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On Terrorism and Mass Media

by Alexander Martin Remollino Friday, Oct. 06, 2006 at 8:06 PM

Reply to questions by Ms. Roselyn Beltran, BA Journalism student at the University of the Philippines (UP), for a paper on "Terrorism and Mass Media"

1. What is terrorism?

2. Is media an agent or a victim of terrorism?

The widespread use of the word "terrorism" is proof of how one word could mean different things to different people. There has been so much talk of "terrorism" since Sept. 11, 2001 even as there is yet no specific standard definition for the word. Who is and who is not a terrorist more often than not depends on who is using the term: as the aphorism goes, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

It is the US government that uses the term "terrorism" most frequently these days. But if we want a more-or-less accurate definition of the term, the US government is certainly not the authority to look to for an answer.

We need only note how US President George W. Bush practically shouts "terrorist," in the manner of Dr. Ivan Pavlov's dogs, each time the name Saddam Hussein is mentioned.

Bush conveniently forgets that the US government was in the first place responsible for Saddam's rise to power, which started from a coup supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). No one heard the US government calling Saddam a "terrorist" in the 1980s even as his troops gassed Kurds and slaughtered many of his political opponents and attacked Iran's nationalist government.

The world only began hearing the US government calling him a "terrorist" when he refused to allow American corporate control of Iraq's rich oil resources.

As the internationally-renowned legal scholar Lennox Hinds said in an interview I had with him last year, "most regimes who face opposition – especially if there's an armed struggle – describe those who fight against them as common criminals, and in today's parlance, terrorists."

It would be convenient for some to dismiss the "terrorist" tag on Saddam as an offshoot of his government's atrocities on a lot of the basic human rights. Indeed his government was never an example of one that respected human rights and international humanitarian law.

But even legitimate freedom fighters had been called "terrorists" or other similarly derogatory things. Former South African President Nelson Mandela was reviled the world over as a "terrorist" when he was leading the African National Congress (ANC) in an armed struggle against apartheid. He is now hailed the world over as a freedom fighter.

"All of those who signed the (American) Declaration of Independence – the British government at that time had 'Wanted' posters for them – they were wanted, dead or alive," Hinds also said. "If the American Revolution had been lost, they would have been hanged."

So the manner in which the word "terrorism" is being used today is, for the most part, as arbitrary as can be.

But there are groups – whether holding political power or not – that can aptly be described as terrorists. These are the ones that employ violence systematically or threaten the use of violence on a general populace, with the intention of creating an overall climate of fear conducive to the attainment of certain objectives.

The gassing of Kurds by Saddam's forces to stem their separatist agitation was indeed terroristic, as was the murders of all those "capable of bearing arms" – including ten-year-old boys – orchestrated by Gen. Jacob Smith in Samar in the 1900s, as was the killings of Tausug boys by troops led by then Lt. Jovito Palparan, Jr. in the 1970s in Sulu supposedly to preempt their "eventual" joining of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

It is a patently terrorist act to bomb a wedding, as US troops did in Afghanistan in 2001. It is a patently terrorist act to drop bombs on hospitals, as US troops have done in Somalia and Hiroshima. It is a patently terrorist act to rain bombs on ricefields, as US troops did in Laos. It is a patently terrorist act to burn an entire village, as US troops did in Vietnam.

In Iraq the US government has shown the same contempt for human life that it displays in Afghanistan, making its "war on terror" a terrorist war.

With these, media can either be agents or victims of terrorism. The Fox News anchors who cheer at every non-combatant death in Iraq can be considered agents of terrorism. The Arab and European journalists who were shot at on various occasions by US toops in Iraq – while at work on reportage and analysis critical of the war – are victims of terrorism.

Journalists Tina Panganiban-Perez, Rene Dilan, and Julius Babao – who had all in the course of their work come into contact with personalities and groups considered by the Arroyo government as "enemies of the state" and thereafter accused by authorities of "sleeping with the foe" at a time when dire legal and even physical consequences are in store for those so accused – they are victims of terrorism.

The entire Philippine media right now is falling prey to terrorism, what with an Anti-Terrorism Bill under which anyone who would dare utter a single word against the political establishment may be tagged as a "terrorist" looming over the heads of the Filipino people, at a time when government critics are being called "enemies of the state" and being killed left and right.

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