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  • The BBC’s “rebels”

    by Sunny
    22nd May, 2006 at 12:09 pm    

    BBC News is back to calling the Tamil Tigers “rebels”. Let’s see, they’re designated in the USA and the UK as a terrorist group, but the T word does not come up once in the article despite quite clearly referring to the LTTE. Not amused.

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    Filed in: South Asia,Sri Lanka

    28 Comments below   |  

    Reactions: Twitter, blogs

    1. Ananthan — on 22nd May, 2006 at 12:38 pm  

      Don’t you think referring to one side as terrorists and the other as simply the government would convey a bias about this conflict?

      I like the use of the term rebels. The LTTE is a rebel group that uses terrorism to achieve its ends. Beginning and ending their definition with ‘terrorist’ is an oversimplification that unfairly generalizes a situation that’s anything but black and white.

    2. Jay Singh — on 22nd May, 2006 at 12:50 pm  


      You acknowledge that the LTTE uses terrorism to achieve its ends but baulk at having them referred to as terrorists. I find that hard to understand.

      Calling them terrorists, which is what they are, because their actions define them as such, is a simple factual description.

      Plus, there are Tamils who use peaceful and democratic means to address their grievances, so there is a non terrorist way for these issues to be resolved. So there is no ‘bias’ inherent in describing them as such.

    3. Jai — on 22nd May, 2006 at 12:50 pm  

      =>”The LTTE is a rebel group that uses terrorism to achieve its ends.”

      If one uses terrorism to achieve one’s ends then that makes one a terrorist. It really is black & white and as a simple as that.

      The ends never justify the means.

    4. Roger — on 22nd May, 2006 at 1:14 pm  

      In the Spanish Civil War they referred to Franco’s forces as “insurgents”. As Orwell said, it admitted they were rebelling but nade them sound respectable anyway.
      With The Tamil Tigers, the fact that they hold quite a bit of country makes them rather more than terrorists only: as far as I can tell, “terrorists” is used to describe those who cannot move openly anywhere in the country concerned, whereas rebels and other words are used for those who have bases.

    5. Ananthan — on 22nd May, 2006 at 1:39 pm  

      “Calling them terrorists, which is what they are, because their actions define them as such, is a simple factual description.”

      But terrorism is not the full sum of their actions. They fill other roles. As Roger said, they control significant areas in the north and east of the country. The term terrorist is narrow and pejorative.

      Terrorism is what defines them to the outside world and, clearly and unfortunately, it is something that is integral to their existence now. But I believe the BBC is being fair in terming them rebels because the true situation is that they are much more than ‘terrorists’ to the tamil people. I’m not saying the label is inaccuate, but it’s just not the full truth and using it as an identifier in a news article slants the entire context in the readers mind. Rebel is the more appropriate term.

    6. Vikrant — on 22nd May, 2006 at 1:43 pm  

      What so special… They refuse use the “T” word for Kashmiri jehadis, Iraqi jehadis, Taliban and host of other vermin. The only organisation i’ve seen them describe as terrorist is IRA.

    7. Jay Singh — on 22nd May, 2006 at 1:50 pm  


      So the BBC can say: They are terrorists who control large parts of the country and they also have other roles.

      But they are terrorists.

      I mean, in all seriousness, you complain of ‘slanting them’ in the readers mind, as if it is a bunch of innocent boy scouts who are being slandered. But they use pregnant women to carry out suicide bombings to slaughter dozens of innocent people going about their business. I don’t really care about how hard done by they are in that context.

      Call a spade a spade.

    8. Roger — on 22nd May, 2006 at 2:04 pm  

      The Tamil Tigers’ suicide bomb attacks are described as terrorist attacks by the BBC. The problem is they do a lot more than carry out terrorist attacks. I think that that is the distinction. They do not control large parts of the country because they are terrorists but because they have the support of many people and the acquiescence of many more. That is why they can carry out terrorist attacks.

    9. S — on 22nd May, 2006 at 3:56 pm  

      Surely the term terrosrist pertains to those who deliberately inflict civilian casualties for political ends- rather than accidentally or fecklessly inflict ciovilian casualties. Whether you have a large support base, or control territory does not make a difference. This is not a moral judgement as I’m sure you can still use military force whilst being absolute bastards without being terrorists.

    10. Sunny — on 22nd May, 2006 at 4:18 pm  

      Stephen - what about governments who do willingly inflict damage to civilians?

    11. Ananthan — on 22nd May, 2006 at 4:20 pm  

      “Call a spade a spade.”

      They’re terrorists, I never said otherwise. I’m not sure how I can express my point any more clearly. Try re-reading the article Sunny posted and replace every instance of ‘rebel(s)’ with ‘terrorist(s)’, do you see what i’m trying to get at?

    12. sonia — on 22nd May, 2006 at 4:20 pm  

      yeah, what about them?

      sounds like everyone’s starting to sound like a terrorist!

    13. Stephen — on 22nd May, 2006 at 4:28 pm  

      [Stephen - what about governments who do willingly inflict damage to civilians?]

      Well that is terrorism if the end is to attack civilians- one can think of the gas attacks on the Kurds which would certainly be both terrorism and maybe some other terms.

      Israeli attacks on say rocket positions that kill civilians would be feckless and war crimes imo — but not terrorism.

      As I say I am just making a semantic distinction not a moral one.

    14. Jay Singh — on 22nd May, 2006 at 4:30 pm  


      Yeah I did that and I don’t see what your point is or why you are bothered about them being described as terrorists. Call them ‘terrorists who control big areas of land and do other stuff too’.

      Calling them ‘rebels’ neuters the tactics they use. If you say that calling them terrorist slants and gives only one side of the picture, so does the use of ‘rebels’ as a way to describe them.

    15. Garry — on 22nd May, 2006 at 5:41 pm  

      I certainly wouldn’t dispute that the Tamil Tigers use terrorist tactics and that “terrorists” is one of the words which could be used to describe them but the BBC has always had difficulties using the word. (They did start using it quite a bit last year after the July bombing, not just for those attacks either, but that was unusual.) As I understand it, this is mostly due to the difficulties in finding a commonly agreed definition of the word.

      Here are a couple of semi-hypothetical examples.

      1. An al Qaida suicide bomber in Iraq targets a British army patrol with an IED. The attacks is not deliberately directed at civilians but several bystanders are killed including women and children. Is this terrorism?

      2. The US military targets al Qaida members in Pakistan with a missile. The attack is not deliberately directed at civilians but several bystanders are killed including women and children. Is this terrorism?

      You can make a judgement on these easily enough based on your political opinions but it’s much more difficult to construct a definition which’ll support your decisions and which can be consistently applied by others with different political views.

      If you start with “the deliberate killing of civilians” in your definition, you then include, for example, the US carpet bombing of North Vietnamese cities during the Vietnam war. Is this terrorism?

      That is, I think, why the BBC rarely uses the T word. It’s very difficult to define terrorism in a useful and generally accepted way. When I studied terrorism, this was something most people (myself included) struggled to come to terms with because it appears to be counter-intuitive. But it’s true enough.

    16. S — on 22nd May, 2006 at 6:15 pm  

      1. That single act could rightly be called insurgency. Al-quaida however frequently targets civilians and should be called terrorist.

      2. That is feckless but one assumes that was not the intention. You could call it a war crime.

      3- Vietnam carpet bombing. Here we have to argue about the intent. I am not enough of a historian to say whether this was primarily intended to terrorise the population or had other strategic intent. If the former then yes it is terrorism. Carpet bombing cities would these days be considered a war crime no matter the intention.

    17. Roger — on 22nd May, 2006 at 7:12 pm  

      “War with Zulus.
      Cause: the Zulus.
      Zulus exterminated.
      Peace with Zulus.”- ’1066 & All That’s summary of the Zulu war. The russians seem to be following a similar policy in chechnya. Does it count as terrorism or grand strategy?

    18. Ravi4 — on 22nd May, 2006 at 8:52 pm  

      Ananthan - I do feel some discomfort that contributors here might be downplaying the brutality of the SL Govt. And that they might take the democratic nature of the SL govt to imply that the SL Tamils don’t have a legitimate case for self determination. But I agree with those who say that we have to accept that the Tigers are terrorists - violent, militaristic and subject to the autocratic personal rule of Prabakharan and his clique. That’s not changed by the fact that they carry out certain governmental duties doesn’t change that. Osama bin Laden & AQ built roads, clinics, schools etc in Sudan and Afghanistan. That doesn’t change the fact that they are violent, murdering Jihadi terrorists.

      The definitional problem is a real one. But from what I’ve read I believe the deliberate targetting of civilians and noncombatants is near to being a consensus part of any definition. That goes for govts too - that’s why Bomber Harris’s WWII campaign against German cities is now called terror bombing. (Michael Walzer’s “Just and Unjust Wars” is quite good on that.)

      On the more general issue of BBC terminology, I made a similar point to Garry on the previous Sri Lanka thread. For some time the BBC has failed to term ANYBODY a terrorist, including the 7/7 suicide nutters, Islamic Jihad, Zarqarwi’s civilian slaughtering “resistance” etc, unless quoting somebody else. Putting this right was one of the major recommendations of a BBC Governors report of 2 May. See:


    19. Ravi4 — on 22nd May, 2006 at 9:37 pm  

      Terrorism has a kind of glamour to it, especially for certain young men. As does nihilistic violence more generally - see Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs/Cross of Iron/Pat Garrett and Billy the kid. I think this sick “glamour” driver for terrorism is neglected. But of course it’s not an excuse.


    20. Garry — on 23rd May, 2006 at 1:58 am  


      I pretty much agree with you. But.

      In 1, Bush certainly and Blair probably would call the single act terrorism, whether the person was a member of al Qaida or not. Similarly, the UK government always called IRA attacks against the UK military terrorism rather than insurgency. It’s a political disagreement.

      In 2, I agree. But others would argue that firing a missile into an area when you know it will cause civilian casualties is a terrorist act. Again, its a political disagreement.

      You may know that the second example actually happened a few months ago in Pakistan. Reports vary but the ST said five women and five children died. Not terrorism but probably a war crime as you say. Sadly, there’s absolutely no chance that anything’ll be done about it.

      In 3, there was a deliberate attempt to force the NV govt. to surrender by carpet bombing their cities. Deliberate targeting of civilians in order to promote a political objective, in other words. Those most keen on the “war” on terror would never accept that that was terrorism though. And they’d go nuts if the BBC called it that.

      Again, the point is that there is political disagreement over whether it was terrorism.

      As soon as the BBC starts using the word it has a duty to be consistent. In many cases its true that it is easy to spot terrorism, the Londom bombing indisputably were for example, but it becomes very difficult to draw the boundary lines of what is and what isn’t without making political judgements. That’s why, traditionally, the BBC have avoided using the T word as much as possible.

    21. Garry — on 23rd May, 2006 at 2:05 am  

      Sam -
      Interesting BBC report. I’d not read that.

      It says:
      We think they should call terrorist acts
      “terrorism” because that term is clear and well understood.

      My argument is that, no, it really isn’t, particulary in the margins.

      Using “the deliberate targetting of civilians and noncombatants” creates a different set of problems. Just before “Shock and Awe”, the US government attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. As a non-combatant deliberately targetted, this would be terrorism if we assume the definition above. But is it terrorism? Should the BBC refer to the failed attack as an act of terrorism and call the US government a terrorist organisation? What if Saddam had attempted to kill Bush? Same answers?

      It’s this sort of problem which makes the BBC wary of using the T word. I believe they’re right to be wary. They should, I believe, report the solid facts and let the viewer/reader/listener decide on whether to apply the term. It’s just not a judgement they ought to be making in my view.

    22. Sunny — on 23rd May, 2006 at 4:03 am  

      Hmmm…. some very good points made Garry (as usual). But surely one could argue that acts of violence by groups that are designated as terrorist organisations, could be called terrorist attacks, and their people be called terrorists?

    23. Ravi4 — on 23rd May, 2006 at 5:57 am  

      Garry - very good point about the nature of non-combattants. Are key leaders in the Command chain counted as non-combattants? If I remember Walzer’s book correctly, I’m sure he said something about munitions workers at their factories being legitimate targets. Do you know what the Geneva Conventions say? (can’t find them on the interweb right now)

      PS - it’s Ravi. “Sam” was a cut&paste error from my next post about the attraction of nihilistic violence etc and the role that plays in driving young male terrorists. (Although maybe I’d be better off modeling myself on a hard bitten seminal dead American film director if I want to keep my posts “edgy” and interesting…)

    24. Roger — on 23rd May, 2006 at 11:37 am  

      “munitions workers at their factories being legitimate targets. Do you know what the Geneva Conventions say?”
      Yes, munitions factories are legitimate targets. Equally, if a munitions factory is surrounded by civilian housing it is the government that allowed the munitions factory to be there that is responsible if civilians die in attempts to destroy it.
      There is a lot of debate about proportionality, however. One British justification for carpet terror bombing in WWII [apart from the fact that they couldn't do any other kind] was that Germany was a militaristic state dedicated to war and that every dead civilian meant fewer weapons made. They were wrong however; ironically that argument could have been better used to justify attacks on Britain. Another- similar to the July 7th bombers’ self-justification- was that the German people could stop the bombing by overthrowing the nazi government. The USA used similar arguments to justify their bombing of Japanese cities. At the time both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were considered legitimate targets- an army HQ and a naval base respectively with large numbers of military personnel. Given the behaviour of Japanese civilians during the invasion of Okinawa every Japanes, regardless of sex or age, was regarded as an active enemy combatant.
      The current interpretations include proportionality and ability to deliver as important elements. Thus, if twenty civilians are killed to kill one senior enemy or ten junior ones it is less justified than if only one civilian is killed. There comes a point where the disproportion is so great as to remove the justification. Where that point is depends on who is doing the justifying. Equally- the argument used to excuse Palestinian rocket and bomb attacks- the fact that the Palestinains don’t have the precise weapons the Israelis do means that they are permitted- by their apologists- more imprecision in their targets.
      Leaders are justified targets- the British had no hesitation about killing Heydrich. That’s a fairly recent development though I think- at Waterloo Wellington forbade an artillery battery from firing at Buonaparte.

    25. Ismaeel — on 23rd May, 2006 at 12:13 pm  

      What i am worried about in this discussion is no-one picking up on Sunny’s insistance that because certain countries designate a group as terrorist therefore everyone else should. I’m not defending the LTTE or anyone else who attacks civilians, but i question the fuzzy logic that because certain states which are hardly whiter than white when it comes to recklessly inflicting civilian casulties on numerous countries designate a group as terrorist everyone should get in line and follow that designation unquestioningly.

    26. Garry — on 23rd May, 2006 at 3:42 pm  

      Apologies Ravi. I was slightly confused by that.

      The ICRC summarises the position of the Geneva Convention:
      The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property. Neither the civilian population as a whole nor individual civilians may be attacked.

      Attacks may be made solely against military objectives….

      It is forbidden to use weapons or methods of warfare that are likely to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering.

      The problem, as always, is with interpretation. Is a munitions factory staffed by civilians a legitimate military objective? The consensus on that is generally that it is.

      As to what constitutes “unnecessary losses or excessive suffering” that’s very difficult to say. I agree with Roger on that - it “depends on who is doing the justifying”. For example, Palestinians might (I believe some do) argue that suicide bomb attack against Israeli citizens are not excessive given that Israel occupies their territory and Israel, with its conscription rules, is a fully militarised society. Most people would disagree however.

      (On Roger’s last point, I’d have to double check but I think the deliberate targetting of political leaders is explicitly not allowed under one of the conventions.)

    27. Garry — on 23rd May, 2006 at 4:01 pm  

      Sunny, it could be done. But for the BBC, this will involve taking a political view so I just don’t think they need or should do it. As I say, terrorism is often obvious but there are many grey areas. The question is, who gets to designate terrorist groups. I wouldn’t be happy with the BBC adopting the UK government line as a matter of course. There are too many political issues involved.

      For example, in the run up to the Iraq war, accusations of Saddam’s support for terrorism were bandied about in an effort to build support for the invasion. For the BBC, this sort of thing is a potential minefield. If they adopt the UK government view, they could end up being mouthpieces for the government.

      To take another example, Cuban dissidents who hijack planes in order to escape to the US have generally been welcomed and supported by the US government, not branded terrorists and sent back to Castro. They have committed “terrorist acts” but US government’s, Democrat and Republican, have generally taken the view that they’re on “our side” against a greater evil so these “terrorist acts” are acceptable. (The irony there, of course, is that this is exactly the sort of justification al Qaida loons use too.)

    28. Roger — on 23rd May, 2006 at 6:28 pm  

      “Cuban dissidents who hijack planes in order to escape to the US have generally been welcomed and supported by the US government, not branded terrorists and sent back to Castro.”
      That is probably for similar reasons to the Afghan hijackers who were acquitted by the Court of Appeal: if someone can show that no other method of escape is possible and they were faced with the threat of imminent violence they are justified in committing lesser crimes- like hijacking an airliner- in order to escape.

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