World Media Freedom Day: Terrorism and the media

Terrorist groups need the media to tell their stories: sometimes they kill the very messengers they use.

OTTAWA, CANADA — By all accounts Daniel Pearl was a good journalist. The New Jersey son of an Iraqi woman and an Israeli father, Mr. Pearl was Jewish, a fact that may have in part led to his death. He was the South Asia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

In 2002 he traveled with his wife to Pakistan where he began to investigate terrorism: more specifically, he was researching links between Islamist militant activity in Karachi and Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a passenger plane using bombs hidden in his shoes in December 2001.

On his way to an interview with a Pakistani shaikh he was instead abducted and later beheaded: a video of his gruesome death was sent to the US consulate in Karachi in February of that year.

In a forced ‘confession’ Mr. Pearl was filmed saying “I’m a Jewish American from Encino, California, USA. I come from, uh, on my father’s side the family is Zionist. My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish. My family follows Judaism.” This focus is of no surprise coming from an Islamist terrorist group that sees Israel and Jews as the enemy of Islam.

Mr. Pearl’s death at the hands of terrorists was not the only one to befall journalists. James Foley, working for Agence France Presse, was killed (also beheaded) by Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria in 2014.

Mr. Pearl’s death at the hands of terrorists was not the only one to befall journalists. James Foley, working for Agence France Presse, was killed (also beheaded) by Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria in 2014 and Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh was killed by Al Shabaab terrorists in Kismayo in 2019.

Image: Canadian-Somalian journalist Hodan Nalayeh in Las Anod. Nalayeh was killed after a bomb exploded in Kismayo, Somalia, on July 12, 2019.
Hodan Nalayeh

The men and women who investigate terrorism for the fifth estate are engaged in a various dangerous business. That there is a market for their insights is not disputed: we live in a post 9/11 world after all and we all want to understand terrorism better. These journalists are doing what journalists do: write compelling stories.

Some, however, put themselves at unnecessary risk and end up bad situations: Canadian Amanda Lindhout immediately comes to mind. To some, these are fools, venturing where they should not: to others they are brave individuals trying to get compelling stories. I will leave it to the reader to weigh in on this debate.

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From a terrorist’s view, however, journalists provide an opportunity to spread their hateful and violent propaganda. I am sure there are those who would say that no one should help in the distribution of this hate. However the need to use foreign media is perhaps not as important now what with every group forming their own media arm, replete with video and smart graphics. ISIS was particularly good at this. Why go through a middleman when you can try to terrorise the world yourself?

As this is world media freedom day I would like to remember all the journalists who have died doing what they love and providing us with some insights into terrorism (even if I can be critical of those who stumble into situations through a lack of planning and foresight). I have long been open to talking to the media here in Canada as I think that what they do is important.

Terrorist groups have also taken advantage of the presence of journalists to abduct them and kill them, as the Pearl and Foley examples demonstrate. Showing a desperate man subjected to decapitation is a horrendous sight and serves to send the message that terrorists are ‘not to be messed with’.

Workplace deaths happen all the time (although less frequently than in the past thanks to better on site safety). No one should have to give up their lives doing what they are passionate about. Here’s to Daniel Pearl, James Foley, Hodan Nalayeh and many, many others.

Thanks for bringing your stories to us.

Phil Gurski
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