When journalists forget that murder
August 18, 2001
'It's not the words Israelis and Palestinians use about each
other that concern me. It's our submission to them'.
What on earth has happened to our reporting of the Middle East?
George Orwell would have loved a Reuters dispatch from the
West Bank city of Hebron last Wednesday. "Undercover Israeli
soldiers," the world's most famous news agency reported, "shot
dead a member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction yesterday in what
Palestinians called an assassination." The key phrase, of course,
was "what Palestinians called an assassination". Any sane
reader would conclude immediately that Imad Abu Sneiheh, who was
shot in the head, chest, stomach and legs by 10 bullets fired by
Israeli "agents" had been murdered, let alone assassinated.
But no. Reuters, like all the big agencies and television companies
reporting the tragedy of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, no longer
calls murder by its real name.
Back in the days of apartheid, no one minced their words when South
African death squads gunned down militant opponents. They talked
about murder and assassination. They still do when Latin American
killers murder their political opponents. I've yet to find a newspaper
which shrinks from reporting the "murder" or at
the least "assassination" of IRA or UDA gangsters
in Belfast. But not when the Israelis do the murdering. For when
Israelis kill, they do not murder or assassinate, according to Reuters
or CNN or the most recent convert to this flabby journalism,
the BBC. Israelis perpetrate something which is only "called"
an "assassination" by Palestinians. When Israelis are
involved, our moral compass our ability to report the truth dries
Over the years, even CNN began to realize that "terrorist"
used about only one set of antagonists was racist as well as biased.
When a television reporter used this word about the Palestinian
who so wickedly bombed the Jerusalem pizzeria last week, he was
roundly attacked by one of his colleagues for falling below journalistic
standards. Rightly so. But in reality our reporting is getting worse,
Editors around the world are requesting their journalists to be
ever softer, ever more mealy mouthed in their reporting of any incident
which might upset Israel. Which is why, of course, Israelis are
so often reported as being killed by Palestinians while Palestinians,
some as young as 10, are killed in "clashes" "clashes"
coming across as a form of natural disaster like an earthquake or
a flood, a tragedy without a culprit.
One sure way of spotting Israel's responsibility for a killing
is the word "crossfire". Mohamed el-Dura, the little Palestinian
boy shot dead by Israeli troops in Gaza last year, became an iconic
symbol of the Palestinian "intifada". Journalists investigating
the boy's death, including The Independent's Jerusalem correspondent
were in no doubt that the bullets which hit him were Israeli (albeit
that the soldiers involved may not have seen him). Yet after a bogus
Israeli military inquiry denounced in the Knesset by an Israeli
member of parliament, all the major Western picture agencies placed
captions on the photo for future subscribers. Yes, you've guessed
it, the captions said he was killed in "crossfire".
Wars have always produced their verbal trickeries, their antiseptic
phrases and hygienic metaphors, from "collateral damage"
to "degrading the enemy". The Palestinian-Israeli conflict
has produced a unique crop. The Israeli siege of a city has become
a "closure", the legal border between Israel and the occupied
territories has become the "seam line", collaborators
for the Israelis are "co-operators", Israeli-occupied
land has become "disputed", Jewish settlements built illegally
on Arab land have become "neighourhoods" nice, folksy
places which are invariably attacked by Palestinian "militants".
And when suicide bombers strike "terrorists" to the Israelis,
of course the Palestinians call them "martyrs". Oddest
of all is Israel's creepy expression for its own extrajudicial murders:
"targeted killings". If a dark humour exists in any of
this dangerous nonsense, I must admit that Israel has found a real
cracker in its expression for Palestinians who blow themselves to
bits while making bombs: they die, so the Israelis say, from "work
But it's not the words Israelis and Palestinians use about each
other that concern me. It's our journalistic submission to these
Just over a week ago, I wrote in The Independent that the
BBC had bowed to Israeli diplomatic pressure to drop the
word "assassination" for the murder of Palestinians in
favour of Israel's own weird expression, "targeted killings".
I was subsequently taken to task by Malcolm Downing, the BBC
assignments editor who decreed this new usage. I was one-sided,
biased and misleading, he said; the BBC merely regarded "assassination"
as a word that should apply to "high-ranking political or religious
But the most important aspect of Mr Downing's reply was his total
failure to make any reference to the point of my article the BBC's
specific recommended choice of words for Israel's murders: "targeted
attacks". The BBC didn't invent that phrase. The Israelis
I don't for a moment believe Mr Downing realises what he did. His
colleagues regard him as a professional friend. But he has to realise
that by telling his reporters to use "targeted killings",
he is perpetrating not only a journalistic error but a factual inaccuracy.
So far, 17 totally innocent civilians including two small children
have been killed in Israel's state-sponsored assassinations. So
the killings are at the least very badly targeted indeed. And I
can't help recalling that when the BBC's own Jill Dando was
so cruelly shot dead on her doorstep, there was no doubt that she
was killed by a man who had deliberately "targeted" her.
But that's not what the BBC said. They called it murder.
And it was.
Within the past week, CNN, the news agencies and the BBC
have all been chipping away at the truth once more. When the Jewish
settlement at Gilo was attacked by Palestinian gunmen at Beit Jalla,
it once more became a "Jewish neighbourhood" on "disputed"
land even though the land, far from being in "dispute",
legally belongs to the Palestinian people of Beit Jalla ("Gilo"
being the Hebrew for "Jalla"). But viewers and readers
were not told of this.
When the next state-sponsored assassination of a Palestinian Hamas
member took place, a television journalist BBC this
time was reduced to telling us that his killing was "regarded
by the Israelis as a targeted killing but which the Palestinians
regard as an assassination". You could see the problem. Deeply
troubled by the Israeli version, the BBC man had to "balance"
it with the Palestinian version, like a sports reporter unwilling
to blame either side for a foul.
So just watch out for the following key words about the Middle
East in television reporting over the next few days: "targeted
killings", "neighbourhood", "disputed",
"terrorist", "clash" and "crossfire".
Then ask yourself why they are being used. I'm all for truth about
both sides. I'm all for using the word "terrorism" providing
it's used about both sides' terrorists. I'm sick of hearing Palestinians
talking about men who blow kids to bits as "martyrs".
Murder is murder is murder. But where the lives of men and women
are concerned, must we be treated by television and agency reporters
to a commentary on the level of a football match?
Robert Fisk is Middle
East correspondent for the Independent
it Like It Isn't
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