Egyptian officials have kicked the habit of deploring foreign media reports whenever they hit a nerve with stories covering the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, political opposition, or criticism of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and human rights violations.
Recently, however, the State Information Service (SIS) picked up a more international debate: media coverage of militant terrorist attacks and the terminology used.
SIS President Diaa Rashwan has become one of the most active foreign media monitors, particularly in the aftermath of the attack on the Rawda mosque in North Sinai’s Bir al-Aebd, which killed over 300 people in November, and the police shootout that left at least 16 policemen killed a month earlier in Al-Wahat Al-Bahariya desert between Giza and Fayoum.
Commenting on the first incident in a recent press conference, Rashwan said that such killing of innocent people cannot be described as anything but terrorism.
There should be a clear distinction between political opposition and terrorist groups committing crimes against the people, according to Rashwan. Thus, he called on the media to “use the right terms” as he noted that foreign media did not use “terrorism” and “terrorists”, but rather “Islamist fighters” and “jihadists” while covering the attack.
But according to a Cairo-based western journalist, who did not want to be named, foreign media did not under-report the mosque attack in their coverage. The coverage came as no group claimed responsibility of the attack.
The Telegraph used “bloodiest terror attack”, “suspected ISIL fighters” and “terrorists” in their coverage. The BBC wrote, “militants have launched a bomb and gun attack.” Reuters used “gunmen” and “militants”, The Independent described it as a “terror attack”, and CNN used “mosque massacre.”
The term “jihadist” was used in some media to refer to extremist groups operating in the Sinai peninsula.
Defining and using “terrorism” and “terrorist” has been a difficult task for the media and international organisations.
Sayed Ghoneim, visiting scholar to NATO Defence College and international security adviser, explained when the terms “terrorists” or “militants” are used to refer to those involved in violence
According to him, “terrorists” are those participating within armed groups labelled as terrorist organisations, on international or regional levels, by several states.
Meanwhile, “militants”, or armed individuals, are those who were not proven to belong to labelled organisations. “It is usually the term media reports use during the early stages of incidents, before a group claims responsibility or there is enough evidence that the perpetrators belong to certain organisations,” Ghoneim told Daily News Egypt.
Not using “terrorism” in media to avoid politicisation
“I can imagine media not using the term at all,” said the Cairo-based western journalist, adding, “at the same time, avoiding calling the Islamic State group as ‘terrorists’ could be problematic because it is so clear that they use terror in their tactics; beheadings and brutal murders are key to their strategy. If we can’t call them terrorists, we probably can’t call anybody that.”
Yet, he highlighted that media should not blindly follow terrorist labels either, because it is an often-politicised term. He gave several examples, saying, “Palestinian freedom fighters, or terrorists, as Israel would call them? Turkey calls the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists, while a large part of people consider them defenders, even heroes”.
At the same time, legal definitions can also be untrustworthy as references for media, he argued, citing the Egyptian state’s vague and broad definitions of terrorist crimes. “Ultras groups, for instance, might be outlaws or criminals, but they are certainly not terrorists,” he stated.
He said that he personally generally avoids the term because he is aware it is used to dehumanise and frame political enemies, although he was in favour of describing the mosque attack as an act of terrorism.
When it comes to clashes with security forces, the journalist would rather use “militants” and “insurgents”.
Moreover, he noted the disparities when it comes to reporting killings by IS and a “white guy shooting people”.
He argued that Anders Breivik, for instance, the perpetrator of the 2011 Norway attacks, was a “terrorist” because he had a political motive and he did spread terror. “On the other hand, we don’t know what Stephen Paddock’s motive was,” he explained in reference to the 2017 Las Vegas shooter.
The BBC, which Rashwan criticised over its terminology, considers the words terrorists and terrorism as value judgement, thus would only use it when quoting someone.
“This should not mean that we avoid conveying the reality and horror of a particular act; rather we should consider how our use of language will affect our reputation for objective journalism,” says the BBC’s editorial guidance.
The Western journalist concluded that “there is no right or wrong but it also depends on how you define terrorism.”
Between picking out expressions and being biased
An internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism would be “armed operations against civilians accompanied by political goals,” according to media analyst Yasser Abdel Aziz.
“I believe many of the incidents which happened in Egypt fall under that category, yet they don’t get labelled as such,” Abdel Aziz told Daily News Egypt.
With regards to the mosque attack, he saw no doubts that it was an act of terrorism, despite unclaimed responsibility. “Its description as terrorism does not depend on who claimed responsibility, but rather, on the nature of the violent act again civilians, without differentiation, for political motives.”
The expert would use different terms if operations were not against civilians, such as Al-Wahat shootout, where he said using “terrorism” would not be the most accurate term.
While Abdel Aziz supported media’s right to abstain from using the terms of “terrorist” and “terrorism”, he nevertheless refused that armed groups in Sinai be called “rebels.”
“The term is an overestimation of reality, given that those groups do not enjoy popular support and no state or party publicly stands behind them,” he said.
Moreover, he doesn’t see equality in that abstinence. “I believe the complaint in Egypt is coming from media selectivity and double standards,” Abdel Aziz said.
The Las Vegas shooting sparked a debate on media selectivity, because it was not broadly labelled as an act of terrorism, despite reports that IS claimed responsibility—regardless of its authenticity. A Google search using the words “Las Vegas terrorism” would result in a series of articles raising the question.
An article on The New York Times in November titled “Manhattan Attack Is Called Terrorism. What About Vegas?” read, “many Americans are questioning the readiness with which lone Muslims are defined as terrorists, while lone non-Muslims are deemed mass shooters,” an inconsistency suggesting “a tendency to see Muslims as part of a hostile fifth column and white male killers as exceptions.”
“If the gunman was Muslim, would we be talking about Las Vegas ‘terrorism’?” read the headline of an article in The Washington Post, which conducted a research on how attacks are perceived according to several factors, including details about the perpetrator. “Results suggest media coverage profoundly shapes how the public comes to understand violent events,” it read.
When approaching the subject, the BBC said a key element of the definition of a terrorist would be whether the perpetrator of violence was not only attempting to cause mass harm, but trying to influence government, or further, a particular ideology.
Reconsidering current media guidelines?
In a TV statement following the Sinai mosque attack, Rashwan said that he does not think using the word “terrorism” should be left just to political or editorial judgements.
“We suggest using the official UN list of terrorist entities,” he said on Al-Nahar TV.
Rashwan spoke from a perspective Egypt has adopted in earlier instances, which is denouncing any independent information. The SIS was highly critical of Reuters and the BBC, when they reported dozens of policemen killed in Al-Wahat shootout.
When a delayed statement from the Ministry of Interior set the number at 16 and was picked up by international media, Rashwan claimed he had succeeded in making them fix their mistake. However, foreign media had used the number as part of their reporting and defended their right to publish different death toll numbers, according to their own independent, verified sources.
On the other hand, academic background can be found for part of Rashwan’s argument. “A Handbook for Journalists”, published by UNESCO in 2017, stated that new demands are imposed on the existing media given current circumstances of violence, intrusion of social network, terrorist groups’ abilities to produce their own media content directly to the public, and citizen journalism.
The paper pointed out that words are a source of controversy and that naming is not a neutral choice, but rather, to a certain extent, implies choosing a side.
“There are dozens of definitions for the word ‘terrorism’, which often emphasise specific points, reflecting a political or moral approach. For the media, as for the UN, the challenge is finding the most objective term,” explained the publication.
As such, it outlined some tips:
- Provide clear, precise, rapid, and responsible information
- Affirm the duty to inform
- To explain is not to justify
- Keep a critical distance
- Take into account the impact of information on dignity and security
- Be familiar with terrorism, counter-terrorism, laws
- Carefully navigate relations with authorities
- Control the “framing” of terrorism
- Be wary of unsupported theories, peremptory judgements and pre-held
- Evaluate anti-terrorism in the context of international human rights law
- Avoid fostering fear
- Adopt a pluralistic, balanced, and inclusive vision of information
- Consider terrorism, however targetted, as an attack against everyone
- Think globally and avoid “information nationalism”