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Terrorism and Mass Media: A Reflection from the Sri Lanka Terror Attack

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The world shivers at the mention of terrorism. The international news storylines mostly present two hegemonic undertakings: the economic and power game ruling blocks comprising US, Russia, China, EU and so forth, on one hand, and the true battlegrounds of ruling blocks in Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and so forth, one the other. May be the storylines presented by the international media is not the true reflection of undertakings the world should know, and a lot more remain under presented behind those storylines. On the top of that, media houses play a twisted role in creating antagonists and protagonists in international geopolitics and assigning roles to different actors.

The terrorism, as we knew and believed once, has been changed in last couple of decades since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. Not only terrorism has been changed after the World Trade Center in the emergence of new actors in the international power game but also it changed the perception of people about the religions and geopolitics; especially Islam and Middle East. In last March, A terror attack killed around fifty Muslims and left many injured during the Friday prayer in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The international media mostly labeled it as shooting and the terrorist as a shooter. The terrorist livestreamed the whole attack like an animated videogame and inscribed some hate speeches on the gun he used in the attack. The incident in the Christchurch, New Zealand, is not the only attack on Muslim communities in recent years but one of the many incidents and the it is becoming frequent.  After the Christchurch incident in New Zealand, a massive terror attack demanded a death toll amounting 253 innocent lives on Ester Sunday last month in Sri Lanka. After the terror attack Sri Lanka, international news storylines undoubted labeled it as a terrorist activity and proactively probed the link with the local and international terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS) and the local terrorist group National Thowfeek Jamaath.  While it is beyond the proof yet whether the Sri Lanka Attack was a consequence of New Zealand attack, the proactive role of international media was noticeable to make an express linkage between the two. Media decide who should be called a terrorist based on his region or color not the fact that terrorism ransoms the equally without the consideration of religious or color of victims. A handful number of people died in Sri Lanka terror attack were Muslims.

This is a one-type of bias mass media play in response to terrorism. But in regard to terrorism there are numerous biased and nonsense roles mass media have been playing. It is said that a terrorist is always successful because he produces the level of fears and panics that changes the courses of longstanding societal, political and interfaith interactions among different groups, communities, regions and countries.  While mass media only probe the linkage of religions with the terrorism, they hardly concentrate on economic, political and social motives of terrorism. Either a mosque or a church or a chapel is mostly targeted and this strategy of terrorism give it an universal advantage. For example, if a mosque in New Zealand is attacked, it raises the concern of Muslim communities living in West and Muslin-minority countries around the world, on the other hand, if a Church is attacked anywhere of the World it raises the concern of non-Muslims about Muslims around the World; while an attack on non-religious places may not reach such an universal advantage. Media grabs a terrorist activity, widely publishes it, links it with religions, especially with Islam, and complements the objective terrorism dividing societies, and creating fears and panics.

The terrorism in any form is a threat to the peaceful coexistence around the world. However, the place that faces the problem faces an extensive and long-lasting challenge. Historically, Sri Lanka is a politically turbulent place just ending a phase of civil conflict with the LTTE around a decade ago. Last year it faced an anti-Muslin riots that destroyed a mosque and raised a communal tension around the country.  As acknowledged by local and international security agencies, they had prior knowledge of an upcoming attack. Despite the fact of prior knowledge, security agencies in Sri Lanka did not take any preventive action. Sri Lanka is currently undergoing some political transitions that started from October 2018. President Maithripala Sirisena announced that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the new Prime Minister. Although, by various forces Sirisena removes Rajapaksa and returned Wickremesinghe. In this unstable situation miscreant takes the advantage of terror attack.The terror attack on the verge of that transition and the non-preventive activity by security forces indicate a political connection with the terror attack. Some block might have been taking advantage of this turbulent situation. Historically, the Sri Lankan turbulence with the LTTE was fueled by different external and internal blocks. Instead of going with the flow, mass media should play an investigate role to probe the other reasons like political, economic and geopolitical reasons behind the terror attack. 

In Christchurch attack, the terrorist Brenton Tarrant livestreamed the attack on Facebook. The livestreamed video was reposted and rebroadcasted millions of times in different local and international media around the world. While it is clear that Brenton Tarrant wanted the world to watch the video, by reposting and rebroadcasting the video media complemented a terrorist’s objective. This tendency of media was seen in some previous terrorist attacks. In 2016, the terror attack in a residential hotel in Dhaka was livestreamed by several national and international media. In recent India-Pakistan border conflict media from both countries played a provocative role. Some media house in India compared the Indian invasion in Pakistan with the patriotism. This is definitely a breach of media’s broadcast standards. 

In case of Sri Lanka terror attack, media relied on previous IS attacks to probe a linkage between the IS and the local National Thowfeek Jamaath. It is, however, true that attacks by IS or local terrorist group cannot be sidestepped. But the focus on IS and local terror group targeted some local innocent people and Muslims that created another bias and discrimination on the local community. Moreover, the focus on the IS and its associated group may shade the actual perpetuator if some group other than IS is responsible for the attack. Even some media proactively created a presuming linkage of Sri Lankan attack with the Christchurch attack. This again aggravated the situation in Sri Lanka and around the world.

It is generally presumed that media houses are concerned about the increasing the TRP and public viewing volumes by broadcasting controversial news storylines. This sick competition leads media houses globally to go beyond their broadcasting standards. Media is said, however, to be the “Fourth Estate” of democracy whereas increasing the TRP or viewing volumes by sick competition is an opposite to the notion. There should have some ethical standards and regulations regarding broadcasting the news and storylines grounded on the policy of harnessing communities and promoting global peace not dividing the world into pieces.

Mohammad Kepayet Ullah is a Bangladeshi journalist and South Asian geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at kepayet01mcj[at]gmail.com

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‘Disturbing spike’ in Afghan civilian casualties after peace talks began

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan witnessed a sharp rise since peace negotiations started in September last year, even though overall deaths and injuries dropped in 2020, compared to the previous year, according to a UN human rights report launched Tuesday. 

In their annual Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Annual Report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA) documented some 8,820 civilian casualties (3,035 deaths and 5,785 injuries) in 2020, about 15 per cent less than in 2019.  

It was also the first time the figure fell below 10,000 since 2013. 

However, the country remains amongst the “deadliest places in the world to be a civilian”, according to Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

“I am particularly appalled by the high numbers of human rights defenders, journalists, and media workers killed since peace negotiations began in September”, she said. 

At least 11 rights defenders, journalists and media workers lost their lives since September, resulting in many professionals exercising self-censorship in their work, quitting their jobs, and even leaving their homes and the country – in hope it will improve their safety. 

Rise in ‘targeted killings’ 

According to the report, the overall drop in civilian casualties in 2020 was due to fewer casualties from suicide attacks by anti-Government elements in populated areas, as well as drop in casualties attributed to international military forces.  

There was, however, a “worrying rise” in targeted killings by such elements – up about 45 per cent over 2019. The use of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban, air strikes by the Afghan Air Force, and ground engagements also resulted in increased casualties, the report said. 

According to the report, anti-Government elements bore responsibility for about 62 per cent civilian casualties, while pro-Government forces were responsible for about 25 per cent casualties. About 13 per cent of casualties were attributed to crossfire and other incidents. 

2020 could have been ‘a year of peace’ 

Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, called on all parties to take immediate and concrete action to protect civilians, urging them “not to squander a single day in taking the urgent steps to avoid more suffering”. 

“2020 could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished due to the conflict”, Ms. Lyons said

The “overriding objective” of the report is to provide the parties responsible with the facts, and recommendations, so they take immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians, she added. 

Ms. Lyons highlighted that “ultimately, the best way to protect civilians is to establish a humanitarian ceasefire” – a call consistently made by Secretary-General António Guterres and the Security Council

“Parties refusing to consider a ceasefire must recognize the devastating consequences of such a posture on the lives of Afghan civilians.” 

UNAMA-OHCHR report: Women casualties (killings and injuries) documented between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2020

‘Shocking toll’ on women and children 

The report went on to note that the years-long conflict in Afghanistan “continues to wreak a shocking and detrimental toll” on women and children, who accounted for 43 per cent of all civilian casualties – 30 per cent children and 13 per cent women. 

“This report shows the acute, lasting needs of victims of the armed conflict and demonstrates how much remains to be done to meet those needs in a meaningful way”, High Commissioner Bachelet said. 

“The violence that has brought so much pain and suffering to the Afghan population for decades must stop and steps towards reaching a lasting peace must continue.” 

Attacking civilians ‘serious violations’ 

With the conflict continuing, parties must do more to prevent and mitigate civilian casualties, the report said, urging them to fully implement the report’s recommendations and to ensure that respect and protection of human rights is central to the ongoing peace negotiations. 

It also reminded the parties that deliberately attacking civilians or civilian objects are serious violations of international humanitarian law that may amount to war crimes. 

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Is Blacklisting on Cards for Pakistan?

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Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has been an integral part of the economic decision making and regulatory procedures of the country. The days of the ultimate decision are finally on cards as the Global Watchdog is expected to evaluate and review the performance and strategies of Pakistan via virtual meeting tentatively scheduled for February 22-25, 2021. This would be a much-anticipated review since a keen eye would be payed following a long hiatus to the litigations recently undertaken by the country to eliminate the risks and gaps in the financial framework which might earn Pakistan, a way out from the grey list. However, while the preceding meeting only guided more hopes for better litigation and measures to curb terror financing, brimming foreign propaganda and nefarious rulings within the country itself might hamper the way out but instead could dig the trench further towards a harrowing financial turmoil.

Pakistan was placed on the grey list back in June 2018 due to strategic deficiencies. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in the world, Pakistan was allowed a breather of 4-months to comply with the 27-point action plan; of which Pakistan met only 14 targets while missing out on the rest of 13 targets. Moreover, Pakistan could only satisfy 10 of a total of 40 recommendations devised by the task force. These lags led to a major pitfall in the Pakistan’s Stock Market; PSX plummeting bellow 30,000 points. Furthermore, a bitter narrative started blooming regarding arch-rival India pulling all the strings to push Pakistan down further, even in the blacklist. This was largely shunned by the Indian representatives but the failure of the economic and diplomatic front of Pakistan was evident by now.

The FATF plenary was scheduled, like traditionally, in June. However, all scheduled evaluations and review procedures were deferred for 4-months in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing yet another unforeseen yet thoroughly welcomed relief span to Pakistan to strive more actively to meet the requirements.

In the preceding 4 months, Pakistan acutely worked to amend the contradicting laws and policies, the parliament playing an agile role to introduce new bills relating to counter-terrorism and countering money laundering as an act to expedite compliance to the international laws and ultimately meeting up all 27 points in the action plan. Almost all the bills presented, albeit some political resistance, were eventually passed which even led to optimism in the stock market; PSX climbing back over 40,000 points after more than half a year, rallying to record high levels despite of the pandemic wreaking havoc on the investors’ mentality across the globe.

The meeting held, after a steep deferral, back in October 2020; the FATF committee observed and commended on the vigilant stance assumed by Pakistan to crawl out of the Grey list. Pakistan has since delivered on 22 out of the 27 core points of the action plan defined. However, the meetings adjourned till February, retaining Pakistan in the grey list under the tag of ‘jurisdiction under enhanced monitoring’ whilst praising the steps of counter-terrorism and anti-money laundering adopted by Islamabad.

Pakistan was warned back in February last year that if not complied by the 27-point action plan, it could be a great threat to the foreign mechanism and would be eventually moved to the monitored jurisdiction, notoriously also known as the ‘Blacklist’. Later this month, FATF would examine if Pakistan meets the 8 key categories of the action plan; remedial actions taken against money laundering, counterfeit terrorism while also reviewing the vigilance of the institutions in countering Terror Financing and actively managing risk. The committee representing Pakistan would perpetually convince the plenary that the country in-fact meets the criteria and transitioning over the next month, the fate of the tormented economy would finally prevail in light of the decision made.

However, Pakistan has been sluggish in taking action against the notorious entities linked to terrorism around the region. The meeting nears with the pinned watch of UN regarding Pakistan’s role of providing a safe haven to Lashkar-e-Taiba founder, Hafiz Saeed, or the notorious acquittal of Ahmed Omer Sheikh, the prime culprit of the Daniel Pearle Murder case of 2002. Pakistan, however, claims to have made virtue on 22 of the defined 27 points while has garnered ‘Substantial progress’ on the remaining 5 points. Thus, the optimism brews that the meeting would push the country out of the list and would open more financial avenues especially in these distressful conditions.

Although Pakistan’s Foreign Office including the Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, appears optimistic to climb out of the grey list after 3 years, the infamous decisions passed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the excessive money laundering cases surging against the ex-office holders of Pakistan and the determined efforts of India to subvert Pakistan in global politics, all thwart down that optimism bit by bit. And while some of the economic experts claim that the decision of advancing Pakistan off the Grey list would be naïve move and would arguably impact regional dynamics, the decision could fall in tandem with the preceding outcome of sustaining the grey list status or could deteriorate the level further as gauged by a political expert, opining his narrative: “The facts demand that Pakistan remain on the grey list. The FATF shouldn’t just keep Pakistan on the grey list. It should rather warn Islamabad that absent rapid and wide-ranging reform; blacklisting is coming”.

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Europe Must Confront Iranian Regime’s Terrorism

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After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, on 4thFebruary 2021, a Belgian court sentenced four culprits for attempting to bomb a large gathering of tens of thousands, including politicians and dignitaries, at a global summit organized by the Iranian opposition – the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) – in Villipinte, France in June 2018.

The perpetrators who attempted to attack the global summit included Assadollah Assadi, a senior accredited Iranian diplomat, who received the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on attempted murder and terrorism charges – and his three accomplices who were imprisoned for 15,17, and 18 years, respectively. This was the first time that an Iranian diplomat was convicted in Europe.

The conviction and the sheer scale of the crime requires the EU to reconsider its approach to the Iranian regime.

The 2018 global summit was attended by tens of thousands of people who advocate for democracy and freedom in Iran. If the foiled terrorist plot had been successful, thousands of innocent people, including European citizens and prominent political figures, would have been killed or injured. The head of Belgium’s national security has blamed the Iranian regime for orchestrating the attack, including Iran’s Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Intelligence and Security who played a significant part in the execution of the attack.

Such terrorism-related trials are not new for the regime. In 1997, the regime was tried for a major terrorist act in Germany. The proceedings were called the Mykonos trial after a Berlin restaurant in which regime agents gunned down several opponents.

In a report dated April 10, 1997, the European Union’s Presidency stated: “The High Court of Justice’s findings in Berlin in the Mykonos case indicates Iranian regime officials’ involvement at the highest level.”

On April 29, 1997, the Council of the European Union reaffirmed that progress in normalizing relations between the EU and Iran would only be possible if Tehran’s officials respect international law and cease terrorist acts, including those against Iranians residing abroad. When the regime refused to comply,Europe made a declaration to expel Iranian nationals with intelligence and security ties. Twelve countries that were not members of the European Union at the time also complied with the declaration.

21 years after the Mykonos trial, Assadi used his diplomatic cover to take a high-powered explosive on a passenger plane from Iran to Austria. He then personally handed it over to two intelligence agents to detonate it at the NCRI rally in Paris. The irrefutable evidence in this case shows Iranian regime officials’ involvement at the highest levels.

Separately, the regime’s ambassador and three diplomats were expelled from Albania (January 2020), three diplomats were expelled from France and the Netherlands (March 2018), and a diplomat was expelled from Denmark (October 2018) in the wake of the regime’s terrorist plots. All of these expulsions reveal the involvement of the regime’s embassies, Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Intelligence and Security to create terror in the European region.

Despite all of this, the EU has not taken any serious measures to counter the regime’s belligerence.

Europe’s failure to take appropriate actions has emboldened Tehran. Inaction reassures the regime that it can act with impunity, even in Europe. Europe has essentially communicated to the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism that not even an attempt to bomb a peaceful gathering, which could lead to the killing of hundreds of European citizens, would bear any consequences. Thus, Europe’s appeasement is in large part fueling the regime’s aggression.

It is naive to speculate that Tehran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif did not know about this conspiracy. Zarif sits on the Supreme National Security Council, which approves all such major security decisions. Additionally, his ministry and embassies serve as logistical and operational centers for terrorism and espionage.

Those who hatched and approved this terrorist plot, none other than senior Iranian leadership, must be brought to justice. This step is a necessary deterrent against Tehran, the godfather of international terrorism.

German security officials are reportedly still investigating the numerous trips that Assadi made throughout Europe, where he helped establish an extensive Iranian regime spy network across the region. At the time of his arrest, he had received several receipts for payment of money. The identities of money recipients have yet to be determined. The regime has always used its embassies and so-called religious and cultural centers abroad as centers of espionage against its opponents.

Normalizing diplomatic relations with the Iranian regime must be made contingent on disbanding its terrorist apparatus in Europe and ensuring that it will never again engage in terrorism in Europe. By taking this critical step, European leaders will protect their own citizens and effectively counter the regime’s terrorist threats.

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