Incitement to Terrorism in Media Coverage: Solutions to Al-Jazeera after the Rwandan Media Trial

By Davis, Spencer W. | The George Washington International Law Review, August 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Incitement to Terrorism in Media Coverage: Solutions to Al-Jazeera after the Rwandan Media Trial


Davis, Spencer W., The George Washington International Law Review


"The power of the media to create and destroy fundamental human values comes with great responsibility. Those who control such media are accountable for its consequences."1

I. INTRODUCTION

The media plays an enormously important role in the activities of international terrorist organizations in the post-9/11 world. Through the media, terrorists broadcast their agenda to the general public and spread the atmosphere of fear that is essential to their goals.2 Such would seem to be the motivation behind the stream of terrorist-produced video and audio tapes seen on media airwaves since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, DC.3 The messages of terrorist leaders such as Osama Bin Laden4 and Ayman Al-Zawahiri5 have been routine fare on media newscasts. Media organizations confer upon terrorists a certain level of political legitimacy by the very fact that they deem these terrorist messages newsworthy.6

This dynamic gives rise to widespread concerns that unchecked media coverage actually facilitates the activities of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda.7 The fear generated by the constant presence of terrorist threats on television and radio not only influences public opinion, as terrorists would like,8 but may also contain hidden instructions to terrorist sleeper cells.9 This makes the dangers of broadcasting terrorist messages in the media even greater. Television and radio give terrorists the power to speak directly to the public.10 In the Middle East, where anti-U.S. sentiment already runs deep, such messages have the potential to reach millions,11 potentially inciting acts of violence and terrorism. One need only look to the bloodshed caused by suicide bombers in Iraq to understand the profound consequences of inciting even one impressionable viewer to action.12

While Western media has generally taken a cautious approach to airing terrorist messages, Qatar-based news outlet Al-Jazeera is an open forum for such messages.13 The editorial content of Al-Jazeera broadcasts is often criticized for its sympathetic tone towards terrorist organizations and hostile attitude toward the United States.14 Though the U.S. government has pressured the government of Qatar to exercise some control over Al-Jazeera, there has been little change in its broadcast content.15

After a discussion of Al-Jazeera itself, this Note will examine media content that potentially acts as an incitement to terrorism and will discuss possible mechanisms to address this problem under international law. While the legal concept of incitement to terrorism is still in its infancy, international norms regarding incitement to violence and hate speech provide adaptable models. Relevant international conventions and current U.S. and European jurisprudence will be surveyed. The need to balance the legal concept of incitement in this context with the preservation of freedom and expression in an informed society will be addressed. Special emphasis will be placed on the recent decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the so-called "Rwandan Media Trial," which sets the standard for holding media outlets accountable for the most serious of international crimes. This framework will then be analyzed for potential application to incitement to terrorism and, specifically, Al-Jazeera's actions.

This Note will focus on media outlets that air terrorist messages likely to incite violence-not on the terrorists themselves. This is based upon the supposition that state and international legal mechanisms are better equipped to deal with media outlets which, by virtue of their corporate nature, operate out in the open and within reach of legal enforcement. By focusing on the media outlets themselves, the underlying mechanisms of terrorism may be more effectively addressed and remedied.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Factual Background of Al-Jazeera

Aljazeera is a twenty-four hour satellite news channel based in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar. …

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