Iraqi Turkmen guard a checkpoint in the northern town of Taza Khormato. Photo: Getty
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Islamic State stands for the deaths of journalists and of free speech

Making a global spectacle of the murder of a western journalist carries a uniquely powerful propaganda message for the jihadists.

“Western journalists are the front line of the war against Islam. You are responsible for the negative image of Moslems around the world so you must die.”

That, roughly, is what the American journalist James Foley and other prisoners of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) were told by their captors, according to Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was held for months alongside Foley before being freed earlier this year-- presumably in exchange for a large ransom payment.

The barbaric nature of James Foley’s killing, and his killers’ inhumanity in posting the video of his death on the internet, caused exactly the widespread revulsion and fear that they were intended to achieve.

Making a global spectacle of the murder of a western journalist carries a uniquely powerful propaganda message for the jihadists. A single horrific death made instant headlines around the world; and the “Keep Out” sign is now all too visible to other journalists and media.

The consequences could be dire: the ability of international media to report from such extreme hostile environments has shrunk. The age of access for us all as purveyors of foreign news may be coming to an end.

IS has spelled out the terms in which it seeks to frame a global clash of civilisations. At its core is a contest about freedom of speech and belief. By the nature of their work journalists are among those most exposed on the frontline of that struggle.

The general public is probably unaware that much of the globe, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, is already becoming a no go area for foreign independent journalists, as well as local ones, because of the heightened risks of abduction, violence or death.

Last year Isis (as Islamic State then called itself) began seizing westerners on sight, especially journalists. Its “business model” of kidnappings could involve months or years of silence during which the families might receive no information at all. The ordeal might or might not later lead to a ransom demand and negotiations – except for British and American captives, whose governments say they won’t negotiate with terrorists.

Only the most well-resourced media houses could mount the complex operation, involving specialist equipment, security teams and local guides, to send reporting teams into large parts of war-torn Syria. At least 66 journalists have been killed there since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The great majority were local journalists, and nearly half were freelancers, like Foley himself. Many are still missing. Islamic State now controls a large swathe of territory in Iraq too.

International reporting has in fact suffered a triple whammy. In many of today’s conflicts journalists no longer enjoy their time-honoured right of protection as neutrals. Instead they are increasingly targeted as enemies or for propaganda reasons.  And the frontlines of conflicts -- in Libya, Mali and Somalia as well as Syria and Iraq – are fluid and unclear. The only truly safe place is far away from the story.

Significantly, more than half of the journalists’ killings over the past decade have not taken place in recognised war zones at all, but in other lawless or unstable parts of the world, such as Mexico, Pakistan and Russia. CPJ reports that political groups including armed factions are thought to be behind 40 percent of all journalists’ murders worldwide. In nine cases out of ten the killers of journalists enjoy complete impunity. They are never caught.

Unlike the Fall of the Wall in Europe 25 years ago, which ushered in an age of openness for many formerly captive nations, the hopes kindled among millions in the Arab spring uprisings have been dashed. In Egypt, acclaimed TV correspondent Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues face years of imprisonment after a make-believe trial found them guilty of maliciously harming Egypt’s image abroad.

Islamic State must now be stopped through coherent work by governments and the international media to counter its message of violence and hate. It is critically important to bring the killers of James Foley to justice and to keep his flag of fearless and independent reporting alive.

William Horsley is international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM), University of Sheffield

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Leader: The chaos and mendacity of Trump’s White House

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise.

In his inauguration speech on 20 January, Donald Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to ­describe the state of the US under Barack Obama. The description was correct, but President Trump had the timing wrong – for the carnage was still to come. Just a few weeks into his presidency, the real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star has become embroiled in more controversy and scandals than Mr Obama experienced in eight years. His ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US caused chaos at airports both at home and abroad and damaged America’s global standing. It was a false claim that the executive order, since suspended by the courts, would make the US safer. By alienating and stigmatising Muslims, it may well do the opposite.

The decision to pursue the policy so recklessly and hastily demonstrates Mr Trump’s appalling judgement and dubious temperament. It also shows the malign anti-Islamic influence of those closest to him, in particular his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his senior adviser Stephen Miller, and Michael Flynn, the retired general who on 13 February resigned as ­national security adviser after only 24 days in the job.

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise, given his reputation for anger and arrogance. As recently as August, the retired three-star general said that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” and falsely claimed that Florida Democrats had voted to impose sharia law at state and local level. He also led the chants of “Lock her up!” aimed at Hillary Clinton during the Republican ­National Convention, which would have been appreciated by Mr Trump then and today by those who enjoy irony.

Now General Flynn is under investigation by justice officials. He resigned over revelations in the media, most notably the Washington Post, that before taking office he had discussed US sanctions against Moscow with the Russian ambassador. It is unlawful for private citizens of the US to ­interfere in diplomatic disputes with another country.

Before standing down, General Flynn had publicly denied talking about sanctions during calls and texts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. He had also issued misleading accounts of their conversation to Vice-President Mike Pence and other Trump officials who went on to defend him. Given President Trump’s propensity to lie, General Flynn may have believed that he could get away it. As the former chief of a Pentagon spy agency, however, he should have known that the truth would come out.

The FBI had wiretaps of the ambassador’s conversations with General Flynn. In January, the acting US attorney general – later sacked by President Trump for opposing his “Muslim ban” – informed the White House that General Flynn had lied about his communications with the ambassador and was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Yet it took newspaper revelations about the intercepts to bring the national security adviser down. American carnage, indeed.

The disruptive present

How has capitalism shaped the way we work, play and eat – and even our sense of identity? Nine writers explore the cutting edge of cultural change in the latest instalment of our New Times series in this week's magazine.

The past decades have brought enormous changes to our lives. Facebook became open to the public in 2006, the first iPhone was launched in June 2007 and Netflix launched in the UK in 2012. More and more of us are ceaselessly “on”, answering emails at night or watching video clips on the move; social media encourages us to perform a brighter, shinier version of ourselves. In a world of abundance, we have moved from valuing ownership to treating our beliefs as trophies. The sexual vocabulary and habits of a generation have been shaped by online pornography – and by one company, MindGeek, in particular. We cook less but love cookery shows. We worry about “fake news” as numbers of journalists decline. We have become gender consumers, treating it as another form of self-expression. These shifts in human behaviour have consequences for politics and politicians. “The question should always be,” as Stuart Hall wrote in 1988, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?” The question is even more apposite today.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times