Abukar Arman explores the media’s coverage of bombings in America and Somalia to suggest a global convergence in the manner such incidents are reported. This post originally appeared on Global Policy.
The recent terrorist attacks that took place in Mogadishu and Boston were not just intended to kill and mutilate many civilians, but to create widespread terror, disarray, and insecurity that would last far beyond the initial shock of these bloody events. It goes without saying; anyone who takes part of such acts of indiscriminate violence should face justice.
On Sunday 14 April, Mogadishu’s main courthouse was attacked by nine gunmen who killed 35 people and wounded 50 more. Immediately, officials declared that the perpetrators were “foreign elements within al-Shabaab” or al-Qaida. They said the attacks were carried out by nine men who had bombs strapped around their waists, and that one of the nine was a Somali-Canadian youth who recently moved to Mogadishu. The finding was delivered much faster than any first class counter-terrorism experts and forensic investigators anywhere could.
This is not the first time that the media has implicated a “radicalized youth” from the Somali diaspora. In fact, most, if not all, of the most gruesome terrorist acts carried out in Somalia—including the Hargeisa and Bosaso bombings and the Hotel Shamo bombing –were credited to diaspora youth; all within hours from the tragedy.
Here, of course, is where diligent journalism driven by reasoned skepticism is needed; journalists who are willing to press authorities and various counter-intelligence professionals with the right questions: Has there been a thorough forensic investigation? Why would al-Shabaab assign their presumably most important terrorist operations to a youth from abroad when there are local ones (willing to commit anything) in abundance? As a group that is suspicious of anything Western, what has been compelling them to this new pattern of trusting youth from the West whom they otherwise considered corrupt and potential moles?
Now it could very well be that these express narratives were not in any way intended for political or security expedience and that they were all evidence-based, but the culture of passively accepting such narratives without any scrutiny is counterproductive if not outright dangerous. After all, there are many internal and external elements that stand to benefit out of certain assassinations and terrorist acts.
Somalia still remains as one of the most dangerous places for journalists to operate. It is ranked 175 in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index out of 179 countries reviewed by Reporters Without Borders. Somali journalists continue being systematically eliminated. In 2012, 18 journalists were assassinated; and this year, 5 more were assassinated. Not surprisingly, on each of these cold-blooded murders an official narrative that points the finger at the usual suspect was offered.
This relentless pattern of express narratives that gets away with minimum or no scrutiny neither helps the victims nor serves the overall public interest.
On Monday 15 April, two bombs were set off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killing at least three—including an eight-year-old child—and wounding more than 260 people. The alleged perpetrators were two brothers from Chechnya – a 26 and a 19-year-old.
Unlike the ones in Somalia, this horrific event was unique as it was globally monitored by the media and digital savvy activists from around the world. The official narrative of the case and the chorological sequence of events have changed a number of times; and some argue that it cannot stand thorough scrutiny.
The mainstream media had its own marathon; or rather sprint (for “exclusives”) to win. Fact or fiction did not matter; who reported first, did. Since the alleged perpetrators matched the usual suspect profile and there was a video clip showing they were carrying backpacks…media were more interested on whether or not there was a foreign connection, namely al-Qaida. Never mind that in Boston—the city with perhaps the highest per capita colleges and universities in the world—there are more people carrying backpacks than not.
When All Hate Broke Loose
While most of the mainstream media refrained from their past flagrant wide brush strokes of “Islamic terrorism” some, along with other Islamophobic elements, could not resist the opportunity.
Here is an excerpt from Earl Cox’s diatribe showcased on the Jerusalem Post- a man appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu as a Goodwill Ambassador from Israel to the Jewish and Christian communities around the world: “…can you believe it? Catholic Bishop O’Malley tells the crowd at a hastily arranged interfaith service in Boston that Islam is not to be blamed for the Marathon massacre. He repeats the politically correct lie that Islam is really a peaceful religion.” Cox concludes, “It is time that Israeli and U.S. government and religious leaders stand up and face Islam for what it really is.”
Consolidating the collective guilt argument, Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, told the following to the National Review: “Police have to be in the (Muslim) community, they have to build up as many sources as they can, and they have to realize that the threat is coming from one community and increase surveillance there…” “We can’t be bound by political correctness.”
In that same spirit, though more vicious, columnist Erik Rush who regularly appears on Fox News posted this for a tweet: “Muslims are evil. Let’s kill them all.”
Perilous Media Groupthink
If this was to offend our collective conscience, it was hard to tell through media reports. Other than superficial mention here and there, there was no significant scrutiny against such hate speech. But this should not surprise anyone as most media groups go into the ‘us against them’ mode after each terrorist act.
Pavlovian reaction or conditioned reflex is a phenomenon made famous by Ivon Pavlov. Unlike a knee-jerk reaction which is often random, the aforementioned is triggered by controllable conditioning. Pavlov taught his dogs to associate the ringing of the bell with the sight and smell of food thus inducing them to salivate more in expectation upon hearing the bell. Terrorism has inculcated media to behave in a certain jingoistic manner.
Media should diligently and indeed ethically uphold their journalistic responsibilities without worrying about whether or not their deliberate pursuit of truth is or isn’t popular. Popularity contests should not be their game. Unfortunately, since media nowadays are owned by big corporations and their actions and inactions are often driven by their respective bottom-lines, profiling audiences and feeding them steady diets of selective exposure and tailored narratives is the name of the game. And that could be the core problem.
When media are numbed by complaisance and groupthink two critical bulwarks against abuse of power are compromised- checks and balances and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Regardless of how politically unpopular these words might be nowadays, suspects are merely suspects until proven otherwise. That is to say presumption of innocence until proven guilty is not a subjective privilege; it is a fundamental constitutional and moral right.
Abukar Arman is a former diplomat and a political analyst whose articles are internationally published. On Twitter: @AbukarArman