Nepali Times
Here And There
Take it easy on the "T" word


It is surely long past time to end the silly debate-here and around the world-about the "T" word. Should we journalists use the words "terrorist or terrorism" when we report on insurgency, militant activity, violent attacks in civilian areas, the American campaign against Al Qaeada, or should we simply tell our readers, listeners and viewers what has happened and leave them to make the decision about terror?

My own policy, garnered from my employers of many years, the BBC World Service, hasn't changed. It is the latter-I say what has happened and leave the colourful and subjective judgements to others. To my mind, good journalism demands no less.

We in the world arm of the BBC were considered extremely suspect in the United Kingdom in the 1980s whenever we covered the quagmire known as Northern Ireland. The violent campaign to end British rule by the Irish Republican Army and others, was a clear-cut case of terrorism to many of my colleagues in other media, including the BBC's home news services. A bombing that killed civilians was "an outrage", an IRA appeal for peace talks or a denial of responsibility was "a bloodstained lie". The IRA were "terrorists"-no questions asked.

We begged to differ, not with the intense feelings of the people affected by violence in Northern Ireland, or the understandable loathing that victims and potential victims had for those who used bombs and bullets against democracy and civilians. It was the use of the words themselves, and the occasionally self-indulgent tones of newscasters and writers who let a bit of that hatred or anger creep into coverage that was supposed to be enlightening, comprehensive, neutral. I, for one, could think of nothing worse to contemplate than a bomb in a crowded area that killed civilians.

To call it an outrage was to miss the point. It was ignoring the tragedy of individual victims and their families. It covered up the reality that only negotiation and compromise could end such "outrages" once and for all.

In tragic, beleaguered Israel, an angry nation is lashing out at the western media for showing-it's widely believed-too much sympathy for Palestinians who tie explosives to their waists and detonate them in markets and buses, killing dozens and calling down the wrath of the security forces. So much pressure is put on reporters from other lands that one American TV network has taken to using the term "homicide bombers" instead of the more widely favoured "suicide bombers".

Yes, Israel is a victim of horrid violence, and suicide bombing is awful, unspeakable really, but by attacking terminology of media coverage, aren't we missing the point? Surely the priority is to end the practice once and for all, and in the end, that can only be through dialogue, compromise and efficient defence. Even President Bush's "war against terror" is ill served by sloppy terminology and rampant demonisation of the enemy. Again, an enemy that can be understood can be pre-empted and eventually beaten, especially in a case like this where compromise is out of the question.

And so we come to Nepal, where the Maoists-we read in 2001-were "officially declared terrorists" by the late, unlamented government of Sher Bahadeur Deuba. In those dark days of the state of emergency, a docile media followed suit. News stories spoke of "terrorists" being killed, with no attempt being made to probe into circumstances or even the identity of the so called "terrorist". Now, the media is much bolder and rarely uses the "T" word. In fact, reporters frequently ask ministers if the Maoists-who are being asked to restart peace talks-are indeed terrorists. Some say yes, some say no, in the way of this government.

Visiting dignitaries and diplomats also mix their terms, especially those from countries that provide military aid and sell arms to Nepal. Hard to justify a big arms deal or an aid package if the enemy isn't as evil as possible.
Using the "T" word eclipses the obvious, that peace talks and compromise are the only way out of the current, tragic reality of Nepal. Today's terrorist is tomorrow's political leader, as the scions of the Nepali congress, the UML and others no only too well. Let's take it easy on the "T"-word.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)