September 28, 2004
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 it reports "activists"
are killing Israeli citizens. Local activists in Minneapolis, backed
by state and city politicians, led a 2002 protest against the Minneapolis
Star Tribune, which for a time routinely changed the word "terrorists"
in Associated Press stories to "activists." 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
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
You are receiving this email because you have requested news, facts and analysis about Israel and the Mideast conflict. If you DO NOT want to continue receiving free messages like the one below, go here.
If you'd like a printer-friendly, text version of this newsletter click the button below.