The intense controversy surrounding the reluctance of Reuters and other media outlets to use the word “terrorist” says a lot about how abhorrent are the deeds of those branded with the term. Terrorists themselves typically shun the label, preferring euphemisms that disguise their actions.
Why do media outlets follow suit? Some reporters and editors fear that the use of accurate terminology will compromise sources close to terrorist organizations, or even make the media organizations a target for retribution. A travel advisory for journalists in Gaza by Reuters' Nidal al-Mughrabi cautions colleagues to “never use the word terrorist or terrorism in describing Palestinian gunmen and militants” lest offence be given.
The more commonly traded explanation for using vague words such as “militant” and “activist” to describe terrorists is a supposedly high-minded adherence to professional neutrality. Reuters and others claim to be eschewing “emotive” or partisan language, instead confining coverage to specific, detailed descriptions of events and perpetrators.
But avoiding use of the word “terrorist” is actually imprecise and misleading. It is tantamount to taking sides — the terrorist's side.
The seizure, for instance, of more than 1,000 civilians in Beslan, many of them children, and their brutal incarceration for days without food and water, and then the slaughter of hundreds in an inferno of bombs and shooting, is not merely the work of “gunmen,” “militants,” “guerillas” or “insurgents.” While these might be the preferred, sanitized terms of the killers themselves, they do not accurately convey either the ghastly episode or the intent of the perpetrators.
Terrorizing a population through displays of extreme cruelty against non-combatants to achieve political gains was the aim of the hostage-takers. That is terrorism.
Terrorism in Beslan, like that inflicted in Bali or New York or Spain or Morocco, is a phenomenon that conforms to a very specific definition. To suggest the atrocities committed and those who perform them should not be identified for what they are denies readers and viewers essential information about the forces that shape the world in which we live.
But nowhere are the verbal gyrations and inconsistencies on the subject more apparent than in the heavily reported arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here, many media follow a relentless policy of interjecting softened synonyms for “terrorist.”
For instance, a Reuters story from June 6, 2004, reported on the sentencing of Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, convicted of terrorist activity by Israeli courts. The article stated that he “denied involvement in militant ambushes,” and noted that he was given a 20-year prison term for participating in a “terror group” — with scare quotes making clear this was Israel's term, not Reuters’.
The “militant ambush” referred to so briefly in the piece, in fact, entailed the terrorist killing of a Greek Orthodox monk with a bullet through the neck while he drove in a vehicle bearing Israeli licence plates. Other crimes by “militants” in which “revolt leader” Barghouti was implicated include the March 5, 2002, killings of three people in a Tel Aviv restaurant. A member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade sprayed gunfire into the street, threw grenades into a restaurant and then – once his ammunition ran out – began stabbing passersby with a knife. In addition to the dead, 30 were wounded.
The Barghouti piece is notable since it involves a man lauded by Palestinians and now tried and convicted by Israel. The language of the news report skews toward the word preferences of Barghouti and his followers, and against Israel. For Reuters' clients, including the National Post, correcting such language is simply a matter of good journalism.
In their efforts to circumvent reference to the “T-word” altogether, media outlets sometimes misrepresent quotes and statements from public figures. On April 20, 2004, for instance, a dispatch by the news agency led with: “Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged on Tuesday Israel would keep killing Palestinian militants after the assassination of two top Hamas leaders.”
Sharon did not, of course, pledge to continue hunting down “militants”; he said "we will fight terror and we will not let up on them." In muting the language, Reuters also changes the sense of the report to a degree. After all, an ongoing policy of “killing” terrorists is patently justifiable, while one devoted to “killing Palestinian militants” conjures up something different.
If Reuters, or any other wire service, routinely substitutes gentler, inexact language for statements such as these and for deeds manifestly those of a terrorist, by what logic should a newspaper using the agency's copy not edit back into stories more accurate language?
Wire services may feel the sanitized language helps their reporters in the field ingratiate themselves with the violent groups they are covering. But newspapers have a duty to their readers to give preference to truth over obfuscation.
Published on September 23, 2004 in National Post
© National Post 2004