UPDATED: September 27, 2004–Reuters: News Agency or PR Firm for Terrorists?

September 27 update follows.

Ever since 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.'” Stephen Jukes, Reuters Global Head of News), the news agency has zealously adhered to a policy of softening the face of terrorism.

Not all of its customers are happy about this. Reuters recently became embroiled in a dispute with CAN West Global Communications, publisher of 13 newspapers across Canada, over the newspaper’s substituting the word “terrorist” for “militant” in Reuters dispatches. Reuters’ managing editor David Schlesinger insisted that Can West either conform to Reuters’ guidelines banning the descriptor “terrorist” or remove the news wire’s byline. Reuters, Schlesinger made clear, cannot be perceived as offending terrorists lest its journalists be endangered in volatile areas.

Reuters has now gone even further in its indulgent policy toward terrorists. Reporting on the September 22, 2004 suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, the news agency not only avoided any pejorative reference to the suicide bomber who detonated herself to kill two Israelis and wound 17 more, it lavished sympathetic detail on her and her family.

Description of the terrorist attack itself was dry and unsympathetic, with no details about the victims. The only information Reuters provides about the Israelis murdered is that they were “border policemen.”

Unmentioned is the heroic action of two young border policemen in spotting the suspicious bomber and sacrificing their lives to prevent her entry past a checkpoint where she hoped to kill many more. Nor does Reuters note, for example, that Menashe Komemi, one victim, was the oldest of eight children, working as a waiter in a banquet hall while he served in the army to help support his family. Menashe’s father was unemployed, having undergone a kidney transplant three years earlier.

The other Israeli victim, Mamoya Tahio, immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 with his parents and six siblings. He enlisted in the Border Police after studying at Yeshivat Hadarom in Rehovot. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry Web site: “‘He wanted to end his service as a border policeman in peace,’ said his sister Matako, 21. Tahio’s father, Yosef, said that he had initially been opposed to his son’s serving in a dangerous area, but that Mamoya had insisted on it, saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’m doing this for my country. Everything will be all right.'”

But for Reuters the victims are simply military targets and the neighborhood where the attack took place is described as an “illegal settlement.” The suicide bomber is said to have approached “a security position near a hitch-hiking post used mostly by soldiers,” while the area of attack, French Hill, is described as having been “captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.” Another account contends that “Israel sees French Hill as a neighborhood of Jerusalem but it is widely viewed internationally as an illegal settlement built on occupied land.”

The terrorist, by contrast, merits descriptions of her beauty (“one witness described her as a ‘pretty Arab woman’), her clothing (“dressed in black and wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf”), her age (“18-year-old”), her family size (“she was one of 10 children”), her school status (“she had just passed her high school exams”), as well as an entire article focusing on the loss felt by her family.

Entitled “Bomber’s Stunned Family Has Little Time to Grieve,” Reuters reporter Atef Sa’ad emotively describes the stunned pain of a family that had “little time to absorb the shock” and their fear of “expecting Israeli bulldozers to soon come to demolish [their home].” We learn that the bomber was “a brown-eyed girl in a white headscarf and a slight smile,” that she had “spoken of entering university,”and that “she was from a family not known for connections to militants.” We learn that the bomber’s little brother was “in disbelief that his sister had died,” that her father was “recovering from surgery to open clogged arteries” and had “collapsed and was taken to hospital after learning of his daughter’s death,” that the mother too “passed out and was taken to hospital.”

But mostly we learn of the family’s alleged innocence (“family members said they had known nothing of Abu Salem’s plans for the attack”) and the possibility of reprisal by Israel (“Israel typically demolishes the homes of militants suspected of involvement in suicide bombings, a practice Palestinians condemn as collective punishment but which Israeli officials say deters future attacks.”) The article closes with a quote justifying the attack:

“Oppression is eveywhere,’ said her uncle Mustafa Shinawi, 55. “Every Palestinian finds his own suitable way to protest Israeli oppression.”

In its apparent attempt to mollify terrorists, Reuters grotesquely reverses the roles of victim and perpetrator. Israeli victims are presented as military targets and as mere statistics, with no humanizing details and no word about grieving families. The terrorist and her family are given extensive sympathetic coverage.

Reuters has progressed from erasing the term “terrorist” from its vocabulary to, in effect, erasing the realities of terrorism itself in its reporting. Perpetrators have become victims and victims the guilty party.

UPDATE September 26, 2004:  Reuters Editor Acknowledges Errors in Editing Process, Affirming Commitment to Balanced Reporting

Reuters is to be commended for its quick response to complaints and its acknowledgement of a lapse in editorial process.  Editor-in-chief Geert Linnebank promised that Reuters would reinforce its editing safeguards and reiterated that “Reuters is committed to the highest standards of balanced reporting.” His response is below:

Dear —,

Thank you for your e-mail. I have reviewed the Sept 22 story, titled Bomber’s Stunned Family Has Little Time To Grieve, to which your e-mail refers  and proper care was not taken in the editing of the copy. Reuters is committed to the highest standards of balanced reporting and I regret that this story did not meet those standards. We are reinforcing our editing safeguards.

Yours sincerely,

Geert Linnebank
Editor in Chief

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