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Thursday, 14 February 2008

When is a 'terrorist', a terrorist?

'ONE LESS TERRORIST, ONE MORE EUPHEMISM' cries the blog 'Biased BBC'. The author of the post, David Vance, is not happy about the BBC's decision not to describe Hizbollah leader, Imad Mughniyeh, as a 'terrorist' in a headline for an online article:
'Mughniyeh was a senior terrorist within Hezbollah, and his death has seen him eulogised him as a "jihadist" and as a "martyr" by those who hate Jews and Americans. This monster was involved in a series of bombings that took the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people. And yet, the BBC headline describes him as a "top Hizbollah leader."'
David Vance says this choice of language leads to inaccurate reporting and 'moral relativism'.

A comment on the blog post notes that later on in the article a spokesman for the US state department describes Mughniyeh as a "cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost".

One of the other problems with Vance's position is that accurate descriptions vary depending on where you are in the world and which side of the very long Middle-Eastern argument you are coming from.

In an interview with Al Jazeera television in October 2001, the British Prime Minister was reminded by the interviewer that:
‘Hizbollah, Jihad Islami, Hamas, other radical organisations based in Damascus in Syria…are considered freedom fighters’ while ‘they are considered by you [Tony Blair], maybe, or the Americans, as terrorists’.
The BBC sets out some of the thinking behind why it tries not to use the word 'terrorist' in its Editorial Guidelines:
'We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. The word "terrorist" itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should try to avoid the term, without attribution. We should let other people characterise while we report the facts as we know them.'
This position is backed up by academics view of the word terrorism. In her book, Mass Mediated Terrorism, Brigitte Nacos says that calling ‘an act of political violence terrorist is not merely to describe it but to judge it’ (p. 17).

It could be argued that calling Mughniyeh a terrorist is not merely descriptive but the sort of value-laden judgement that the BBC tries to avoid. (Though the process of description is itself usually a result of a series of judgements
, prejudices and selections).

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