27 11 2015

Opposition, activists, insurgents, rebels, terrorists – it is all in the wording

Journalists know that how they express things is important for the message they convey. This is particularly the case when there is a war going on. They are expected to act responsibly and support the national war effort, of course without keeping silent about uncomfortable facts – that would be self-censorship. So it is difficult manoeuvring. Here is a quick guide on what to write and what not to write.

There are a lot of rebellions going on around the world, where insurgents combat incumbent governments. Colombia, Syria, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Ukraine, Congo, Egypt, Yemen, India …. - the list is long. How should these be reported upon?

Firstly, it has to be decided whether it is a just or an unjust rebellion, and even more importantly if we – the West – are supporting the rebels. So if they are good rebels, try not to call them rebels or insurgents. It may be misunderstood as if we are supporting something illicit and violent: blowing things up, attacking military or police posts etc. Instead, call them “opposition”, and if it can't be avoided, call them “opposition forces”. The word “activists” is even better – it conveys a message of something which is voluntary and peaceful. Don't call them “freedom fighters”, as ex-President Ronald Reagan called the Afghan “Mujaheddins” (the Taliban forerunners) and the Nicaraguan “Contras”. It sounds too engaged and naive, bordering to the ridiculous, particularly if they are involved in atrocities later on (as they tend to).

As we all know, the Libyan dictator, mad-man Gadaffi, was overthrown by activists, and we helped the activists by establishing not only a “no-fly” zone, but actually a “no-movement” zone, and thus stop the mad-man “slaughtering his own people”.


Libyan activists


If we don't support the rebels, then they should of course not be called activists. The term “rebels” is acceptable, but it could convey the idea of something just and reasonable. In the good old days, it would be enough to write “communist rebels” to link them to the Soviet evil empire, but with the Soviet Union gone that doesn't really cut it any more. It might even give them some romantic aura. Then call them “narco-rebels” instead, or simply “terrorist groups”.

Colombian Narco-rebels (FARC) cum terrorists


Then there is the useful term “opposition”. It conveys a certain image of respectability, even something peaceful. E.g. some mix of Sarkozy from France and Helle Thorning Smith from Denmark.

Opposition figures, Europe                                     ...And in Syria

And then to the “terrorists”.The good, the bad and the ugly.

The ugly: Islamic State, supported by ??                  The bad: Al Nusra Front”, supported by our allies


The good: Our friends from the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham – supported by the US, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.


The US has several times insisted that Russia should concentrate on the ugly guys from IS, and let the bad and the good in peace, but in vane. “Nearly 9 out of 10 airstrikes launched by the Russian military in Syria have hit so-called moderate rebels opposed to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, killing civilians as well as destroying hospitals and shelters in the process", a senior U.S. State Department official told lawmakers. This of course includes Al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other assets” in the country. If “moderate groups” sounds too ridiculous, then it is useful to refer to anti-Assad forces or “Non-Isis forces.

Then there are the Kurdish fighters from YPG. Technically, they are terrorists, as they are allied with the PKK, which is declared a terrorist organisation by us - the US and the EU. On the other hand, they are the only useful fighting force on the ground that the US has been able to identify to fight IS (as they dont't want to have anything to do with the Syrian army). So they are now our friends – even if our other friends in the Turkish Government hate them (and bomb them). Thread carefully, however: if you send 10 Euro to PKK you will in most European countries end up in prison as a terrorist supporter. Maybe you can send them to YPG without reprisals, but I would not be too sure.

Terrorists from Kurdish PKK                      ....And Freedom fighters from Kurdish YPG, allied with PKK


Then there is the question of how to describe the support that governments receive from abroad. If they are our friends, then it is best to describe it as help (the country) reform and strengthen its security forces....”. If they are our enemies, then it is better to say that country X is trying to “prop-up” this or that dictator. We all know that we in the West are supporting the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS by providing training, weapons and air support, while the Russians (and Iranians) are trying to prop-up the dictator Assad providing training, weapons and air support.

The word “moderate” is also good. It signals something peaceful, reasonable. So if a friendly government is not democratically elected, add the term “moderate”, as e.g. the moderate Arab countries, which normally refers among others to the Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Egypt and the different sultanates. This means that even if they are not democratic, they at least have some respectability (as opposed to the Governments of e.g. Syria, Iran and Gaza).

Finally some words on the right of rebellion and how it relates to “terrorism”. The right of rebellion against unjust rulers is an old concept in European philosophy, often ascribed to the English philosopher John Locke (but it can actually be traced back to both the Greek and the Romans). Rebellions can be peaceful, based on civil disobedience, or they can be violent (or often both). The choice depends mostly on the mood in the population and tactical considerations. When rebellions are armed, the question of terrorism arises. What are justified actions and what is terrorism? States tend to define any violent act against the state as terrorism, and in the wake of ex-president George W. Bush's declaration of “war on terror” a lot of countries have passed draconian anti-terror laws, where vague formulations imply that even civil disobedience can be prosecuted as terrorism.

In a stricter sense, terrorism means that fear / terror is used as a weapon. A brutal conquering army can sometimes successfully install so much fear that it induces capitulation amongst enemy populations, as e.g. Ghengis Khan's campaigns 800 years ago. Julius Caesar is (perhaps unjustly) famous for the phrase: “let them hate me, so long as they fear me”. Some insurgents have also used terror / fear with at least some initial success, even if it sounds contradictory, e.g. Sendero Luminoso in Peru, the “Contras“ in Nicaragua, several insurgent groups in Africa, and ISIS in Syria-Iraq. But it often backfires. Terrorism normally refers to violent acts directed at the civil population (e.g. placing carbombs in crowded places, mutilating and killing people seen as representatives of the government etc.), but will normally not refer to simple sabotage (e.g. blowing up power pylons). Insurgents who actually want to take over power have to weigh their actions against the reaction in the population they pretend to represent, so their violence is normally selective against the armed forces, police and often armed “self-defence” groups set up by the army. Most successful insurgents have rejected terrorism (but of course not violence). Selective assassination of Tyrants has a long history (e.g. Brutus killing his adoptive father Julius Cesar), but seldom leads to positive change, as e.g. the assassination of the Dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua in 1956, which simply resulted in his son taking over (even if some will argue that the assassination of the repressive prime minister Carrero Blanco in Spain in 1973 actually facilitated the post-Franco democratic transition).

In an interview with Ignacio Ramonet from Le Monde Diplomatique, the retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro, himself leader of a successful armed rebellion more than fifty years ago, was asked, when terrorism can be justified as part of a rebellion. His answer was a categoric: “never”. I tend to agree. Terrorism is sometimes explainable, but it is never justifiable. And on top of it, it is outright stupid.

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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