Jo Groebel, head of the German Digital Institute in Berlin, spoke with DW-WORLD.DE about the Taliban's increasing manipulation of the western media to further its own goals.
They may have archaic social ideas, but the Taliban are using modern propaganda tools
In recent days, the German government has lashed out at the Taliban's "wicked propaganda" and accused the Islamist terror group of waging a "media war" against the western world. The condemnation follows inaccurate information by the Taliban that it had executed two German hostages in Afghanistan.
In reality, one of the two kidnapped German construction engineers was shot and killed while the other remains in captivity. The Taliban have demanded Germany pulls its 3,000 troops out of Afghanistan as the main condition for freeing the hostage.
DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Jo Groebel, director of the Berlin-based German Digital Institute and former head of the European Media Institute, about whether the media needs to be more prudent when reporting on terrorism.
The German government has spoken in recent days of the Taliban waging a propaganda war. Do you agree with that?
Foreign Minister Steinmeier's office said it was involved in a "media war" with the Taliban
I totally agree that terrorism, in particular Taliban terrorism, is indeed all about the media and propaganda. I think it's obvious that the victims of the kidnappings or killings are not primarily the real goal. The real goal is to create news, to create coverage of these killings and to create panic around the world. The victims are primarily used for that goal. Modern terrorism is, per definition almost, all about creating fear and panic and, in particular, demonstrating power and control around the world. And that's definitely true of the Taliban.
What do you think the Taliban aim to achieve by trying to grab media attention and coverage?
On the one hand the Taliban want to stabilize their own infrastructure, their group and community philosophy and thinking. And at the same they want to perceive themselves and make people believe they are a real threat to the world. And obviously they're succeeding in that. Let's be clear about it, the Taliban don't have global weapons, they don't have -- at least until now -- any real chance of being a major threat to the world community. And yet through the coverage in the media, they create exactly that -- namely the impression that they are a global threat even though they are actually a regional threat and don't have global support.
The German government has criticized reporting by some German media in recent days, saying that they have offered a platform for the terrorists. Do you think that criticism is justified?
An abundance of media makes suppressing information impossible, Groebel said
Only to a certain extent. Of course the media needs to report on events as long as that reporting doesn't create a new threat. As soon as terrorists succeed in creating a situation where information and reporting is suppressed, they have achieved some success. Terrorists believe in systems, structures and societies that suppress freedom of expression.
To an extent, I can understand the German government when it says the media need to be very careful in its reporting and not end up serving the terrorists. At the same time, we need to accept that we live in a free society. There is hardly any way to suppress information, voluntarily or involuntarily, because if it's not broadcast via official channels then it's sure to be distributed via blogs or elsewhere on the Internet. So even if one would assume that there is a possibility or even a necessity to not immediately report on terrorist activities, I'm afraid it wouldn't work anyway.
I have to say too that I think the German reporting so far on the Taliban and terrorist activities has been responsible and not prone to exaggeration, sensationalism and creating panic.
To talk about a concrete example of how the media should cover terrorism -- the BBC's channel 4 recently aired an interview with the Taliban's military chief, Mansur Dadullah, in which he called for the mass kidnapping of foreigners in Afghanistan. Do you think something like that is acceptable?
Western media need to evaluate the news they present
That can only be answered on a case to case basis. On the one hand, to have an interview with a real-life Taliban leader is a major journalistic scoop. On the other, you have to ask yourself the question whether such an interview, or indeed offering him a platform, is still primarily fulfilling the need for information. If the answer is yes in a particular case, then I would say the interview is still justified.
But there's no doubt that there's always a dilemma in such cases where you have weigh the need to inform the public against the danger of offering a mouthpiece to terrorists. What is important is to put things in perspective. That means not just giving a Taliban leader a platform to express himself, but also to comment and evaluate what's going on. When in doubt, my answer is always: if the reporting doesn't directly threaten lives, then freedom of expression has to dominate.
The German government says the Taliban carefully monitors German debates on Afghanistan and instantly reacts to any statements. Shouldn't then some of the criticism aimed at the media be directed towards politicians who jump at every opportunity to express their views about the security situation in the country or troops?
Politics is, much like the media, all about making things public. Thus there is a very strong alliance between politics and politicians on one hand and media on the other because, of course, politicians need the media to express themselves. Unlike what the German government says, it must be said that in comparison to politicians, the media has been reporting on the Taliban's activities in Afghanistan in a pretty modest manner.
But once again, I have to stress that if the terrorists manage to silence us and stifle expression, then they have already scored a major victory.