Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Press Freedom, Publicity, and the Cross-National Incidence of Transnational Terrorism

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Press Freedom, Publicity, and the Cross-National Incidence of Transnational Terrorism

Article excerpt


Publicity is central to terrorism, but demonstrating a link between press freedom and the targeting of attacks is challenging. There are several reasons for this: (1) studies do not distinguish between press freedom and press attention; (2) perpetrators use press freedom to weed out unacceptable targets rather than to determine which targets to attack; (3) only foreign, not domestic, perpetrators depend on press attention; and (4) foreign terrorists satisfy their desire for press attention by attacking powerful states. Our models confirm this argument about press freedom and national power even after controlling for executive constraints, polity, and foreign policy activity.


transnational terrorism, domestic terrorism, press freedom, publicity, media

Attention from the mass media is widely seen as critical to the success of terrorist campaigns. Members of terror- ist groups call press coverage the "decisive weapon" in their conflicts (Levitt 2006, 140); politicians believe that publicity provides terrorist organizations the "oxygen" they need to survive. Claims like these suggest that gain- ing access to the press would be a priority for terrorist organizations and that terrorist attacks would dispropor- tionately occur in states that protect the press's ability to cover attacks. Yet, cross-national studies repeatedly show that the incidence of transnational terrorism is unrelated to press freedom. Why?

We argue that the difficulty in finding a relationship between press freedom and transnational terrorism has two sources. First, the extant literature treats press free- dom as a surrogate for press attention. It is not. The equa- tion between press freedom and press attention derives from the claim that the media in free societies is "almost bound" (Wilkinson 1997) to cover terrorist violence. The reality is that the news media often declines to report on terrorism. Rather than guaranteeing coverage, press free- dom provides coverage opportunities that are unavailable in states that restrict media reporting. We argue that groups effectively factor this into their targeting decisions by using press freedom to weed out those states that are unlikely to provide the attention from the media groups crave. Once the pool of targets is defined, the issue of where to attack remains. Groups make this decision by targeting powerful states because reporters regard events in influential countries as newsworthy.

Second, the existing literature presumes perpetrators' demand for press attention is invariant across contexts. This is an overstatement. Perpetrators' need for media coverage varies with the size and geographic dispersion of the audiences they want to influence. The larger and more diffuse the audience, the harder it is for groups to publicize their actions without the news media's help. Press attention, by contrast, is less important when audi- ences are smaller and more concentrated because terrorist organizations can reach these audiences on their own. For this reason, we expect that the pull of press freedom is greatest when terrorists cross international boundaries because these attacks are more likely to be designed with international audiences in mind than strikes by domestic perpetrators.

We test the above argument using zero-inflated nega- tive binomial (ZINB) regression and data on transnational terrorism between 1975 and 1995.1 Our results show that states that restrict press freedom are two times less likely to be targeted by foreign perpetrators than states that permit it. Press freedom exerts little influence on attacks by domestic perpetrators, however. The results also sug- gest that the more capable a state is relative to others the more likely it is to suffer repeated attacks from abroad. In short, press freedom shapes the pool of potential targets; press attention influences which states are ultimately victimized.

Until now, the lack of evidence for the press freedom- terrorism connection raised questions about conceptual- izations of terrorism as a form of communication and played into claims (e. …

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