BWIRE: Media shouldn’t glorify terrorism

By Victor Bwire

As we mourn the loss of lives and destruction of property following the recent terror attacks in Lamu County over the past few days, media and security agencies have learnt new things ever as they work to improve how to mitigate the impact of such attacks on the economic and social lives of Kenyans.

Increasingly and from the spate of attacks since the Westgate Mall attack, there has been marked improvement, both in terms of security response, access to information and professional coverage of the attacks by the media.

National security and access to information are not antagonistic principles, and where trust and professionalism exist, they work so well not to hide information as its ordinarily thought, but to share strategic information that allows the nation under attack to minimise the impact of the security breaches.

Where trust exists, media and government dialogue and engagement over progress and attack statistics are normal for the good of the country.

Though we are yet to be reach the most desirable state of dealing with such and maximum cooperation between the media and security agencies, the most glaring gap is the lack of trust between the media and security agencies in terms of information sharing.

It has improved and for the journalists with close contacts with security agencies who are trusted its longer a major issue when dealing with national security issues, for the general media, it can be done better. And its not just information on the operational issues that are largely restrained by the force standing orders, and the fact that some of the issues happen so fast in remote areas, but such organised and rapid response gives the country the confidence that despite the attack, they are safe. And its not about competing with the enemy, but the much-needed assurance something has happened and we are aware.

For historical reasons, there is still mistrust and reluctance for enhanced information flow, guided or otherwise between the two. While it’s understandable that the access to information and freedom of expression provisions in our laws, buttressed by a host of other laws including the prevention of terrorism Act and force standing orders, restrain sharing of information on national security, the changing landscape, especially with the use of online media, requires that we are quick and strategic with information sharing following such events.

While mainstream media has guidelines and will not necessarily breach national security protocols, a number of information sources spring with enticing information that easily get to the public domain causing fear and panic.

In the case of terrorists, its known that they operate highly sophisticated communication and misinformation campaigns especially following such attacks, that any delay from the authorities in commenting, whichever way on the situation creates wild guesses. Terrorists thrive on publicity and will claim responsibility even on attacks not associated with them.

It’s important that information even just acknowledging that such an event has happened, its being contained, and need for calm as we wait to assess the extent of the attack including casualties is very critical for the media- which by then is receiving so much information from all manner of sources.

It’s best practice that Government communication is released so that media has the role of deciding which is the credible source of information. Details even small as the exact location, when it happened, what the security forces are doing and related are critical.

Obviously there those who oppose such dialogues and close working together on media and security agencies during such terrorists’ incidences or other national security breaches, but unless some of the existing laws are removed form the statutes, we still advise that media respects them to minimise conflicts with security agencies.

The Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya provides that the media should avoid presenting acts of violence, armed robberies, banditry and terrorist activities in a manner that glorifies such anti-social conduct. Also, newspapers should not allow their columns to be used for writings which tend to encourage or glorify social evils, warlike activities, ethnic, racial or religious hostilities.”

A number of laws exist which have serious provisions on media coverage of national security especially terrorism including the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the National Intelligence Service Act in 2012. The penal code provides that any person who publishes any false statement, rumour or report which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace is guilty.

The Official Secrets Act provides that any person who obtains, collects, records, publishes or communicates in whatever manner to any other person any code word, plan, article, document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to a foreign power or disaffected person commits an offense.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act no 12 of 2012 criminalizes anyone who ‘advocates, glorifies, advises, incited or facilitates’ the commission of a terrorist act or any act preparatory to a terrorist act. The Act criminalises anyone who adopts or promotes an extreme belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious or social change. This offence is punishable by a maximum of 30 years.

The author is the Programmes Manager at the Media Council of Kenya