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T is for Freedom Fighter

It's worthwhile to re-examine recent criticism of the ABC style guidelines in light of “what the British Government calls” the London terror attacks.

During the coverage of those attacks the Australian ABC adhered rigorously to its policy of not using the word "Terrorist" to describe the perpetrators. This must have been agonisingly difficult for them when most of the world's media had already started to use the "T" word. On its website the ABC began by calling the incident 'a suspected militant attack', a phrase which jarrs, evoking an image of some middle eastern incident.

By the following morning they had dropped the word "militant" altogether using the phrase: "The London Bomb attack" leaving no impression whatsoever of a connection to the Middle East.

So what IS wrong with the policy of avoiding the “T” word? The ABC official Style Guide, the booklet which sets out the organisation’s attitude to good journalism explains:

Facsimile of style guide
Remember, one person’s ‘terrorist’ is usually someone else’s ‘freedom fighter’. ‘Terrorism’, ‘terrorist’, ‘militant’, ‘gunman’, etc. are all labels. Our reports should rely first on facts, and clear descriptions of events, rather than labels that may seem too extreme or too soft, depending on your point of view.
When reporting a conflict, such as in the Middle East, we avoid partisanship, or the perception of it, by not adopting for ourselves the preferred labels of one side or the other - instead confining their use mostly to when giving one side's assessment of the other (e.g. 'what the Israeli Government calls a terrorist cell')...

This instruction is of concern for the following reasons:

  1. To say that a terrorist might be a freedom fighter is political - pure ideology, not a statement about good writing style. To place this in the context of a style guide allows the camouflage of the ABC's ideolology. There maybe some good stylistic reasons to use an alternative to the "T" word, but the Freedom Fighter reason is not one of them.
  2. The style guide appears to single out the Israel / Palestine conflict as the main arena in the world where “terrorist” is meaningless. Notice also that it is only the Israeli’s use of language which is being rejected. There is no injunction here to beware of Palestinian use of language.
  3. The example given: "... what the Israeli government calls a terrorist cell ..." singles out Israel as a misuser of the T word. But there is no mention of the IRA, ETA or Chechnya in relation to misuse of the "T" word.

    Of course the ABC would argue that "Israel" was simply being used as an example, and nothing should be read into this choice. But the ABC always seems to be treading on the toes of the Jewish community, and assiduously avoids offending the (larger) Muslim community. Is the Jewish community being oversensitive when they see Israel consistently held up for higher scrutiny that its neighbours?
  4. The style guide provides instruction to neophytes in the journalist trade and is the first port of call for every budding journalist. The material will affect journalists’ attitudes throughout their careers. Notice the condescending use of the opening word "Remember,". It amounts to a form of indoctrination for young journalists.
  5. Imbalance itself is enshrined within this guideline. Were it balanced it would be accompanied by an equivalent instruction to avoid the use of ‘freedom fighter’ because one person’s freedom fighter is someone else’s terrorist.
  6. Terrorists themselves don’t use the term “freedom fighter” to describe themselves. For example on 20 June 2005 Wafa Al-Bas, [a woman who was caught while en route a suicide bombing] explained to reporters why she carried out the [attempted] act:
    I love Allah, I love the land of Palestine and I am a member of Al-Aksa Brigades... my dream was to be a martyr. I believe in death... Since I was a little girl I wanted to carry out an attack.
    Al-Basr's statement is typical. Perhaps some of her supporters would like her to be a freedom fighter. But by and large people who target civilians, particularly school children see themselves as mighty and ruthless warriors, martyrs, but not freedom fighters. The fact is that these activities have more to do with power than with freedom.
  7. It insults the memories of genuine freedom fighters to associate them with violence against civilians on issues of sovereignty. Today’s terrorists are protesting directly against sovereign powers for “who they are”, not so much for “what they are doing”.

The real logic behind this directive – from ABC Editor-in-chief Russell Balding’s statements in the Senate – is that calling certain groups ‘terrorists’ offends some in the community. Having this statement as the cornerstone of the ABC Style Guide on terrorism is equally offensive to other groups in the community. Why base a policy on who might take offence? Whose sensibilities are being protected? Rather, the ABC’s “fiercely” independent attitude ought to dictate that terrorists may be labelled as such where their actions target civilians irrespective of who gets offended.

There is no argument about the need for the Style Guide to instruct up and coming journalists against labeling. Just as a journalist takes care in labelling a regime ‘democratic’ - remembering that every country is democratic according to its leaders - so should a journalist take care in labelling someone a ‘terrorist’. Equally it is unwarranted to omit usage of an English word from the news and current affairs because some sections of the community could be offended.

The ABC has tried to turn the definition of terrorism into a matter of opinion. But 'terrorist' is not simply an abusive phrase combatants hurl at each other, as the ABC implies, but a tactic, the deliberate targeting of civilians.

The Style Guide entry on Terrorism needs to be removed and re-written.

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