Newspapers are supposed to report the news, not be the news. Yet we became the story yesterday when CBC 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 Ball 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 Fallu-jah 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.
OTTAWA CITIZEN September 18, 2004