Media Freedom and Responsibilities in the Context of Counter-Terrorism Policies


© OSCE #United CVE

Following February’s Expert Workshop on Regional Co-operation and Effective Responses to the Phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters organised by the OSCE Office in Tajikistan I’ve been at a few other related meetings. In June I participated in the OSCE-wide Counter-Terrorism Expert Conference on Countering the Incitement and Recruitment of Foreign Terrorist Fighters in Vienna, and from 7-8 October spoke on a panel at an expert workshop in Bucharest on Media Freedom and Responsibilities in the Context of Counter-Terrorism Policies organised by the OSCE Transnational Threat Department and OSCE Representative of the Freedom of the Media.

Also speaking on my panel were Article 19’s Gabrielle Guillemin and VOX-pol’s Kate Coyer. The discussant was Muflehun’s Humera Khan and the panel was moderated by OSCE-ODIHR’s Adviser on Anti-Terrorism Issues Lucile Sengler. Below are the talking points I used as the basis for my keynote.


Jarkko Jokinen, Adviser on Anti-Terrorism Issues, OSCE Transnational Threats Department
© Onnik James Krikorian 2015

Media Freedom and Responsibilities in the Context of Counter-Terrorism Policies

    Panel 3: Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Initiatives with the Media in Promoting Tolerance and Developing Credible Counter-Narratives to Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorism. 

    Organised by the OSCE Transnational Threats Division and OSCE Representative of Freedom of the Media, 7-8 October, Bucharest, Romania


    With communities often deprived of a voice and the ability to deal with the problem themselves, and with the media in the South Caucasus plagued by censorship, self-censorship, and the sometimes sensationalised and/or politicised coverage of local issues, governments should encourage and promote the development of a freer space for both to operate in if counter-narratives are to be successful. 

    International donors should also support the training of journalists and civil society organisations to better cover and/or deal with the problem. It is also imperative that counter-terrorism legislation is not used to silence or restrict the media and civil society or attempt to control the online space, sometimes for domestic political reasons.

Talking Points

    • In the South Caucasus, a region already riven by three unresolved local conflicts, government measures have largely been punitive to date. Borders have been tightened as per UN Security Council Resolution 2178 and there have also been stricter controls on religious activity, although sometimes in arguably counter-productive ways. 

    • Nevertheless, Azerbaijan and Georgia in particular are still considered to be transit routes for Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) from the North Caucasus and Central Asia. Moreover, up to 100 Georgians are believed to be fighting in Iraq and Syria, mainly for ISIS. There are as many as 400-500 from Azerbaijan. 

    • Although there are policies to integrate ethnic and religious minorities into larger society, there are little to no community-driven Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) measures.

    • In a region where media censorship, self-censorship, the imprisonment of journalists, surveillance, and control of civil society remains a matter of concern, governments must first and foremost allow a freer space for both to operate in. It is imperative that counter-terrorism measures are not used as a cover to silence alternative voices.

    • The media largely remains polarised between pro-government and opposition forces. Coverage of FTFs is often politicised and sensationalised as a result. Meanwhile, in Georgia, the focus remains mainly on Islamic radicalisation despite other forms of extremism which could marginalise at-risk Moslem communities.1

      1Orthodox Christians in some parts of Georgia have been involved in well-documented cases of intimidation and threats against Moslems as well as obstructing the repair of existing mosques or the construction of new ones as well as the opening of religious schools. The Georgian Orthodox Church wields significant power in Georgia.

    • Despite a significant growth in social media2, television remains the most widely accessible form of media in the region. With many stations linked to the government it is therefore possible to amplify the voices of women, youth, religious leaders, and communities if desired, but it would likely be only those loyal to the authorities.
    • 2It should be noted that the Internet is still a primary source for extremist propaganda and therefore online alternative and counter-narratives are important. However, physical real world initiatives are important too given the often isolated natured of sometimes marginalised communities.

    • Empowering all voices in a credible way requires the political will to allow freer discussion in society and the media. Non-government linked online news sites, including some independent outlets, do exist, but reach is more limited. Nevertheless, despite well known problems, this media has the competence to cover such issues.

    • Journalists in the region often have little to no understanding of the various factors which drive radicalisation, or indeed of Islam3, usually echoing wider societal prejudices or quoting (non-Moslem) analysts familiar only with more general political-economic and geopolitical issues. There needs to be connections facilitated with those more aware of the issues.

3 It is worth noting that the media in Azerbaijan and Georgia generally refers to anyone considered to be an extremist as a ‘Wahhabist’ or ‘Salafist’ while not distinguishing between those who espouse violence and those that don’t. 

    • Organisations4 such as the UN, EU, and the GCTF could help facilitate those linkages between media and civil society with their counterparts already covering radicalisation and engaged in CVE initiatives elsewhere. While each region and country should be considered separately, as mentioned earlier, there is little to no CVE in the region.
    • 4 OSCE offices in Azerbaijan and Georgia are now closed for well known reasons limiting what could be an important resource for the governments, media, and civil society to rely on. Unfortunately, because of the political and geopolitical situation in the region out of the OSCE’s control, it is unlikely this will change in the near future.

    • Another problem with media coverage is that many journalists do not have the trust of local communities. In Georgia, for example, residents of Pankisi often refuse to talk to the media, or simply understate the problem because promises to quote them anonymously are broken, antagonising existing local divisions and internal conflict.
    • There are cases of returning fighters, but official policy is simply to arrest them. There are so far no cases of disillusioned formers being quoted in the media and/or being used in anything remotely similar to CVE. Nevertheless, there are plenty of voices critical of ISIS and other groups in at-risk communities (though they tend to be middle-aged).

    • Despite concerns about media, religious, and civic freedoms to varying degrees across the region, Azerbaijan and Georgia can be considered genuine in their stated desire to deal with the problem of Islamic radicalisation. Nevertheless, there are often contradictions and non-Moslems fighting elsewhere are sometimes viewed differently in the media.5

      5Although disowned by the government, some opposition parties and media positively consider Georgians fighting for Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists.

    • Even with these problems, the secular nature of Azerbaijan in terms of Shia-Sunni co-existence, as well as Georgia’s position as a melting pot for the region’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, could allow positive alternative narratives to accompany counter-narrative efforts in response to sometimes very basic messaging by extremists.


      Such examples of religious coexistence could be beneficial for CVE although secularism should be dealt with sensitively, especially by the media, given that it potentially carries with it some risks.

    • International organisations and donors continue to support the development of the media and civil society in Azerbaijan6 and Georgia, including in the use of new online tools and conducting outreach campaigns. Furthermore, there are existing conflict-sensitive media and civil society projects which could include CVE elements in the future.

6Azerbaijan is more problematic here given recent restrictions on the foreign funding of NGOs and the media. International donor support now occurs for those outlets outside the country although organisations such as UN agencies continue to support local gender, youth, and community programmes.

    • Women, youth, and sometimes communities are already incorporated into such projects, but not necessarily those at risk of radicalisation. Nevertheless, some NGOs and media7 are interested in dealing with the problem, but lack the funds to do so. GONGOs do exist, but it is questionable whether they would be considered credible voices.

    • 7In June I assisted a working visit of (non-Moslem) Georgian journalists to the Pankisi Gorge, birth place of ISIS military commander Abu Omar al-Shishani, with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) to meet with community leaders and residents. Many of the issues raised appeared to have possible solutions in the form of CVE. 

      Compared to other reporting of the problem, the results of the visit in the form of articles published by some online outlets as well as IWPR itself was more nuanced and objective thanks to the experience of the organisation in conflict-sensitive reporting. Unfortunately, broadcast media did not participate.

    • Although radicalisation and self-radicalisation does occur locally, some radicalisation also occurs among migrant workers abroad, particularly in the Russian Federation and Turkey. The involvement of Diaspora communities, including targeting by the media and civil society, should therefore not be overlooked.

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Dilnoza Mansurova, Violent Extremism and Radicalisation That Lead To Terrorism (VERLT) Programme Assistant, OSCE office in #Tajikistan © Onnik James Krikorian 2015


    • First and foremost, governments should encourage engagement by credible communicators of alternative and counter-narratives to extremist propaganda. These are often local religious and community leaders, women and youth, the victims of terrorism, and disillusioned former foreign terrorist fighters.
    • While governments should allow a space to exist for independent media to freely operate in, journalists and media outlets must also recognise that they have a responsibility to be as objective and neutral in their reporting as possible. Sensationalism should be avoided and a voluntary code of ethics or practice, including the use of terminology, drawn up.
    • Islamic extremism should not be the main focus of the media if other forms of violent extremism exist in a particular society. A clear distinction should be made between extremist views and Violent Extremism and Radicalisation that lead to Terrorism (VERLT). This otherwise risks the media not being viewed as a credible messenger.

    • More local and international linkages need to be encouraged and established between journalists and specialists working in the area of religion, radicalisation, and CVE. Often local sources in regions such as the South Caucasus are not sufficient and lead to skewed and inaccurate reporting of the problem.

    • International media support organisations and donors working in the South Caucasus and similar regions could consider incorporating elements of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in existing conflict-sensitive reporting training. In particular, there certainly needs to be more coverage of civil society activity in CVE-relevant areas.

    • While governments and media working for or with each other risks damaging the credibility of the latter, there is room for increased communication especially in the area of access for journalists to relevant officials and terrorism related information, something that remains a problem in regions such as the South Caucasus.


    Onnik James Krikorian is a freelance journalist, photojournalist, fixer, media consultant, and trainer from the U.K. currently based in Georgia and contributes to the BBC’s Azeri Service, IWPR, EurasiaNet, and others as well as holding workshops and trainings in conflict-sensitive journalism and social media for journalists and civil society activists from the South Caucasus. From 2007-2012 he was the Caucasus Regional Editor for Global Voices Online and has covered conflict in the region since 1994. 

    He has been a speaker and participant in expert working group meetings, seminars, and conferences on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), Counter Narratives, and Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) organised by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), Hedayah Center, International Center for Counterterrorism – The Hague (ICCT), the OSCE office in Tajikistan, and the OSCE Transnational Threats Division.

For more information on the expert workshop see here. For more on the OSCE’s United CVE campaign see here.

3 Comments Add Yours

  1. Onnik James Krikorian

    The OSCE has since published its recommendations from the workshop:

    […] Participants discussed how rapid technological progress and especially the expansion of the use of the Internet have changed the media environment and also argued that in the current tense environment of interests and narratives, the challenge is how to explore co-operation between media and governments in a way that ensures that counter-terrorism efforts do not erode freedom of the press. The challenge is to safeguard freedom of the media and free public access to information and at the same time combat terrorism. Particular focus was given to possible priority areas for enhancing co- operation among law enforcement, intelligence services and journalists in developing general guidelines and standards as well as creating different communication platforms for their interaction.

    To OSCE participating States and Partners for Co-operation:

    – To facilitate capacity-building on media literacy and using effectively traditional and new media to empower civil society to create credible voices against VERLT;

    – To invest in education and training programmes on media literacy and media relations in the context of countering terrorism, especially raising awareness on VERLT and terrorism in reporting on terrorist incidents;

    – To establish mechanisms for co-operation and information sharing between the media and authorities dealing with counter-terrorism in advance, in a timely manner before the occurrence of a crisis. These mechanisms should be regularly updated and strengthened with experiences and lessons learned;

    – To establish or re-activate points of contacts and points of access for accurate information in the organizations dealing with countering terrorism;

    – To invest in more advanced and specialized training on media relations for counter- terrorism professionals on all levels;

    – To constantly review and update legislation and other regulatory frameworks on various aspects of digital media such as copyrights and related rights of the contents, data protection and privacy issues, advertising, etc.;

    – To encourage and promote the development of a freer space for the media and civil society to operate in and refrain from blocking, filtering and removing online content;

    – To enhance public-private partnerships by encouraging interaction and experience sharing between governments, media companies and civil society;

    – To improve national legislation pertaining to safer working conditions and safety guidelines of journalists;

    – To ensure the protection of possible victims and their families.

    To OSCE executive structures:

    – To facilitate developing a code of conduct and conducting trainings for journalists with specific VERLT components. In this regard, co-operation and the sharing of information on media standards and guidelines between the media and relevant national agencies could be enhanced;

    – To further promote an exchange between journalists and grassroots organizations involved in VERLT and religious leaders;

    – To strengthen journalists’ capacities on the understanding of the root causes of terrorism and consequences of their media coverage, including through training on VERLT components, intolerance, and discrimination;

    – To facilitate sharing of experience among governments, civil society, media and private sector stakeholders, including the ICT industry and marketing experts, on effective counter- narrative work and disseminate this expertise through capacity-building for credible voices within communities and civil society;

    – To condemn clearly and with one voice VERLT and all acts of terrorism across all OSCE Executive Structures and Institutions;

    – To promote media literacy across the OSCE region to help citizens make more informed choices about their sources of information;

    – To raise media awareness and build the capacity of teachers, social workers, sports coaches, youth workers, local police and other frontline actors, to play a more proactive role in protecting children and young people from harmful content on the Internet and social media.


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