Our Knee-Jerk Reactions to Terrorism



By Femi Akintunde-Johnson

Further afield, in other continents, human reaction to terror seems consistent, even if ultimately counterproductive. David Sullivan in his April 9, 2019 article, “The Consequences of Legislating Cyberlaw After Terrorist Attacks” provides a tableau of knee-jerk reactions by stricken nations throwing up tough counter-terrorism measures to stem the spread of this virus: “(The other) week, Australia’s Parliament reacted to the Christchurch massacre by rushing an amendment to their criminal code on sharing abhorrent violent material that passed their Senate and House of Representatives in approximately 48 hours. While there is undoubtedly a grave and urgent need to prevent terrorists and violent extremists of all stripes from exploiting internet platforms to spread vile and inflammatory content, hastily drafted laws passed under pressure tend to create new problems while doing little to counter such threats. The history of the Internet is riddled with problematic laws, haphazardly passed in the wake of horrific violence….

 “The USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of 9/11, has become shorthand for broad expansion of security powers in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack. Passed with only one senator opposing it, the sheer breadth of its provisions defy easy summary….

“In November 2008, four days of coordinated shootings and bombings by Lashkar-e-Taiba shook Mumbai and prompted a call for greater government powers. At the time, India’s Parliament had already been considering significant changes to its Information Technology Act, with provisions on blocking websites and state surveillance initially proposed years before. But terrorism provided renewed urgency and led to the passage of the IT Act amendments within a month of the attacks, without parliamentary debate, together with a package of other counter-terrorism laws…

 “Following a similar pattern, the spate of terrorist attacks in France during 2015 and 2016 elicited a state of emergency and expansive new counter-terrorism powers affecting both privacy and freedom of expression. 

 “These included broad powers to search computers as well as the ability to block websites that allegedly glorified terrorism, all without prior judicial authorization. Regularly visiting a website that incites or glorifies terrorism was criminalized in 2016, which was struck down by the Constitutional Court in February 2017. The government reintroduced an amended version the law later that year, only for it to be struck down once again in December 2017.” 

 Sullivan insists that these draconian fear-induced countermeasures reflect “the kind of approach associated with the Cyberspace Administration of China or Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, rather than those of governments known to respect and uphold international human rights laws and norms”.

  The seed of this problematic state of affairs between political leadership and the media is well absracted by L. John Smith in “The Media’s Role In International Terrorism”. Few lines make interesting reading: “Terrorism, like propaganda, is a form of persuasive communication. Like propaganda, it is a pejorative term….

 “After considering various definitions and examples of what is and is not terrorism, (his) paper looks at the symbiotic relationship that exists between terrorism and mass media. Each exploits the other and terrorism has no meaning without media coverage in this age of mass communication. Terrorists use mass media for both tactical and strategic purposes.

  “While the mass media do, generally, cover terrorism at a rate of at least nine incidents per day worldwide, according to a pilot study undertaken for (his) paper, the press uses the term “terrorist” sparingly, preferring such neutral terms as guerrilla, rebel, and paramilitary, or using no value laden adjectives at all… This raises the question of the effectiveness of terrorism. The press gives terrorists publicity but often omits the propaganda message that terrorists would like to see accompanying reports of their exploits, thus reducing terrorism to mere crime or sabotage.” 

  Sometimes, it appears the media forget how powerful they are. Let us remind them in the words of Michael S. Schudson, a professor of journalism in the graduate school of journalism of Columbia University and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, USA (in ‘Power of News’): “The power of the mass media lies not in the direct influence of the mass media on the general public, but in the perception of experts and decision-makers that the general public is influenced by the mass media.”

  One of the things we do very well in the practice of journalism is agenda-setting, and in the purview of conflict reporting, we often dovetail to profiling, stereotyping, and perhaps unconsciously knitting red herrings into the social fabrics of threatened communities. Let us take a window view of this intriguing article, “How News Media Talks About Terrorism: What The Evidence Shows” by Erin M. Kearns and Amarnath Amarasingam: “A study of 146 network and cable news programs between 2008 and 2012 found that 81 percent of terrorism suspects that were subjects of news reporting were Muslims, far greater than the percentage of terrorist attacks in the U.S. that were committed by Muslims during the same period. While some of these suspects may have been outside of the U.S., there still appears to be over-coverage of Muslims as terrorists. When we consider television news, the trend is the same: Muslims are over-represented as terrorists.”

  Yet, the media is still the best hope of withering the influence and perfidy of terrorism. Governments of West Africa, particularly, must find the capacity and intelligence to accommodate and deepen relationships with the region’s media, even as they battle to reclaim the soul of the region from terrorist groups, extremists and insurrectionists.  The advice of the France-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2005 is still cogent and pragmatic: “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 the dramatic and spectacular aspect of terrorism fascinates the general public. Today’s terrorists exploit this and act in a way which will attract maximum attention around the world.

  “Terrorism should not affect the importance of freedom of expression and information in the media as one of the essential foundations of democratic society. This freedom carries with it the right of the public to be informed on matters of public concern, including terrorist acts and threats, as well as the response by the state and international organisations to them.

  “The fight against terrorism should not be used as an excuse by states to restrict the freedom of the press. As far as journalists are concerned, they should avoid playing into the hands of the terrorists by restricting the dissemination of graphic photos and over-sensational information.”

  The Assembly also nudged the mass media with some penetrating admonishments which will form a part of our concluding statements.”

 (The above is the second part of a conference paper entitled “Journalist As The Terrorist’s Best Friend”)