Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Neutrality and terrorism

The brutal terrorist attack that took place in Sinai last week has once again drawn attention to the questionable reporting of the Western media, writes Ezzat Ibrahim

In the aftermath of the vicious terrorist attack in Sinai last week, the international media has turned its attention to Egypt, with some reporters and writers for prestigious Western newspapers and news networks arguing about what they see as the real causes and the real deficiencies that led to the horrific ambush on a mosque resulting in 305 people killed and 125 wounded. 

A couple of weeks ago, the coverage of the Al-Wahat attack on security personnel in Egypt also caused controversy since the number of causalities was a matter of speculation among major global media outlets. 

When it comes to “objectivity” and “neutrality”, the Egyptian public has had bad experiences with the Western media in recent years. The popular uprising against the former Muslim Brotherhood regime has been presented as a “military coup” in the Western media even though there was an unprecedented consensus among Egyptians to support the events of 30 June 2013. The question of objectivity again came to the fore following the latest attack, with the Egyptian government and public opinion wondering at the usage of the terms “insurgents” and “militants” to describe what were acts by terrorists taking place against civilians in Egypt. 

Neutrality of editorial policy generally means rejecting any taking of sides in conflicts covered by the media. In the case of what happened in Sinai last week, such criteria should also apply. One study produced by the London School of Economics has warned that “there is a danger that news coverage can provide the publicity the terrorist seeks, as well as add to disinformation through poor verification and lack of context. Such publicity can even be seen to be helping terrorists increase their impact and make their recruitment more effective. The way journalists frame news around terror events can also reinforce prejudices and stereotypes.”

The coverage of terrorist attacks around the world is problematic since framing the news takes place according to the editorial judgements of the media organisations concerned.  In this regard, experts have noticed that Western media reporting on terrorist attacks in New York or London focuses more on “victims”, but when it comes to events in the Middle East the same reporting talks about “violent incidents” in a troubled region. 

Earlier this year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) published a book entitled Terrorism and the Media: A Handbook for Journalists in which various writers tried to characterise the problem. Part of the Handbook focuses on the relationship between terrorists and publicity. For example, terrorist attacks, as commentator Brian Jenkins wrote in 1995, “are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press. Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual victims.” 

According to the Handbook, “this characterisation of the media does not imply actual sympathy felt or displayed for terrorist groups, but rather refers to the publicity that they provide them and consequently the power of nuisance that they grant them. The media economy, largely based on a competitive race to attract audiences, incentivises this symbiotic relationship between terrorists and the press.” 

Many people working in the media are aware of the terrorists’ dependence on large-scale coverage, and it is up to the media, especially powerful Western journalism, to review its established codes in order to tackle changes in the nature of the confrontation with terrorists. For example, in the case of the latest attack in Sinai, the massacre and the brutality of the terrorists should push newsrooms to review their policies since using terms like “militants” and “insurgents” gives the jihadist groups what they want, either through broad coverage or by presenting them as “freedom-fighters”.

In such cases, neutrality is a double-edged sword. The major Western media organisations’ coverage of the Sinai massacre has offered the terrorists oxygen to continue their brutal acts. It is up to the influential media organisations in the Western world to reconsider their policies in order to help prevent the terrorists from gaining ground.

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