The murderous terrorist attack in Mumbai, India has shocked all decent human beings around the world. Armed men targeting civilians, taking hostages and shooting and murdering indiscriminately can only be described as an act of terror carried out by terrorists.
HonestReporting has long campaigned for the media to call terror by its name. Too many times, media outlets report on terrorist acts in Israel referring to “militants”, “activists” or any number of other descriptions, meticulously avoiding the “T” word.
“MILITANTS” & “GUNMEN”
We took a look at some of the initial media coverage of the Mumbai terror attack to see if the media is consistent with its terminology or if there are different rules for terror in Israel and terror elsewhere.
- The BBC, at least, was consistent in its refusal to break from its style guide. As per usual, the perpetrators were referred to as “militants” or “gunmen” who carried out an “attack”. However, some deviations managed to slip through. For example, an analysis by Sumantra Bose of the London School of Economics begins with the statement: “India’s cities are no strangers to indiscriminate terror attacks.” [emphasis added]
The BBC did try to correct its “errors” but perhaps the sheer scale of the events taking place may have strained even the BBC editors’ ability to downplay terror. In the example below, the same story featured on the BBC website started off headlined as “Terror tactic switch” and later changed to “Method amid madness”. This amendment, however, referred to “urban terrorism”, perhaps indicating a certain amount of confusion.
- Equally, The Guardian did its best to describe the terrorists as “militants”, although the “T” word was used in a number of places.
- Reuters also stuck with the term “militants”.
USING THE “T” WORD
- CNN and particularly Sky News freely employed the “T” word.
- The LA Times and New York Times both used the term “terrorist attacks” while The Daily Telegraph and even The Independent referred to “terrorists”.
- Others who used the term “terrorists” included the Associated Press, The Sunday Times, The Observer and The Scotsman.
MUMBAI “TERRORISTS”; PALESTINIAN “MILITANTS”
“Terrorism” is the correct term to describe politically motivated attacks that do not differentiate between civilian and military targets and are designed to create a sense of terror in the minds of the general public. The term has been correctly used
by much of the world media to describe attacks such as the September 11, Al-Qaeda attack on the United States, the London bombings, the Madrid train attacks, and many more.
Even the BBC used the word “terrorist” at the outset of the London bombings before embarrassingly removing it:
In the Middle East, it has been used to describe attacks within Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. However, within Israel, the terms “terrorism” and “terrorists” are often left out of media reports and replaced with “militants”, “gunmen” or even “activists”. This implies that attacks by groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are somehow different and perhaps justifiable.
For example, in March 2006, the AP demonstrated how it sees Palestinian terrorism as different to that of Al-Qaeda:
The issue is best summed up by The Jerusalem Post’s editorial:
even though this was clearly an assault against innocent civilians and exclusively against civilian targets – hospitals, hotels and a train station – why does much of the British media, including the BBC … label the killers “militants” instead of terrorists? Why does the The Guardian join Al-Jazeera in calling them “gunmen”?
This may sound like a marginal concern, but nomenclature matters: The primary, often only, target of terrorists are civilians. Anti-civilian warfare is a key tool of Muslim extremists. Terrorism is a cruelty that has become the scourge of modern civilization and changed the way we live. It has debased humanity.
The international community, together with responsible elements in the media, should show zero tolerance for the kind of depravity manifested in Mumbai.
And a vital step to confronting it effectively is to recognize terrorism and call it by its name.