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Media, Terrorism and Anti-terrorist Activities: “Are freedom of information and security contradictory?”

Interview with Alessandro Silj, Secretary General of the Social Sciences Council (Italy) By Kayhan Karaca, 28 November 2002

Question : Since 11 September there has been a lot of talk about the fight against terrorism. In your opinion, what role should the media be playing in this debate?

Alessandro Silj : I don’t think “fight” is the right word. The task of the media is to inform the public. Since the events of 11 September this has not been an easy task. The public reaction the events triggered and the difficulties the media have had obtaining information other than from government sources have not made journalists’ work any easier. It is very risky for a reporter to go to Pakistan in search of sources close to Ben Laden. An American journalist lost his life trying to do just that. The media must also avoid adopting extreme positions because of the climate of fear the terrorist attacks have created. They must provide the public with information about Islam, for example – help people understand that Islam and fundamentalism are different things. The media can also contribute to dialogue between cultures and religions.

Question : On the one hand there is this notion of fighting terrorism and on the other you have freedom of expression and the duty to inform. Do you not have the impression that journalists are caught in a crossfire?

Alessandro Silj : Can you imagine a newspaper editor or a broadcaster voluntarily refraining from covering a terrorist attack? It is quite unthinkable. Our western approach to communication makes it impossible for the media not to cover such events. Governments can ask them, off the record, to be careful and refrain from broadcasting or publishing statements made by terrorist organisations in full, to avoid propaganda. A distinction clearly has to be made between propaganda and information. Information is reporting what happened. Propaganda is reporting events in a biased manner.

Question : Some people argue that new communication technologies, like the Internet, favour the spread of terrorist propaganda. What is your view on this?

Alessandro Silj: If that is the case it is not the fault of the new technologies. Technological progress is only natural. When there was only radio, we used the radio. Then television came along. Imagine a journalist resisting the temptation to interview the leader of a terrorist group if he had the chance. There is considerable competition between the media, remember.

Question : But does this competition, this quest for readership and ratings, not lure the media onto slippery ground where they can easily become instruments of propaganda?

Alessandro Silj: Obviously it is important to cover events with information, not propaganda. It is important for news organisations to be first on the scene. They all like to be able to say “we got there first” or “we aired the news first”. Being the first to print or broadcast news is not propaganda. If you do not break the news somebody else will. Showing the twin towers collapsing is not propaganda. Showing pictures like those on television makes people realise what terrorists are capable of. But even if they were not shown, people would find out anyway. News travels.

Question : The notion of terrorism is interpreted differently in different countries. What one country sees as a terrorist organisation another may consider as “freedom fighters”. What approach do you think the media should adopt in this respect?

Alessandro Silj: It depends on the groups. The media should learn to study their subject matter so that they know which groups are fighting for freedom and which are pursuing other goals. You have to be familiar with the issues at stake. Only then can you distinguish between a separatist group and a terrorist organisation bent solely on violence.

Question : Is it for the media to decide who is a terrorist and who is not?

Alessandro Silj : It is unlikely that people will ever agree on the definition of terrorism. So it is not surprising that the media cannot agree on a definition. It is a difficult and ambiguous question for everybody and the media merely reflect that ambiguity. A good journalist will report that certain groups, in the eyes of certain people, are fighting for a legitimate cause, such as the liberation of a territory, for example. But he or she must also report that the same groups are considered by others as terrorists. The media have a responsibility to present both points of view, so that the public have enough information to make up their own minds and form an opinion.

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