US media might say, “Terrorists detonated a bomb near the camp of the U.S. peacekeeping forces, causing numerous U.S. military casualties.” Arab media would report it as: “Freedom fighters detonated a bomb near the base of the crusaders. The tremendous blast killed and severely injured many infidels.”(n.p.)

             A free press is a mandate in a democracy. If the content available was not salutary, the media would still report it. Terrorism uses this mandate to further its own aim by spreading fear. A terrorist organization actually needs the media to spread information about localized attacks as widely as possible. In the cause of reporting, or at times, hogging the limelight, the media does exactly what the terrorist wants. Paradoxically, terrorism has become a boon for the media, because such attacks make television ratings surge. “Terrorist acts are well calculated, always played to an audience and specific tactics employed to maximize impact” (Bozarth, 2005).

              There are people who feel that the media brings the world up to date and educates people about the ills of terrorism and how it is crucial to lend a hand against this ugly monster. I do not agree and believe that the media is only interested in its ratings, ‘damn the consequences’ (n.p.).  I will use three examples to support my argument.

             Since 1960, advancement in technology had affected the media greatly, giving it a face and voice, not just events reported on black and white paper. The nature of terrorism reporting had also evolved simultaneously. While aimed to promote terror in a larger target audience, terrorism often aims to recruit more supporters. The media is the conduit to both these aims. Terrorism ‘relies almost exclusively on psychological “warfare” for its intended impact. Victims of an attack are the signal that is amplified and broadcast, terrorizing the target audience into capitulating to the terrorists demands’ (Bozarth, 2005). “Terrorists are not interested in three, or thirty – or even three thousand - deaths. They allow the imagination of the target population to do their work for them. In fact, the desired panic could be produced by the continuous broadcast of threats and declarations – by radio and TV interviews, videos and all the familiar methods of psychological warfare” (Ganor 2002).

             Terrorists have “four media-dependent objectives when they strike or threaten to commit violence. The first is: Gain attention, intimidate, create fear. The second is: Recognition of the organization’s motives. Why they are carrying out attacks? The third is: Gain the respect and sympathy of those in whose name they claim to attack. The last is: Gain a quasi-legitimate status and media treatment at par with legitimate political actors” (Nacos 2007, 20). Many cases confirm that ‘getting attention through the media is important terrorist strategy. The 7 July 2005 London bombings on the transit system in London is one example, with the G-8 summit on in Scotland. The terrorists pushed the G-8 leaders off the front pages’ (Ibid, 20-21).

             The Palestinian terrorist organisation Black September attack on Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympic Games 1972, when people around the world were watching the Games and large numbers of newspaper and broadcast journalists had gathered, is another example. A  hostage situation and a rescue attempt ensued, closely covered by all media, and watched by approximately 800 million people throughout the world. The terrorists “monopolized the attention of a global television audience. (Ibid, 179). “Black September undoubtedly chose Munich at the time of the Olympics because the technology, equipment, and personnel were in place to guarantee a television drama that had never before been witnessed in the global arena.” (Nacos 2002, 177).

             The images of attacks like 9/11, can inspire awe. For instance, “after 9/11, Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden became most popular in the Muslim community” (Gunaratna, 2006). “Simply by showing that he and his kind could land a devastating blow against the US on home ground, bin Laden conditioned a large number of young Muslim men – mainly in the Muslim diaspora in western Europe – for recruitment into his cause without ever meeting them.” (Nacos 2007, 22).

             The Internet can be and has been used terrorists for cyber-terrorism, coordination of plans, communication with cells, or propaganda and information. That they can now manage their own media is not the only advantage they have in using the Internet. “There are other advantages in using the Net. The audience is enormous; it is easy to access and stay anonymous, it is incredibly fast and inexpensive, and it offers a multimedia environment, which means that text, graphics, video, songs, books, and presentations can all be combined. In addition, regular media now often report on or even copy Internet content, which means that both old and new media can be influenced by using the Internet alone” (Weimann 2004, 3). 


Modern terrorism is media terrorism. The media are attracted by extreme terrorist acts not only because it is their duty to report on any major event but also because, at the same time, the dramaturgy of terrorism attracts large scale attention. Today’s terrorists have picked up this dynamic and take action not only to make their victims suffer but also to create maximum attention around the world. Terrorists have become “media competent” by knowing and applying the principles of attracting media attention in most of their activities. Not only do they now own the necessary technical equipment such as video cameras and Internet facilities, they also usually know how to time and create those images which can guarantee a maximum impact through the media. This dynamic could lead to the conclusion that a major option for the prevention of terrorism would be not to allow journalists and the media to report on terrorist activities or events or at least to inhibit coverage as much as possible. Several countries indeed have chosen this option and it is difficult in those countries to have access to information or events that are related to terrorist activities.

Modern democracy is however characterised to a high extent by its freedom of expression and the possibility to access relevant political or societal information. As soon as information related to terrorism is blocked by governments or other political or societal institutions, terrorists may have gained one of their goals, namely to compromise the values of modern democracy. Thus, political institutions, as well as the media, are faced with the basic dilemma that on the one hand media coverage may be instrumentalised by terrorists in order to get maximum attention while, on the other hand, if such information is inhibited, the basic principle and value of freedom of expression and information is under threat.

There is a general consensus among European parliamentarians, politicians, journalists and experts that the European political system is strong enough to tolerate the distribution of information related to terrorism. In fact, a major conclusion is that it would mean a real victory for the terrorists if political institutions were to compromise the European values of freedom, including the freedom of expression and information, in order to prevent any terrorist activity.

Although this major principle may be generally accepted, many details need to be considered when addressing media and terrorism. One of the major questions when dealing with terrorism is its definition. Two “schools” compete here. One defines terrorism in terms of the actors of terrorist attacks; the other defines terrorism in terms of the actual attacks themselves. Over the years this question has always been central to the analysis and treatment of terrorism. For the media the labelling and determination of precise motives is important even if this is not the same as a criminal justice procedure. It may therefore be more suitable to deal primarily with individual events and if necessary describe the actors involved as criminals. Not everyone who may be sympathetic with terrorist activities, but has not been involved himself or herself, is a terrorist per definition. The terrorist attacks themselves may easily be described by comparison. They usually involve extreme violence against individuals or larger groups where mostly innocent people are hurt or killed. Any situation outside a “normal” war which includes extreme violence and may be motivated by whatever simple or sophisticated or ideological political goals may be called terrorism, especially across Europe in countries with an emerging or already established democracy. All in all, for Europe, the notion, which has been used in some debates, that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” probably does not apply. Yet it is also a fact that in a few cases terrorist activities may have increased the success of non-violent but same-goal oriented groups such as IRA and SIN-FEIN. There is indeed a preference among journalists and European politicians to limit the word “terrorism” to events and not to apply it to a whole, e. g. ethnic, group or even to a major part of a certain group which has not directly been involved in violent attacks against society and its citizens.

Concentrating on the terrorist events themselves and not on the motives when reporting on terrorism may of course limit the number of people who may be called terrorists. Journalists can cover any aspect of political violence including supporters and groups which may be sympathetic with terrorist goals. But it can be dangerous to “over-generalise” the label “terrorist” to include a larger number of people and who may be drawn deeper into terrorist tendencies exactly because they are already labelled as such. In fact, political integration into the democratic system with convincing means of trust and education may be a more efficient way of preventing a terrorist “periphery” from growing into violence than creation, at an early stage, of a whole out-group of “enemies” by classifying every member of a certain grouping as terrorists without distinguishing between actual attackers and others only loosely linked with these attackers.

One should also consider that terrorism may also actually be supported by the fact that “normal” criminal activities when labelled “”terrorism” receive a certain, if negative glorification and attraction for those who appreciate being (anti-) heroes. Many so-called terrorist activities are more based on normal criminal behaviour than on political motives. That does not make them better or worse for the victims or the political system but it may create a different context or connotation for them in the media and limit the probability that their actions are perceived as being rewarding for a higher, ideological goal. Many, if not most attacks in the context of “terrorism” serve goals other than to reach or realise political objectives. They are about money, attention, status, other advantages, or just about keeping a group alive and intact. An early-1980s study on German terrorism demonstrated that most terrorist events occurred when the group cohesion and group structure of the violent gangs was threatened to collapse and disintegrate. Planning and realizing an assault strengthened the group and put it back into a stable, if clandestine structure.

The Role Of Journalists

The first section briefly describes the necessity to differentiate when dealing with the label and the phenomenon of terrorism in both politics and the media. A cautious use of the term “terrorism” may not exclude the necessity to report about any major violent attack in society, but it contributes to a distinction between politically motivated tendencies and extreme criminal behaviour. Again, terrorism is a method, not an a priori characteristic of a whole group.

Terrorist activities of course do not only involve the media as instruments of distribution; frequently, journalists themselves are directly affected by those activities. They become victims as hostages, are killed, are used for negotiations, or, beyond purely reporting the facts, they interpret and comment on the attacks. Thus journalists are, in a variety of roles, an active part of the violent events. Recently, the threat of harm to reporters has been of increasing concern for politics and society across Europe. As representatives of the free flow of information and therefore as a very important group for the realisation of democracy, journalists deserve the special appreciation and protection of the whole of society and its political and other institutions. Any violent attack against them is an attack against the whole system and its values.

Without compromising their independence, there should be cooperation between public and political institutions on the one hand, and the media on the other regarding protection of journalists against of harmful attacks. They not only deserve the normal support of the political system as any citizen in danger, but as a special risk group they should profit from specific measures such as scenarios where media and public institutions simulate all possible acts of violence and how they can and should collectively react in order to protect that group without compromising their own sovereignty and freedom. Being prepared together does not mean that the freedom of expression is at stake or vice versa that the political and executive powers would be limited in their legal right to protect the democratic system. Rather than regarding themselves as conflict partners as a whole, the two groups share at least the one common interest that their own lives and that of any citizen are the most valuable goods in society and the basis for any democratic development.

However, even if the common interests of public institutions and professional journalists may be acknowledged, recent years have seen additional developments outside the traditional landscape of media and journalism. In Europe market pressure has also increasingly become a major factor in the success of television, radio and the press. Whereas in former times a certain ethical code would prevent the coverage of an event in a sensational way and therefore would, because of professional self-responsibility, avoid showing the most extreme scenes, this latent consensus is nowadays often challenged. If one channel does not show the most violent activities the next one will do it and so obtain a greater share of the market. Thus, with increased competition between media players or individual journalists the likelihood has been increasing that the common code of ethics is no longer automatically valid. On top of that, particularly terrorist activities are often followed by “lay-journalism”. That means that non-professional observers of terrorist acts record the events with cheap digital cameras or web-cams and are also able to distribute the images via informal channels, for example the Internet. In fact, people involved in terrorist activities have themselves started applying media dramaturgy and using the necessary technical means such as video cameras, digital equipment, or the Internet. Hardly any kidnapping takes place where there is no video message distributed globally addressing directly the public as well as the political institutions. It is no more the professional journalist who controls, filters and interprets the events and the images. The images have started to lead their own lives and reach the audience frequently outside traditional media institutions. In turn, professional journalists have to consider this development and so pick up those images which they have not themselves produced or personally obtained.

This has two consequences: Firstly, there is more access to a global audience than ever before including the possibility for criminals to reach any specific group. Secondly, with this situation it has become more difficult to establish professional and ethical codes to be applied along all communication channels. This also means that new positions have to be defined on the continuum between potentially “harmful” and “pro-social” reporting. While normal journalism needs to describe any event, including violent attacks, in as neutral a way as possible, the production of images by the terrorists themselves are of course directly aimed at public relations and public terror to serve their own goals. Several journalists on the other hand, among them Malbrunot, who had been kidnapped suggested that sometimes the amateur videos recorded by the terrorists were a positive instrument for the negotiations with governments to get them free. Again, journalism may hardly stay completely neutral even if that is the necessary intention of media reporting. Both aspects, the negative and the positive, apply if increasingly more images and information are available outside traditional journalism: The more that images about terrorist events are distributed around the world, the more any audience gets the impression that terrorism is indeed a defining factor of modern life. In this way, terrorism would have reached its goal to irritate and threaten the majority of citizens. At the same time, any video recorded by violent actors may also be a means for negotiation. If the receivers of this information are willing and able to read the message and signals, they may as a result obtain a strategic or tactical advantage. Several kidnapped journalists reported that in the end reaction to the videos received saved their lives. Government representatives took the messages seriously and found ways to offer the kidnappers possibilities in exchange for the hostages’ lives. This of course remains tricky in the long run, even if in the actual situation the production and distribution of videos may have supported the negotiations and their outcome. At the same time, it means that the kidnappers were rewarded and without such possibilities the kidnappings might never have taken place. The example shows that it is the balance which counts. The part played by images and the media has to be taken into account, they cannot be ignored even if that might well be the political preference. Thus, one has to live with the technical possibilities and try to take advantage of their existence and not vice versa.

The European debate among parliamentarians and experts demonstrates at the same time the continuing “cultural” differences in dealing with the media when it comes to terrorism. Most European countries prefer a liberal approach to the freedom of expression and information and regard the freedom of journalists higher than the potential risk that media reporting might cause to individual citizens. They acknowledge that by limiting freedom of expression, terrorists would have indirectly realised a major aim, namely to change the political system and make it more oppressive. Some countries however still subscribe to a more restrictive policy. They want to avoid any risk of promotion of terrorist activities through media reporting by blocking journalists’ access to sites where a violent attack takes place. The examples, however, have demonstrated that it is by now nearly impossible to interfere completely with media reporting in the context of political or other violence. Nearly all images find their way anyway to the public through all kinds of channels. It therefore seems better to reach a consensus between the media and the political institutions based on a minimum acceptance of neutrality that if in doubt information should be distributed. An accepted criterion of course is that if live reporting would immediately include the risk to lose lives through informing e. g. kidnappers of the activities outside a hostage location, then this of course would have to be avoided by means of self-limitations. Even if one needs to accept these cultural differences in dealing with terrorism and the media, efficiency is probably the most valid factor in protection of freedom of expression and information. Limiting freedom of expression hardly prevents terrorists from attacking. On the contrary, if certain events are not reported which can be positioned on a lower or medium attention-grabbing level, the terrorist dynamics demand them to create such a big and spectacular event that automatically reporting cannot be avoided anyway. Thus, trying to block and inhibit free reporting is either technically not possible anyway or may at worse lead to even more extreme violence would need to be covered anyway.

When dealing with media coverage of terrorism it is also important to consider the different effects which that coverage has. It has already been mentioned that the terrorists themselves aim at maximum attention for their own sake. But it is also true of course that politics and potential supporters are affected by the violent events. Terrorist attacks can be regarded as following the principles of symbolic negotiation and even games. Politicians in public need to react in public, otherwise they are perceived as being too weak and not able to cope with the violence. Therefore it is part of the terrorists’ strategy and the strategy of political institutions vice versa to force the respective conflict partner to express weakness publicly. It needs to be clear in media reporting and communication that the events and the reactions from those events follow a dramaturgy of potentially increasing escalation. Politicians and negotiators are under public observation and cannot necessarily chose for the best strategy for example to free hostages. They need rather to demonstrate strength and power. Therefore it would also be up to the media not only to reward and pay attention to those who are applying the most extreme measures of fighting terrorism but to feature also those which are the most clever even if they do not necessarily appear to be the most radical and strong.

It has already been mentioned that many terrorist activities are directed at the empowerment of their own followers and their own group structure. Again, journalists and the media need to be aware of this fact. It is not always the larger audience which is addressed but their own followers. It was for example relatively risky to broadcast the first Bin-Laden videos after 9-11 as they may have contained hidden messages for the supporters of Bin Laden. Responsible journalism takes account of this effect and should be very careful in the broadcasting and distribution of material gathered outside the own professional possibilities and means. Again it is very difficult to apply a general standardised approach to these political and professional challenges.

Images And Ethics

The standards and norms of how to deal with terrorism in the media are different within European countries and around the globe and so are the use and interpretation of individual images. They have one thing in common however. Strong, single icons and visual impressions increasingly determine the public debate probably more than detailed analyses and background information. The struggle for power is often a struggle for the most powerful images. And violence creates powerful images and in turn attracts attention much more than peaceful negotiations could usually ever hope to achieve. That makes terrorist attacks a priori more efficient for media coverage than most other means, particularly among small, originally little-powerful groups. Again, violent images and market competition correlate and may, even unintentionally, result in a mutual spiral of interest. Even with, or especially without political control of the media, it is important for journalists to be aware of the fact that they carry a high responsibility for the effects of using and distributing terrorist images. This responsibility needs to focus on avoiding:

     a)   the promotion of terrorist goals through extreme images,

     b)   the separation of an individual attack from the historical and societal as well as criminal context,

     c)   hurting privacy and human dignity particularly of the victims.

There can hardly be a cross-national standard of how to use the images of violence in the media, but journalists need to be aware of the professional, political and ethical implications of their distribution. During the Paris debate one journalist who had himself been hostage in Iraq (Pohanka) put it very clearly: The frequency of violent images of the conflict in this country inhibits the likelihood that images of “normal” life are also widely distributed. Yet one has to show also the brutality of terrorism. Another journalist (Aliev) made it once more clear that the oppression of any violent image would only increase the probability of an attack so extreme that coverage just could not be avoided anymore.

It seems to be crucial that the images are integrated into a context, whether it is an additional piece of background information about the event itself, a description of the groups involved, or a picture of the whole situation and cultural environment which may not be characterised at all by violence or violent intentions. The danger of an isolated use of specific terrorism-images is not only that they help promote violent political goals, but that they also create a wrong image of a whole region or even a whole group and culture, such as of Islam.

Consequences For Politics And Media

Terrorism should not be able to compromise the bases of democracy and freedom. For both politics and media the consideration and realisation of several principles would reduce the likelihood that any violent activity could ever reach this goal. Among the media, whether it is television (see statements by Whittle or Krichen) or the press (see Gor and others) such principles have already been established. Summarising several approaches one can identify ten aspects of reporting which create a working guideline for dealing with terrorism:

    - Inform a broad audience freely.

    - An event must be covered accurately.

    - The coverage has to be impartial.

    - If one opinion or voice is presented, at least one alternative or opposite voice must also be heard.

    - The audience should be informed about the sources of a piece of information.

    - The procedures and channels of gathering information should be transparent.

    - The reporting should be careful in its choice of terminology (“terrorists”, “martyrs”).

     - Basic privacy and human dignity should always be respected.

    - The coverage should empower the audience to get involved in a (national) debate.

    - Once a piece of information turns out to be wrong, that should be made publicly clear.

Apart from guaranteeing press freedom, politicians should find the right balance between a number of challenges which characterise the tensions in the specific context of media and terrorism. These balances, as was agreed among politicians, journalists and experts, cannot be created in a standardised way but need to be approached pragmatically and per terrorist event. However, it is crucial to be aware of the respective challenges, more specifically, to find the right balance for history to reflect it as a piece of neutral coverage.

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