Former UK prime minister Maggie Thatcher hit the nail right on the head but her words have been largely ignored or just forgotten. She told the American Bar Association in July 1985 that "Democratic nations must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend".
In April 2004 a lone journalist voice, Peter Preston wrote in the London Guardian that terrorists were getting high on the oxygen of publicity, saying “now, almost every day, a great barrage balloon filled with the stuff keeps rising”. He was critical of the then world leaders, politicians and “spooks and cops who fill new canisters every time they open their mouths in public”.
Recently, the Sydney Morning Herald, as did many other media organisations, published details and a video photograph featuring the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed eight people at a CIA outpost in Afghanistan. Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi was shown in a video broadcast on Al Jazeera satellite television with the Pakistani Taliban leader and took the opportunity to denounce his ''enemies'', Jordan and America.
The BBC reported that a tape said to be from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden warned United States President Barack Obama there will be more attacks if the US continues to support Israel. This was reported even before the authenticity of the audio tape had been investigated. We’ve heard from this man many times: but should we care what he thinks? Why should the media as a whole act as his unpaid, worldwide promotion agency? That’s crazy.
Mentioning these incidents again, unfortunately, adds further oxygen to his publicity puff, but hopefully in a good cause: to get another discussion rolling. The question: Is there a way to follow Maggie Thatcher’s words to quell the oxygen of publicity and sustain a free press at the same time? What other options do the media have?
I once worked on an evening paper with a significant circulation in a heavily British Navy area. The newspaper’s policy was to ignore illegal blasts of any sort - the IRA was re-activating at the time - on the basis that reports about blasts would only encourage more, or even copycats. The times then were different, the idea of Fifteen Minutes of Fame and the Internet were yet to arrive; debates were not solely Left-Right slanging matches and people could actually think above, beyond and around party politics.
Publicly condemning acts of terrorism, as the UN has done consistently, in company with affected governments, seems to have had little impact on the recruitment of would-be bombers. Criticism and harsh words so far appear not to have dented indoctrinated faith - or is it indoctrinated fear? A wall of dogmatic faith - religious, political, totalitarian or plain patriarchal - seems to readily repel questions about legality, morality, justice.
In some situations, it is physically dangerous for a person to query or dispute. The ironically-named “honour” murder of women who question authority is one example. Fear, as well as propaganda and blinding resentment, must be an element to persuade an individual to walk a bomb into a market where many innocent people, including children, are buying food for the family. So if suicide bombers cannot be distracted from their murderous plans by care or compassion for others, can they be turned to thoughts of care for themselves? After all, they too are going to be blown to bits, and know so beforehand.
How can a start be made and what part, if any, can the media play?
On behalf of the United Nations, UNESCO has the task of advocating the basic human right of freedom of expression, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its corollary, press freedom.
But the United Nations also uses a system of embargoes when member states cross accepted international values. Are embargoes possibly an effective avenue?
UN embargo history does not make encouraging reading. An overview of UN arms embargoes over ten years up to March 2006 commented that: “Despite the fact that every one of the 13 United Nations arms embargoes imposed in the last decade has been systematically violated, only a handful of the many arms embargo breakers named in UN sanctions reports has been successfully prosecuted.”
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