27 October 2002
How To Cover Terrorism: The New Media Rules
By Gwynne Dyer
Rule One: When covering terrorist attacks, do not discuss the political contex of the attacks or the terrorists’ motives and strategy. Two generations of comic books and cartoons have accustomed the general audience to villains who are evil just for the sake of being evil, so calling the terrorists ‘evil-doers’ will suffice as an explanation for most people.
Rule Two: All terrorist actions are part of the same problem. Thus you may treat this month’s bomb in a Bali night-club, the sniper attacks in Washington, and the hostage-taking in a Moscow theatre as all related to each other in some (unspecified) way, and write scare-mongering think-pieces about ‘The October Crisis’.
Rule Three: All terrorists are Islamic fanatics. On some occasions – as when Basque terrorists blow somebody up — it will be necessary to relax this rule slightly, but at the very least any terrorists with Muslim names should be treated as Islamist fanatics.
No journalism school in the world teaches these rules, and they didn’t even exist two years ago. Yet most of the Western media now know them by heart. Consider, for example, the terrorist seizure of the theatre in Moscow last week that ended with the death of around fifty Chechen hostage-takers and a hundred hostages. Two years ago, the media coverage of these events, even in Russia itself, would have given us a lot of background on why some Chechens have turned to such savage methods. Didn’t see much of that last week, did we?
Nothing about the long guerilla struggle Chechens waged against Russian imperial conquest 150 years ago. Nothing about the fact that Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation to Central Asia (where about half of them died) during the Second World War. Nothing about the fact that Chechnya declared independence peacefully in 1991, and that both the Chechen-Russian wars, in 1994 and 1999, began with a Russian attack. In fact, nothing to suggest that this conflict has specific local roots, or a history that goes back past last week.
Instead, the terrorists were presented as pure evil, as free of logical motivation as the Penguin or the Joker in the Batman movies. Hardly anybody mentioned the fact that over 4,000 Russian soldiers and at least 12,000 Chechen ‘terrorists’ (anybody resisting the Russian occupation) have been killed since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent the army back into the Chechen republic in 1999.
Almost nobody refers any more to the suspicion that the apartment-building bombs in Russian cities which gave Putin his pretext to attack in 1999 (and paved his way to a victory in the presidential elections) were actually planted by the Russian secret services. Yet that was widely suspected at the time: it made no sense for the Chechens, who had won their first war of independence in 1994-96, to start another one — and Russian secret service agents were actually caught by local police planting explosives in another apartment building at that time.
Never mind all that now. The Chechen men and women who seized the theatre have Muslim names, so they must be part of the worldwide network of Islamist fanatics who are driven by blind hatred to commit senseless massacres (or so it says in the script here).
If you like being treated like an idiot child by your leaders and your media, you are living at the right time. The number of people hurt in terrorist attacks is far lower than in the 50s and 60s, when national liberation wars in countries from Algeria to Vietnam took a huge toll of civilian lives. It’s not even as high as in the 70s and 80s, when a new wave of ‘international’ terrorists bombed aircraft and even attacked the Olympics. But the world’s leading media see the world through American eyes, so the attacks on the United States on 11 September, 2001, have utterly distorted people’s perceptions of the dangers of terrorism.
In fact, the way terrorism is now being covered closely resembles domestic TV coverage of violent crime in the US, which has gone up 600 percent in the past fifteen years while the actual crime rate fell by ten to fifteen percent (depending on the crime). It has enabled the Russian government to smear the entire liberation struggle of the Chechens as terrorism, and Israel to do the same to the Palestinians. But the truth is that most of the struggles we (retrospectively) see as justified involved a good deal of terrorism at the time.
The controversy that’s now starting up about the tactics the Russian authorities used in freeing the Moscow hostages is just the media barking up the wrong tree as usual. The real question is whether Russia should be occupying Chechnya, but in the present media environment we won’t hear much about that. So just to check out your sympathies, here’s a list of conflicts in which the eventual victors made extensive use of terror
(hi-tech or low-tech) against the other side.
1) RAF Bomber Command’s campaign against German cities
2) US nuclear weapons on Japanese cities
3) the Zionist campaign to drive the British out of Palestine,
4) Algeria’s independence struggle against France
5) the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in Kenya
6) Vietnam’s independence war against French and American forces
7) Zimbabwe’s liberation war against white minority rule
If you approved of more than two, you’re obviously a terrorist sympathiser. Turn yourself in to the nearest police station.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Instead…time”)