Wednesday, August 07, 2013

7-Aug-13: Political prisoners, political media

We make no secret of our fury about the announced release from Israeli prisons of convicted Palestinian Arab terrorists and assorted other killers. In agreeing last month to free about a hundred of them, the Netanyahu government (which freed 1,027 other terrorists in 2011) has done something unconscionable and misconceived, something that is opposed by the vast majority of Israelis and by many observers from beyond. It will come, we believe, to be recognized as a cause of sorrow for generations to come. 

But leaving aside for now the bitter criticism of the Israeli decision-makers, what can be learned from the way certain editors and journalists in the mainstream media are spinning the Israeli decision? And the Arab responses to it?

First, consider how there is a long tradition in some quarters of calling certain people 'terrorists' when their victims are from the home team i.e. the kind of people whom that newspaper or that television network considers to be its own audience. At the same time, those bombers and stabbers and shooters whose victims are perceived as distant, different, "not one of us", tend to be called something milder, not 'terrorist' -- something less. 

The BBC, famously, refuses to use the word "terrorist" except under very specific circumstances. It has a formal policy document [here] that explains the rules. Extract:
Use of Language | 11.4.5 We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. Terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones and care is required in the use of language that carries value judgements.  We try to avoid the use of the term "terrorist" without attribution. When we do use the term we should strive to do so with consistency in the stories we report across all our services and in a way that does not undermine our reputation for objectivity and accuracy. The word "terrorist" itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding... We should not adopt other people's language as our own; 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." [BBC Editorial Guideline: Language when Reporting Terrorism]
And so on. Most of the time, they stick to it, except when they don't.

When a British serviceman was hacked to death in front of cameras and a horrified crowd in the London neighbourhood of Woolwich in May 2013, most people understood what it meant. The alleged killers explained themselves fairly clearly: "You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don't care about you... Allah Akbar", and so on. In the heat, passion and fury of the initial reporting, the BBC report was headlined "Man dead in suspected Woolwich terror attack". You can see that headline here in a screenshot of a Google search we carried out a few minutes ago:

If you click on that headline, you will get to the article without any problem. But now that the passions have cooled and the killers are in remand, the headline has been modified to a terrorism-free version: "Woolwich machete attack leaves man dead". If it was originally terrorism, now it's not. (Unless you go to this BBC article, published that same day, where the headline was, and remains, "Man dead in suspected Woolwich terror attack".)

Naturally, when the attack is on Londoners, those guidelines of the London-based BBC, most of whose employees live and work in London, take a backseat. This is understandable and right:

From the BBC website, June 2007
They could have reported on the attack by referring to activistsmilitantsoperatives and a host of other euphemisms. But it felt like terror, and terror is what they called it, with justification.

Here's another way in which it matters how well you understand and recognize terrorism when it's right there in your face. It's based on a report ["What is Ft. Hood killer? A terrorist"] in the Chicago Sun-Times from earlier this week. A US army psychiatrist, Nidal Malik Hasan, shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he opened fire on unarmed fellow military personnel at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, killing 13 people and wounding 32. He's about to go on trial:
Against all evidence and common sense, Hasan stands accused of “workplace violence”. That’s right, workplace violence — not terrorism or “combat related” murder. It’s but one of the parade of embarrassments surrounding the handling of this case. The workplace designation by the Defense Department and the Army means the military victims have been denied Purple Hearts and survivors have lower priority access to medical care and a lower level of financial benefits than available for combat-related injuries. But Hasan, an Army Medical Corps officer, has been able to collect more than $300,000 in pay since the Nov. 5, 2009, attack.Someone might argue that the shootings can’t be classified as terrorism since the targets were soldiers undergoing final medical checks before deployment to the war zone. But that ignores the two civilians shot, one a physician assistant killed and the other a police officer wounded. And the soldiers were unarmed and far from any war zone. Clearly, terrorism is a reasonable description of Hasan’s crime.Hasan asserted the preposterous defense that he killed the Americans to protect the lives of the Taliban. I suppose a designation of the shootings as “combat related” could conceivably open the way for a defense that Hasan was fighting in a war and thus he should not be criminally charged with murder. Even if you accept that — and I think it’s a stretch given, again, that the military personnel he attacked were unarmed — he’s certainly guilty of being a traitor. [Chicago Sun-Times]
We know from up close in our own lives how this double-standard approach works. 

The attack on a restaurant in the center of Israel's capital city that cost the life of our daughter Malki and of fourteen other innocent people was certainly an act of terrorism. No soldiers were targeted or hurt. No strategic goals were pursued other than to destroy a restaurant filled with children on a hot summer holiday afternoon. Those who did it are terrorists. There should be no doubt in any reasonable person's mind of that.

But when the woman convicted of planning the attack and of delivering the bomb to the restaurant's front door, Ahlam Tamimi, was freed from an Israeli prison two summers ago, despite the sixteen terms of life imprisonment to which she had been sentenced, parts of the media found quite different ways to describe her. Tamimi has been called a political prisoner and a heroine. In The Guardian, Harriet Sherwood wrote a sympathetic and factually-challenged account, based mostly on input from the killer's brother. Terrorism-friendly sources in the Palestinian Arab sphere continue to refer to her in glowing terms, perhaps influenced by the award given to her by the Mahmoud Abbas regime, the Al-Quds Mark of Honor, reckoned to be the PLO’s highest medal. 

Abdullah Barghouti, convicted of 66 acts of murder, is in prison for multiple life-terms and volubly proud of himself. What he did was "to kill as many Israelis as possible... I do not accept responsibility for their deaths... I feel bad because the number is only 66." These are direct quotations from the man. Now Barghouti is on a hunger strike as we write this. This has served to encourage a fresh round of editors and reporters unbelievably calling him a political prisoner. (Today's news, almost identical with a report from six weeks ago, is that he is 'dangerously' close to 'possible death'.)

In the Facebook world, reality is what you want it to be. Small surprise then that both Abdullah Barghouti and Ahlam Tamimi have busy sites there, pandering to those who regard them as freedom fighters, political prisoners and so on. (See "25-Jun-13: Dogs, psychopaths and the Internet".)

The good people at Honest Reporting have written today about the special role played in this shabby display of journalistic silliness played by the UK's The Independent. They note, first, that the mainstream media have closely covered the last Israeli decision to free the Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences for violent crimes. At The Independent, the paper's management "distinguished itself as the only publication to refer to them as “political prisoners” in its headline (which has since been changed). One reader complained to the publication about the improper usage of the term". She received the following response from Will Gore, the paper’s Deputy Managing Editor, and Honest Reporting published it. It's special - in the worst sense of the word.
While I do not dispute what you say about the seriousness of the crimes committed by those due to be released, I do not agree with you that the phrase ‘political prisoners’ is inaccurate.  There is no doubt that the actions of a great many of the individuals in question, however appalling, were motivated by what can be referred to as political aims.  You will be aware that there is no set definition of ‘political prisoner’ and that, for instance, the definition used by Amnesty International includes “any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the act in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities”.  Even putting the motivation of the crimes to one side, very evidently the prisoners are currently a bargaining chip in a wider political game, their release a matter of politics, not simply of legal process.We set out clearly in the article why the prisoner issue is so controversial and we listed the crimes committed by some of those who are to be set free.  I do not believe our coverage of this issue has been misleading, either in its words or the accompanying pictures. [Honest Reporting, quoting The Independent's Deputy Managing Editor]
The Honest Reporting people then note:
If Independent editors refuse to refer to any Palestinian as a terrorist, is it really a surprise that they will try to defend their reference to a murderer as a political prisoner? The Independent continues to give the Palestinians a free pass for their violent behavior. Even if Palestinians kill, it’s their motivation that defines them, not their actions. So it seems the Independent might have its own political motivations.
So then who, by the lights of The Independent's values, is a terrorist? Ah. that's easy. Someone who attacks good English citizens.
Woolwich attack: Terror suspect Michael Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya on suspicion of being at centre of al-Qa'ida-inspired plot | IoS exclusive: Terror suspect was among group arrested in Kenya en route to Somalia two years ago. Family say torture there ‘pushed him over the edge’ [Headline in The Independent, May 26, 2013]

No suggestion, naturally, that the machete-wielder may have been political. But we can understand that.

Back in 2007, when writing about the terror attacks in London and Glasgow ["30-Jun-07: Britain at war"], we offered this unrequested advice:
To the BBC bravo for using the right word in tonight's headlines: "UK terror threat now critical". Your absurd and self-serving guidelines have for years provided you with cover for distorted and dishonest coverage of what we Israelis endure at the hands of the haters. Those guidelines say: "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 is rubbish - something with which you plainly agree, at least when it comes to attacks on your homes. And rightly so. Please do stick with the use of the word "terrror" and "terrorists" when the facts support it and you will be doing your compatriots and tax-paying owners a large favour. This is not about militants in London or activists in Glasgow. War has been declared on you by the agents of terror. They know it and you know it. Terror is the right word - over there in the UK, over here in Israel, and everywhere else that the terrorists and their protagonists (a very, very large class) are to be found.
Exactly seven years ago almost to the day, we closed off a blog entry ["10-Aug-06: Reacting to a "Thwarted" Terrorist Plot That Remains "Imminent"] with these words. To us, they are as important and true now as then: 
"The war against the terrorists is a real war, as real as the Battle of Britain was, as real as the Hezbollah War is, as real as the Arafat War (some call it the Second Intifada) is. In war, you do what you need to do to win. When it is not happening to you, you can engage in silly rhetoric and superficial phraseology. When it is happening to you, your children, your home, your society, you do what you need to do. The terrorists understand that better than the rest of us."

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