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Reporting Terrorism and Conflict Situations: What is Media's Responsibility?

March 14, 2003


The Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), with the support of UNESCO National Commission (UNACOM) of the Philippines and the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC), organized the Roundtable Discussion (RTD) on Reporting on Terrorism and Conflict: The Responsibility of Media. The RTD was held on March 14, 2003 at 10AM-1PM at Manila Galleria Suites, Mandaluyong City.

The RTD was inspired by the need to explore the problems and dilemmas encountered by Filipino journalists active in various areas of media practice who have to report on acts of terrorism and conflict. In particular, the RTD hoped to gather insights to help the KBP formulate programs and ethical guidelines for its members who cover terrorism and conflict.

Thirty five persons participated in the RTD. Of these, 23 were involved in radio and television broadcasting; three in the print media; and nine came as representatives from media advocate groups, media training and media-related institutions. Some in the latter group are also media practitioners.

Prominent media and social personalities and observers were invited to join in the discussion to share experiences and insights on these areas: terrorism and how it differs from other acts of violence; perceived performance of Philippine media in covering terrorism, and if coverage allows audience to determine options to solve problem; responsibility of the journalist in reporting terrorism and conflict; maintaining balance and fairness for media practitioners; and if there is need for guidelines in reporting terrorism and conflict.

Highlights of the Discussion

A. Invocation and Welcome Remarks

  • The invocation was given by Mr. Rodolfo (Dodi) Lacuna, officer in charge of the News Department of the Radio Philippine Network (RPN)-9. Welcome remarks were given by Preciosa Soliven, Ph. D., UNACOM secretary-general, who said that UNESCO aims to alleviate poverty and help promote information technology. The Philippines is quite ahead of other Asian countries in education, communication, science, social science and science and technology in ASEAN. Dr. Soliven said that donors are now more wary and need more assurance that donations are more effective and have greater social impact. Hence, in the realm of media, UNESCO hopes to help effect balanced and truthful reporting, with more social contextualization. As an educator, these principles are promoted in Dr. Soliven's school and in her columns in Philippine Star. She also informed the participants that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has consented to be the guest speaker in the UNESCO General Assembly that will be held in September 2003.
  • Cerge Remonde, KBP national chairman, also gave his welcome remarks. Noting the questions that panelists were expected to share insights on, Mr. Remonde shared that DXRM, a radio station in Tandag, Surigao del Sur, was raided by armed men. The raiders also destroyed the station's transmitter, and hogtied the staff. Just a week before this incident, DXRM's radio station manager Alvin Malasa, was shot, although he survived the assault.
  • Mr. Remonde said that incidents like that of DXRM are grim reminders that they happen in many areas. He, however, cautioned that media practitioners themselves are guilty of "terrorism" brought about by unfair and malicious reporting.
  • Mr. Rey Hulog, KBP executive director and forum moderator, introduced the participants. He also announced that Mr. Vicente Tirol, UNACOM commissioner and lecturer in mass communications at the Ateneo de Manila University, could not attend.

B. Statement on Key Media Issues in Coverage of Terrorism and Conflict

  • Florangel Rosario Braid, Ph. D., UNACOM Communications Committee chair and former president and now senior adviser of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication, gave a statement on key issues in the media's coverage of terrorism and conflict situations. In her presentation, Dr. Braid said that there is no formal definition of terrorism, except for an early definition in the draft International Convention for the Protection and Punishment of Terrorism, which was never adopted. This document defined terrorism as "all criminal acts directed against a state, and directed, intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of persons, groups, or the general public. "Further, terrorism makes use of violence to spread fear and disseminate terror. Terrorism employs various methods to obtain personal, social or economic demands. However, if the objective is political, such as the ousting of governments, the acts may constitute rebellion, rather than terrorism.
  • Another problem in defining terrorism is the varying perspectives on it. What is a terrorist in one country may be another country's freedom fighter, such as Nelson Mandela (South Africa), Habib Bourguiba (Tunisia), and Ahmed ben Bella (Algeria) who later became respected statesmen. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) is a terrorist group for Israel, but a liberator group for Arabs and Muslims.
  • Shadowing further people's understanding of terrorism is media's tendency for stereotyping and labeling.
  • Recently, parliamentarians from 26 countries in the Asia-Pacific urged the United Nations to come up with a universally accepted definition which allows for "legal precision" and gives "balance between the power politics of nation-states and the requirements of collective (legal) action".
  • Dr. Braid also shared that there is indiscriminate use of various terms such as "terrorism" and "terrorist". "Terrorist" is confused with 'rebel" and "separatist". There is tendency to confuse the terms "Arab", "Muslim", and "Islamic". Some even equate "Muslim" with "terrorist". There is a tendency towards stereotyping and colorful imagery, such as the use of "Palestinian gunmen" versus "Israeli freedom fighters", and some even equate "Muslim" with " terrorist", while there are also Christian terrorists. There is use of racial and ethnic profiling, without any adequate backgrounding. Unexamined and hidden assumptions are used in media reports. We need a more comprehensive approach to media reporting, since a lot of media reports proceed from dominance and confrontation.
  • Some issues and concerns have also come to fore about media reporting. Teledemocracy offers a new and historically unprecedented channel through which governments and media misrepresentations can be corrected, and can allow for a moderation of government policies. News reporting focus on the who, what, where and when, but rarely on the why. For instance, there is very little reporting on why Muslim youth in Mindanao are eager to join the Abu Sayaff or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Non-entertainment stories like in-depth reports on crime and terrorism are marginalized due to excessive commercialism and current sensational reporting. Other issues not adequately reported are roots of conflict (structure and culture), invisible effects of terrorism (trauma, hatred, desire for revenge), gender perspective of conflict and violence (90% are initiated by men, more than 50% of victims are women); and the anti-war movement, that before the Second Iraq War, has not been reported on. Observers also contend with the halo effect of media, such as glamorizing terrorists and creating images. Media professionals need to look for a balance between national security and press freedom. There is no mention of terrorism in either print or broadcast media code of ethics, hence media finds it difficult to monitor reports on terrorism. Terrorism is a type of language, a violent language, and media are perfect tools for its diffusion.
  • Suggestions have been make media sensitive to its social responsibility. Workshops can be held to sensitize reporters, particularly on specific aspects of military operations, media ethics, and cyberterrorism. Issues on reporting terrorism and conflict can be integrated in existing media codes. A directory of resources on media and terrorism can be prepared, including a dictionary of terms associated with terrorism and conflict. Training programs on process reporting of terrorism can be designed and implemented. Practitioners can promote the concept of peace journalism, rather than war journalism. Likewise, they can avoid sensationalism in their reporting. Practitioners should present all sides, recognizing ideological or political pluralism. Threats of terrorism should not be used to impose restrictions on the rights to editorial independence, protection of confidential sources of information, access to information held by public bodies, freedom of movement, and privacy of communications. Other social sectors like academic institutions and civil society groups can help safeguard these rights and establish mechanisms to ensure safety of journalists and build a climate of tolerance. Media institutions can link with groups involved in poverty alleviation and in dialogues among ethnic and cultural groups and civil societies. Altogether, they can examine existing framework for peace-making, such a building a broad-based peace constituency, establishing legislative structures and legal provisions, among others. A professional fund can be established to provide assistance to journalists, as was suggested by practitioners during the International Conference on Media and Terrorism held in Manila in May 2002.

Dr. Braid observed that there is very little reporting on NGO peace initiatives, and the use of back channels, aside from official negotiators, in formal peace negotiations.

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