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The broadcast Monday of the Gilad Schalit audiotape and the Alan Johnston videotape on Web sites linked to Islamic terror groups, and the impact the broadcasts have on the national agenda as their images beam around the world, attest to the fact that modern terrorists have adopted the mass media as their weapon of choice, say top Israeli media experts.
"The better the show is, the higher the ratings are. The higher the ratings, the more people receive the terrorists' message," said Eviathar Ben-Zedeff, a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, on Monday.
"Terror is a political act of psychological warfare. The terrorists' purpose is to influence the viewers and to motivate them into political action. That is achieved by creating fear among the viewers who, as a result, are ready to put pressure on their politicians to change policy, for example, to give back occupied territories or to free many prisoners," Ben-Zedeff explained.
According to Ben-Zedeff, this is part of a propaganda mechanism aimed at leveraging the terror organization's ideas.
"The terrorists wish to influence three sectors: the enemy public, in this case Israelis; the wider international audience; and lastly, their own domestic audience. They want to cause fear among the enemy public, to make the international community understand that they constitute a crucial side in reaching an agreement and to receive money and support from their domestic constituents. These manipulations of the media are targeted to reach political success at the lowest cost. And it works."
Ben-Zedeff believes that the reporters and especially the editors of the world's mainstream media have to filter the news items they decide to publish more thoroughly to change this reality.
"When Osama Bin-Laden sent his tape to the media, a few days after his organization attacked the Twin Towers in New York, the American communications media reported on the tape but didn't use the footage. By taking this decision, they didn't let Bin-Laden achieve what he hoped to achieve. This model has to be implemented here as well."
Prof. Tamar Liebes, head of the Communications faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, cited the competition between the media as well as increased globalization. These factors led to the reality that terrorists are now covered and treated in the mainstream media as legitimate "movie stars."
"Terrorists are interviewed on their own terms; they dictate the questions they are asked and the journalists cannot ask hard questions because if they do they will not get the next interview or worse, their lives will be in danger, especially in areas like Gaza or Iraq," she said. "Nowadays, terrorists pass the media's gate through the front door while in the past they were considered the bad guys whom no one wanted to give a stage from which to speak."
Liebes believes that this phenomenon significantly interferes with the journalist's work. Due to competition, journalists are forced to report immediately without even checking the information they have received, Liebes said. "They chase rockets and report on them live and create the atmosphere that everyplace is under attack, they don't invest time in research work, they are led instead of leading," she said.
Liebes, who recently published a book on terrorism and the media called Meeting The Enemy in the Living Room, said that it was the weaknesses of modern commercial media that terrorists are able to exploit to their own ends.
To attempt to fight this phenomenon, Liebes suggested wider cooperation between the TV channels, newspapers, and the radio stations, as well as their electronic counterparts. "If editors join forces in the coverage of events, such as rocket attacks or terrorist bombings, and stop being overly competitive, coverage may be less hysterical," she said.