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Media Analyses





Those Contradictory Militants


I Say Terrorist, You Say Militant ... Let’s Call Reporting Off.

A caution signal about news media reliability regarding Arab-Israeli coverage has long been the use of "militant" as a sanitizing substitute for "terrorist" in describing attackers of Israeli non-combatants.

Terrorism, defined by the U.S. Law Code, Title 22, Chapter 38, Paragraph 2656 f(d) and used in the State Department’s annual reports to Congress is "... premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents ...." The Department of Defense definition recognizes that terrorism is a crime: "The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological." No cause, leaders as different as Pope John Paul II and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have asserted, justifies terrorism.

Regardless, journalists reporting on news that meets the definition — civilian bus bombing or school shooting, for example — but committed by members of a group about which they are poorly informed or sympathetic too, have been prone to see not crime but protest. Hence the formulation, subscribed to by former National Public Radio Jerusalem correspondent Linda Gradstein, among others, that "one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter." Thus, over decades of Arab-Israeli coverage, terrorists often became militants.

That made the Associated Press obituary of Maria Esther Gatti de Islas, which appeared in The Washington Post on December 8, worth noting. It described Gatti de Islas, 92, as "a human rights activist who helped found Uruguay’s organization of relatives of people who disappeared during South America’s ‘dirty wars’ …." This "activist" — this word too sometimes displaces "terrorist" in Arab-Israeli coverage — "became a militant [emphasis added] in denouncing political disappearances." Read here.

Maria Esther Gatti de Islas, an activist and militant. But not a terrorist.

Ms. Gatti de Islas notwithstanding, The Post maintains its militant-terrorist confusion in Arab-Israeli coverage. For example, in "Palestinian Authority reins in radical imams," a page one December 16 report by Jerusalem Bureau Chief Janine Zacharia, the newspaper accurately notes that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is "waging an internal battle for legitimacy against Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization." But the default setting kicks in with later references to "Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad" and "Hamas militants [who] captured Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier." Read here.

Defined by its actions, Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) is a terrorist organization, responsible for the murders of hundreds of non-combatant Israelis and others, including some Palestinian Arabs, not to mention the wounding of thousands and attempt to intimidate an entire country. (When Hamas members attacked an Israeli army outpost in 2006, killed two soldiers and captured Shalit, they were not acting as terrorists and certainly not as militants like Gatti de Islas — but, to be specific, like guerrillas. However, that was an exception to the group’s general practice.)

When Israeli sources describe Palestinian Arabs as terrorists, news media including The Post sometimes bleach this stain of accuracy. For example, "Israeli airstrike kills 5 in Gaza Strip; Deadliest attack in months targets Palestinian militants," (December 19). This five-paragraph item, identified as "from news services," started with the claim that "An Israeli airstrike killed five Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. It was the deadliest attack against the coastal strip in months." Not against the Gaza Strip, against five suspected terrorists.

The report added that the Israeli military said "the men were about to launch a rocket attack against southern Israeli communities," "Palestinian hospital officials confirmed that the five dead were militants" and "militant groups identified the men as members of the [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees."

But the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, running on December 18 a slightly longer version of a Reuters dispatch that appeared to be a source for The Post (an early Associated Press brief was published on the paper’s Web site) noted that "the Israeli Defense Forces said ... its aircraft ‘targeted and identified hitting a squad of terror operatives who were preparing to launch rockets toward Israeli territory.’" "Terror operatives," not militants.

Also provided by Reuters and included by Ha’aretz but absent from The Post was the fact that "the IDF said more than 200 cross-border missiles, rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza this year."

Neither Reuters — which included several more references to Palestinian "militants" in material lacking in Post copy — or the Washington daily told readers that Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees are classified by the United States as terrorist groups.

It’s not that The Post typically gets the terrorist/non-terrorist distinction wrong covering Arab attacks against Israel and right regarding similar violence elsewhere. One day before "Israeli airstrike kills 5 in Gaza Strip," the paper published "Former Philippine terrorist leader sentenced," by one of its own reporters, Spencer S. Hsu. The December 18 headline accurately referred to Madhatta Asagal Haipe, a former leader of the Abu Sayyaf group.

Yet the article itself said Abu Sayyaf, "also known as Al Harakat Al-Islamiyyah, [was] a militant organization linked to al-Qaeda and listed by the State Department as a terrorist group ...." It noted that Haipe received a 23-year prison sentence for the 1995 kidnapping-for-ransom of 16 American tourists. The Post added that "forty militants" beat and tied some of their captives, "forced the group to march" and, according to survivors, subjected them to "emotional trauma and fear of reprisal" that "split families, ruined careers and prompted years of medication and counseling." In other words, the militants terrorized them. So militants are terrorists? But not like Gatti de Islas?

Why the chronic confusion? It’s worth recalling once again George Orwell’s conclusion to his landmark 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language" in this regard: "Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Orwell recommended loud jeering at worn-out and useless phrases; in our day, militant instead of terrorist is such a threadbare phrase. The longer news media use such language, the less they sound like journalists and the more they are heard as political partisans.


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