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September 28, 2004

Dear Friend of FLAME:

You may have noticed that different media use various words to define those who target and kill innocent civilians in the name of their political cause. Perpetrators of these attacks, including members of al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbollah and others are variously described as assailants, bombers, fighters, guerillas, militants, radicals and rebels. Some media assiduously avoid calling such killers "terrorists," as does the San Francisco Chronicle when the "militants" are killing Israeli citizens. Local activists in Minneapolis-St. Paul, backed by state and city politicians, led a 2002 protest against the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which for a time routinely changed the word "terrorists" in Associated Press stories to "militants." The paper, now publicly exposed and chastened, has changed its policy. Another news service, Reuter's, remains steadfast in its avoidance of the term "terrorist," which it regards as judgmental and emotion-laden. Reuter's notorious editorial decision not to call terrorists "terrorists" was affirmed following the 9/11 attacks ("We all know that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word 'terrorist,'" said Stephen Jukes, Reuters Global Head of News). Since then the news agency has zealously adhered to its policy of softening the face of terrorism with euphemisms. Now a brave newspaper, The Ottawa Citizen, has come out with an editorial position that is powerful in its simplicity and condemning in its moral clarity. It is not those who call terrorists "terrorists" who are guilty of political bias, the editors maintain, but the other way around. If the media refuse to call a thing what it is, they are perverting the news to promote their own view and are no better than the propagandists of Hitler's Third Reich. When you see such sanitizing of the news, we encourage you to write your local editor and complain. Terrorists must be fought on every front, and the first job is to identify them. You can help.

Calling Terrorism by Its Real Name - Editorial
The Ottawa Citizen
September 18, 2004

Newspapers are supposed to report the news, not be the news. Yet we became the story yesterday when CBC [Canadian Broadcast Corporation] Radio aired an item critical of the way we cover the Middle East. The unfair criticism deserves a response.

The chief complaint is that this newspaper freely uses the word "terrorist" to describe certain groups and acts. The CBC and some wire services prefer terms such as "activist," "militant" or "gunmen." These media organizations argue that "terrorist" is a subjective term, laden with too much emotion, and that the imperative to be impartial prohibits journalists from using it.

We reject the argument. Terrorism is a technical term. It describes a modus operandi, a tactic. We side with security professionals who define terrorism as the deliberate targeting of civilians in pursuit of a political goal. Those who bombed the nightclub in Bali were terrorists. Suicide bombers who strap explosives to their bodies and blow up people eating in a pizza parlour are terrorists. The men and women who took a school full of hostages in Beslan, Russia, and shot some of the children in the back as they tried to flee to safety were terrorists. We as journalists do not violate our impartiality by describing them as such.

Ironically, it is supposedly neutral terms like "militant" that betray a bias, insofar as they have a sanitizing effect. Activists for various political causes can be "militant," but they don't take children hostage.

There is a popular misconception that violence committed for a legitimate cause cannot be terrorism. That's incorrect. Sikhs may, or may not, have legitimate complaints against the Indian government, but the 1985 Air India bombing was a terrorist act, because it deliberately targeted civilians. Journalists betray neither a pro- nor anti-Sikh bias to report it as such.

A newspaper's mandate is to present accurate reports. The Citizen receives wire service reports from many news organizations; in order to ensure consistency in the terms used by these various sources, editors sometimes change words such as "militant" to "terrorist," if it more accurately describes the person committing a violent act. Anyone who deliberately targets civilians in pursuit of a political goal is a terrorist, and we use that term.

Sometimes, an editor will insert a sentence into a wire service report to ensure readers have the full context of the story. For example, some wire reports will describe Hamas or some like-minded group as fighting Israeli "occupation." In fact, Hamas is openly dedicated to the destruction of the entire Jewish state. An editor is quite right to contextualize the story by adding that Hamas views all of Israel as "occupied" land.
There can be, of course, no hard rule on changing the word "militant'' to "terrorist." In Iraq, for example, rebel fighters are hitting both civilian and military targets. On Sept. 9, the Citizen edited an Associated Press report and the resulting story wrongly suggested that all armed men in Fallujah are "terrorists." The Citizen has acknowledged that this change was not in accordance with our policy and was made in error.

Osama bin Laden would have us believe that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Nonsense. If you deliberately target civilians in pursuit of a political goal, you are a terrorist. Journalists should not, and the Citizen will not, be afraid to say so.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2004


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