14 January 2008

Terrorist Vs. Rebel: Who Decides and Why

VOA often gets queries from readers/listeners/viewers on a variety of topics. One that comes up regularly involves the word choices journalists make --- in this particular case, choosing to describe the PKK Kurdish group as “rebel” vs. “terrorist.”

Here is the original query, sent on 12/25/07 by Aykut:

“I wonder on what basis you designate PKK as rebels but not terrorists…Please make a search on your web site and find out who you call terrorists and explain to me how PKK is any different.”

Here are some excerpts from a recent VOA news story about talks in Washington between top US and Turkish officials http://www.voanews.com/english/2007-12-28-voa44.cfm in which the PKK played a role:

“…the talks are expected to focus on efforts to counter separatist rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The Turkish military has launched an offensive against the PKK in response to a series of deadly ambushes by PKK rebels in southeastern Turkey in recent months. A U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey Friday said the U.S., Turkey and Iraq have a common enemy in the PKK… The United States, Turkey and the European Union consider the PKK a terrorist organization.”

Note that the story does two things: first, it characterizes the PKK as “rebels” but, second, it also notes the US government, along with Turkey, consider it a “terrorist” organization.

In line with that, here are some excerpts from a recent VOA editorial http://www.voanews.com/uspolicy/2007-12-26-voa5.cfm that used the “T” word to characterize the PKK:

“U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Iraqi, Turkish, and U.S. authorities should work together to stop attacks from Iraq into Turkey by Kurdish terrorists known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK... President George W. Bush said the United States is committed to working closely with Turkey and Iraq to stop PKK terrorists.”

VOA editorials reflect the official views of the US government. But please note, these editorials are not written by VOA journalists and when used in broadcasts, they are segregated in a distinct bloc of programming to make clear they are NOT part of the news.

Why the difference? Here is how senior VOA Central News Division editor (and keeper of the official VOA Central News Stylebook) Don Benson addresses the rebel-vs-terrorist question:

“We (VOA journalists) try to keep in mind that one person's "terrorist" is another person's "freedom fighter," and that there often are political implications in how governments distinguish one group from another. As journalists, we try to be as objective and unbiased as possible. We do not check government terrorism lists to determine how we should identify any particular group in our news stories. However, in those stories we do often quote the government description, making sure we attribute carefully. Although rebel or opposition groups on occasion use violence to achieve their political goals, terrorism is most often defined as the intentional and specific targeting of civilians for violence. In our stories, we do use the term "terrorist group" to describe al-Qaida, which I think most people would agree is dedicated to the indiscriminate killing of innocents to achieve its goals.”

Since VOA also broadcasts in both Kurdish and Turkish, I checked with one of VOA’s senior language broadcast programmers to see how they handle this question. Here is what Taclan Suerdem, Managing Editor of the Near East and Central Asia Division, had to say:

“Both services [Kurdish and Turkish] use the original English terminology [from VOA central news stories and VOA editorials.] In other words, in translating [news] items they use "rebels" or "militants" or "members of PKK" and make sure to include the reference to the official US position regarding the PKK [i.e. characterizing it as terrorist]. ”Services also use the original language [from] editorials and call PKK "terrorist" if the editorial uses that kind of language.”

Taclan, a distinguished veteran journalist, tells us media outlets in Turkey “are under pressure” to call the PKK terrorist. He says “some voluntarily do that while others try to vary their use of "terrorists" or "rebels."” VOA’s Turkish service works with FM and TV affiliates in Turkey. Taclan says “so far, the affiliates have not raised any objections [to the use of “rebel” in VOA stories to describe the PKK] but the service has received a few calls and e-mails from individuals who protested the use of "rebels" instead of "terrorists."”

Most other major news organizations do what VOA News does: characterize the PKK as rebels or militants but also note some governments have labeled them a terrorist group.


Aykut said...

I still do not see how PKK and Al-Qaida are different? Is not an attempt to bomb the Istanbul metro a terrorist act? Is not it "indiscriminate killing of innocents to achieve its goals.”?

Anonymous said...

My neighbor, an Iraq war vet, told my family that while in Iraq he and his colleagues opened fire on civilian buses and vehicles, anything that they felt threatened by. He said he personally witnessed the killing of innocent Iraqis. Does that not make at least a portion of the American invasion of Iraq a terrorist act?

Anonymous said...

I think terrorism that nowadays emerge is caused treatment west side to Islam not fair.