When should we call an act of violence “terrorism” and when should we call a militant a “terrorist”?
Names and labels are something we take very seriously at Global Voices. From our editorial code: “Be aware of the labels you attach to individuals, people and groups. Question terms, names, photos or practices used in other media and by governments — only use labels that are in line with our code and values”.
Our editorial team launched a discussion about avoiding the use the terms terror, terrorism or terrorist, unless it was in a quote or attributed to a source, because of:
- lack of a universal definition for the term. Definitions that do exist are broad.
- abuse of the term. When the term is used, it is often politicized. For example, in the West the terms only seem to be used for Muslims. Governments also use them to criminalize dissenting opinions, such as in the case of Ethiopia's Zone9 bloggers.
- GV's editorial code, which states we should be careful with labels.
We agreed that “descriptions of actions are more powerful than adjectives”. And that we should be wary of playing into the hands of governments and groups that want to control narratives and perceptions through labels.
Following this discussion, one of our oldest contributors from Peru, Juan Arellano, expressed concern that the decision to not use the label was insulting to the memory of victims who died at the hands of terrorism. He gave the example of the Shining Path in Peru.
In this episode of GV Face we open up the discussion of labels, the politics of language especially around “terrorism” to the Global Voices community.
Juan Arellano is joined by GV's news editor Lauren Finch, Taisa Sganzerla, our Brazil editor, Lebanese blogger and MENA contributor Joey Ayoub, RunetEcho editor Kevin Rothrock and Elizabeth Rivera, our social media editor and Latin America contributor.
To start the discussion, we played a little game of word association with the term terrorist and the responses were: ISIS, violence against civilians, heart-wrenching, darkness, mass murder, fear-mongering, and politics.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
I asked Joey why he didn't use the term terrorism in his writing. His response (02:30- 3:10):
I am very uncomfortable with the word terrorism. And it is not that I don’t believe that it exists. It obviously does and the definition of terrorism is more or less straightforward. But it is used so often in such obviously dishonest ways, that it has lost all meaning for me. And it is not that the Paris attacks were not terrorism, they obviously were, they meet every definition of it. There are so many acts that are terrorism, but they will never be called terrorism, because of the political implications of doing so. It is a word that has lost it meaning, if it ever had one specifically.
Our news editor Lauren Finch explained how she dealt with the politics of language around terrorism while editing stories from different parts of the world(3:45-5:20):
The cases where it is a no-brainer that we are going to use the word terrorism or terrorist or terror attack is when it is an official charge or if it is a quote. Someone has been brought up on terror charges or a government official said ‘this was a terror attack, what happened yesterday’. What doesn’t quite make sense, especially for the GV community or audience, because we are so diverse, we are from all around the world, and it is really hard to take for granted some sort of common background knowledge between all of us from many different backgrounds and experiences, is “what terrorism is?” It differs depending on history and country and context. So it is hard to use it, out of the blue to call something a terrorist act without attributing it to something else because we don’t know what definition the author is going on. Is it the definition in Ethiopia? The definition in Peru? The different definitions used by three different government departments in the US? It is really hard to assume that we are all working with the same definition of terrorism, and they differ across the world. Some have to do with a political goal in mind. Some have to do with violation of human rights. Some have to do with threat of violence, not actual violence. Attribution is the key, at least when we are working with Global Voices authors.
Juan Arellano explained why he thought there was no need to use attributions while referring to the Shining Path as terrorists. He said (13:48- 14:30):
I lived through years of terrorism in Peru. I was never directly affected. But I read and watched the news as it was happening. So it was a close experience. I understand that there is an abuse of the term of the word. Environmental activists are mislabeled here as well. We are not strangers to the global conversation about terrorism. I want to talk about the Shining Path in Peru. There is no debate about why we call them terrorists.
And added [42:50- 43:30]:
Just yesterday this happened. There is a website in Peru run by expats, they published an article about the expulsion of a former terrorist Lori Berenson, a US citizen after serving her [terrorism] sentence. She was called an activist [in the headline] and this caused a lot of indignation amongst its readers. After that the website corrected the language and issued an apology.
I asked Elizabeth if she thought the use of the word was controversial. She said (17:38- 18:30)
I think the term is controversial for sure. Controversial in the present. And controversial to describe things what happened in the past. Again, it is all about politics, right? For example, in Chile, right now there is a controversy to use that term for the Mapuches, an indigenous community in the south of Chile, who are claiming rights of their land and autonomy. Sometimes the more extreme of the Mapuche go into the landowner houses and burn them. And many people call them terrorists. But there is a huge controversy about that. Are they defending their right? Or are they being terrorists? It depends on who you talk too.
Taisa added (37:40 – 38:40)
We should definitely be very careful using the word. Kevin raised an interesting point about how the word is emotionally-satisfying. It is politically charged, but it became a thing itself. People use it to express their rage. And we have to be careful, even as journalists, even as Global Voices, not to sound too detached, not to sound too hygienic, too careful. At the same time, we have to take into consideration the context, attribution I think is a good way.
After Lauren suggested that we apply the same diligence that we use with the term “treason” when using “terrorism,” Kevin agreed, adding (39:50 – 42:00):
It would weird to use a modifier on an individual or even organization to call them a “thief.” It would just be odd. You wouldn’t introduce a character like that in a story. It’s a strange pronoun or adjective. It’s probably best to stick with attribution, whatever some sort of formal body has identified them as, or if you are quoting people, they are going to be using terrorism left and right. Use some sort of qualifier. There is a trade-off there and the language could become sterilized and authors need to be mindful. They need to look at a text and when it is done, if it looks like a white paper or like a memo on an event and you are trying to connect with people. I am not saying, ‘throw in terrorist everywhere’. But that it might mean that you have distanced yourself too much from the piece. You are informing people but that it isn’t prohibition on being emotionally engaging.
Or using descriptions of violence? (I interrupted)
Sure. We are breaking it out to be that it is bold to use the term terrorism, but in reality it would be a lot more work to spell it out.