“To straighten the crooked, you must first do a much harder thing,” said the Buddha, “straighten yourself.” In dealing with twisted forces of hate and violence driving terrorists to indiscriminate murder, do we media professionals need to straighten our approach to covering terrorists and their poisonous agenda?

It’s a tricky subject which in effect blames the messenger for the message. But here again, even if the media sees itself merely as a passive courier of content (which it is not), a responsible, security-conscious courier agency carefully examines the parcel before agreeing to carry it from sender to recipient. Is the media careful enough in examining all angles of terrorism-related news content before carrying it? Is the media watchful enough not to unwittingly be mouthpiece for terrorist organizations, or propaganda tools in encouraging murderous mayhem? Lives saving questions needing answers.

A woman cries outside the restaurant on Rue de Charonne, Paris, Sunday, Nov. 15
A woman cries outside the restaurant on Rue de Charonne, Paris, Sunday, Nov. 15

Here’s one instance among millions of news reports of the kind which I believe plays into terrorists’ hands. A leading US publication reported this on Nov. 14, a day after the Paris attacks: “The remarks came in a communiqué published in Arabic, English and French on the Islamic State’s account on Telegram, a messaging platform, and then distributed via its supporters on Twitter, according to a transcript provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist propaganda.” The first paragraph carried the message from the terrorist group to its supporters “justifying” its killing of 140 people in Paris.

So a communication among terrorist disciples in social media (unintentionally) gets global exposure from one of the world’s leading newspapers. The opening lines of that report carries words with potential to induce the thought, “looks like Paris deserved it.” It’s exactly such thinking patterns that generate terrorist recruits, and encourages the machinery of mayhem by apparently justifying it.

Whatever twisted problems and injustices in this imperfect, impermanent world, there is absolutely no sane reason for blowing up passers-by in a street, massacring families in a restaurant and hurling grenades in a crowded marketplace. No justification. And so why make it seem like there is by publicizing the terrorists’ “justifications”?

Even the commonly used prefixes of “jihadist” and “Islamist” plays into terrorist hands, helping them hijack an identity which does not belong to them.

Of course, it’s tricky to accuse the media of abetting terrorists. Asia Times’ editors politely decided that the first version of this article was “a bit too inflammatory and unfair to media organizations.” They added, “While such coverage may play into the hands of terrorists, the ultimate purpose is coverage and not driving traffic.”

That coverage is the unfortunately ignored issue. While it is the media job to dispassionately cover news events, the dangerous editorial error I feel is that coverage of terrorism is being handled the same way as reporting any other news event. Deeper layers are being missed — such as that it’s difficult to slay the terrorist monster while simultaneously feeding it the limelight on which it thrives, grows and multiplies – and the limelight it seeks while devouring lives.

It might be irresponsibly casual to dismiss this as routine coverage of news stories. License of news coverage does not obviously mean license to serve the agenda of insane killers. This media mishap is of course not out of deliberate, malicious intent, but because we have not given this crucial aspect due consideration. Terrorism-related news cannot be treated the same as any other coverage of events.

While this substantial issue might appear unfair to some conscientious editors, the real focus here needs to be how fair are influential publications to their readers by unwittingly, unintentionally serving as terrorist mouthpieces – by carrying terrorist “justifications,” publicizing their multi-media messages, or even glorifying them as victims of some political injustice (*1).

Another article ‘The utopia of ISIS: inside Islamic State’s propaganda war’ in an elderly British publication on Nov. 20 seemed to me like an unintentional PR exercise for cut-throat killers. “Terror is only part of the movement’s communications strategy …” said the gullible writer for whom apparently the gang of brutal murderers is a “movement” – even after the Paris massacre. This is the brand of careless approach that become part of terrorist propaganda machinery and feeds their strategies – of making sadistic violence appear reasonable.

Television news channels, newspapers, online journals publicizing terrorist “rationale” behind the madness are in effect publishing press releases written in blood of civilians. The cancerous virus of terrorism spreads through the media, both conventional and social. And every country suffers or is vulnerable to this deadly infection.

The media publicizing demented propaganda are delivering what terrorist masterminds hope to achieve: make known worldwide their messages born of crude delusion, make themselves and their violence appear reasonable, lure more recruits to suicidal murder.

To me, it seems a lethal irony how a corporate entity needing publicity needs to invest in a PR and advertising agency, pay hefty marketing bills to get their message across.  But to get their message across, terrorists murder people and get their communication published for free about why they blew up the neighborhood. And the result has potential to brainwash more of the unthinking to sign up for the next terrorist attack, as well as providing publicity incentive for more terrorist attacks.

“Xyz” terrorist group claimed responsibility for the outrage in a Mali hotel, and media reports by publishing the name of that particular murderous gang sets “xyz” out on the same bloodied road to glorification to being household names like al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Anonymity is the vitally missing weapon in the war against terrorism – ensuring violent psychopaths do not get the publicity they seek for their crimes against humanity. Let’s not forget that terrorists, like other psychotic, mentally-unhinged criminals, love the attention and the notoriety. Remember the video footage of Osama bin Laden gloating at his own propaganda videos.

Mumbai terror attack
Mumbai terror attack

Ajmal Kasab, the lone gunman captured alive in the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attacks, was leering with glee seeing the assembled press corp in a Mumbai courtroom — until the judge noticed it, ordered the media out and newspapers kept away from Kasab’s daily diet. The change worked. Kasab in solitary confinement with his tormented thoughts forced him to see the ugly reality of what he had done (see Terrorist Kasab and the journey of death, Asia Times, July 30, 2009)

The effective fight against terrorism needs re-examining and cleaning the media role in reporting terrorism. Most critically, stop publicizing, broadcasting poisonous terrorist messages that lure young people to suicidal murder.

Merely killing terrorists will not end the supply chain of terrorism – the fresh human cannon fodder to replace slain terrorists. Over a decade of superpower military action in the Middle East and Afghanistan has failed to make these regions safe and secure. Kill the delusions feeding terrorism, the material brainwashing people into committed suicide bombers and killers. The latest Global Terrorism Index said losses due to terrorism rose to historic high last year in 2014, with economic losses alone of over US$51 billion.

The same day Friday 20 that the London-based publication unintentionally romanticized a particular terrorist group – like media sections of yore glorified mafia godfathers – the Kolkata-based “Statesman” published an op-ed piece that said:

“Terrorism has to be fought at its feeding grounds – the minds of people who fall victim to terrorists’ propaganda. And terrorists’ propaganda has to be neutralized with a massive counter campaign – using the world’s best creative talent in national and global mass-media awareness drive for young people …

“The message has to be made emphatically clear: 1) terrorists are weak-minded, shameful cowards who kill unarmed, ordinary people; and 2) suicidal murder serves no purpose, and brings no ‘heavenly’ rewards but only hellish consequences in the law of cause and effect. No religion asks people to harm others. It’s only madmen misinterpreting and misusing religion who do.”

Media professionals will save lives — including lives of family and friends — by ensuring we do not blindly pass on the mind poison from terrorists, their propaganda to recruit, incite and give further publicity incentives for someone to blow up the neighborhood.


*1. My article above is a personal point of view, and does not necessarily reflect that of Asia Times. Neither does it accuse any particular media organization of intentionally colluding with terrorism. The core idea is to carefully examine whether current method of media coverage is unwittingly playing into terrorist hands. If so, how to correct it? Readers are the discerning referees who are welcome to contribute to the debate.

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai who has been writing for the Statesman since 1990 and Asia Times since 2003 – besides having written for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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