Following deadly Islamist terror attacks against civilians in France, Libya and Nigeria in recent weeks, senior executives at two major news organizations have reportedly encouraged employees not to use the word “terrorists” to describe those who commit violence.
According to an internal email obtained by National Review Online, Al Jazeera English executive Carlos van Meek on Tuesday instructed the staff to also avoid “militant,” “Islamist” and “jihad."
Van Meek said the guidelines are "straight out of our style guide." Of the word “extremist,” he wrote: “Do not use. Avoid characterizing people. Often their actions do the work for the viewer. Could write ‘violent group’ if we’re reporting on Boko Haram agreeing to negotiate with the government. In other words, reporting on a violent group that’s in the news for a non-violent reason."
On “terrorism/terrorists,” he said: “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. We will not use these terms unless attributed to a source/person.”
For the word “Islamist,” the email stated in bold, "Do not use," then continued: “We will continue to describe groups and individuals, by talking about their previous actions and current aims to give viewers the context they require, rather than use a simplistic label.”
Van Meek said not to use "jihad," "militants," "radicals" or "insurgents": "We will stick with fighters."
On "jihad," he wrote, “Strictly speaking, jihad means an inner spiritual struggle, not a holy war. It is not by tradition a negative term. It also means the struggle to defend Islam against things challenging it.”
Van Meek said it was fine to use the singular term “militant” to describe individuals who use violence for political causes, and gave the examples of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
“But please note: we will not use it to describe a group of people, as in ‘militants’ or ‘militant groups’ etc.,” van Meek wrote, according to National Review Online.
The reported email comes after the head of the BBC’s Arabic service told a British newspaper that the men who attacked the Charlie Hebdo newspaper staff in Paris should not be described as “terrorists” on the airwaves of the British broadcasting service.
Tarik Kafala, the head of BBC Arabic, the U.K. Independent that the word “terrorist” was too “loaded."
“We try to avoid describing anyone as a terrorist or an act as being terrorist. What we try to do is to say that ‘two men killed 12 people in an attack on the office of a satirical magazine.’ That’s enough, we know what that means and what it is,” Kafala said. “Terrorism is such a loaded word. The U.N. has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can’t. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden."
Though he received criticism for his words, they do fall in line with BBC editorial guidelines, which say: “The word ‘terrorist’ itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should try to avoid the term, without attribution.”
“Our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom,” the BBC guidelines say.