(photo credit: REUTERS)
Are terrorists using the media to convey their messages and are governments doing the same in reverse? These were questions pondered by lawyers and journalists attending the “Freedom of the Press” international conference hosted by the Jerusalem Press Club at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center.
Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and an emeritus professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, defined terrorism as psychological warfare that instills fear in order to put pressure on governments, and that the media is an agent of the terrorists.
On the other hand, he conceded, non-coverage of terrorist activities is not an option.
Questioning how the media should behave, Kremnitzer queried whether the media should act as an objective reporter, stand at the side of civilians under attack or exercise self-censorship.
Dr. Ely Karmon, an expert on counter- terrorism spoke of the psychological impact of terrorism through the media, including social media, which he said is an important tool today for conveying the message of terrorists, thereby influencing public opinion, which in turn influences government policies.
Hezbollah has a well-developed propaganda machine through Al-Manar television, which has been banned in many countries, but operates effectively on the Internet, said Karmon.
Al Jazeera used to be the main vehicle for Osama Bin Laden’s activities, he noted, adding that the Qatar government did nothing to stop this.
Continuing in this vein, Karmon pointed out that Islamic State uses gruesome pictures on television and the Internet as part of its strategy to conquer territory.
The group, according to Karmon, is the heir to Saddam Hussein and began its first beheadings in Iraq. Despite the widespread publicity Islamic State receives, there are more beheadings in Mexico than in the whole of the Middle East, said Karmon, but the world doesn’t know about it because it isn’t seen on American television.
While not in favor of censorship, Karmon said a contract is needed with the media on how to present news.
Prof. Susan Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, declared that the Obama administration has been using the espionage act against government employees more than any other administration to prevent the press from getting information and publishing it.
She said she doubted that secrecy and surveillance in the name of counter-terrorism was beneficial for America and said it has a very chilling effect.
“Fear is not only exploited by terrorists, it is also exploited by governments,” said Kremnitzer.
editor-in-chief Steve Linde spoke of the dilemmas faced by reporters and editors especially when lives are at stake. When Steven Sotloff, who was decapitated by Islamic State last September after having been kidnapped a year before, Linde was asked by the family not to publish the photo of his beheading. He had acceded to a previous request when Sotloff was in captivity not to publish that he was Jewish, or had been in Israel or had written for the Post’s sister publication The Jerusalem Report, but after Sotloff’s death, the professional in Linde took over from the compassionate and he did publish the shocking photograph on the front page.
This resulted in many protests from readers of what he called a family newspaper, but he thought it was necessary to show the horror perpetrated by Islamic State.
David Witzthum, a senior journalist with the Israel Broadcasting Authority, said the way terrorist attacks are reported on television in Israel is not journalism, because when the first report comes through, the news reader or the anchor has absolutely no information and whatever visuals there are repeated ad nauseam with the same fragments of information over and over.
This information is gradually augmented, but, in Witzthum’s view this is still not journalism.
He related that a colleague of his once interrupted a broadcast to announce a terrorist attack, and said quite honestly that he had no further information but that when news came to hand he would be back on air. “The producer nearly had a heart attack” said Witzthum, and his colleague was