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The BBC got quite a bit of criticism for not referring to Hamas as terrorists, and they apparently caved in.

But I see the Voice of America, which is just as tightly if not more so coupled with the US government as the BBC is to the UK one, cover the "local militant group — affiliated with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade [...]" in a piece that use the "militant" word numerous times, but never "terrorism" or "terrorist". It doesn't even mention that

The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades is a coalition of Palestinian armed groups in the West Bank. The organization has been designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States

What's up with that? Why is VOA using such language, and why is it apparently not getting the same level of flak as the BBC? (Yeah, I get it, that group unlike Hamas didn't kill thousands recently, but is there any other difference?)

N.B. some comments (and answers) have correctly pointed out that's a syndicated piece (from AP). But there are others with bylines apparently from VoA staff where they do the same, e.g. story from 2017 that talks about both Fatah and Hamas (about the latter it mentions "armed militias, including its own military wing", but the word[s] "terrorism" or "terrorist" never appear in the piece), etc. A lot of the older stories with the same word pattern don't carry any byline, e.g. one from 2009 so it's hard to tell if they had been syndicated or not. Searching the full 1st sentence from that one on Google only returns the VoA site, so I suspect that one wasn't syndicated.

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7 Answers 7

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In realpolitik, dictionary meanings are unimportant. The label "terrorist" is more often applied to a most-disliked enemy, rather than to one who use terror tactics the most.

The key enemy of the US in the Middle East is, at this moment, Hamas. Anyone not aligned with Hamas, even if they have the exact same goals and methods, is a potential asset - an "enemy of my enemy".

This has happened before. The Mujahideen were considered freedom fighters in the 1980s, but terrorists in the 2000s. Cuba is designated a "state sponsor of terrorism", but Saudi Arabia is not. When ISIS rose up in the Middle East, terrorist groups not aligned with them got downgraded to "militants" or "rebels".

Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is aligned with Fatah, not Hamas. Even though Fatah and Hamas aren't enemies, the most realistic peace plan right now is through Fatah. It's not a good idea to demonize a group you might have to sell as "the good guys" sometime soon.

When Hamas is defeated, if these groups are no longer needed, the wording might change again.

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  • 2
    It may sometimes be a matter of expedience whether to refer to groups that unlawfully employ violence and intimidation against non-combatants to achieve their political aims as "terrorists". However, it must not be overlooked that groups that do not employ such tactics do not satisfy the definition of "terrorist", and ar rarely, if ever, referred to as such. The word does mean more than just "most-disliked enemy". Nov 27, 2023 at 4:35
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    @JohnBollinger I am generalizing to some extent. Every real media outlet lies somewhere between idealism and realpolitik. On the idealist end, you'd apply a scientific standard of evidence to everything, but then many great stories that peoples' national pride rests upon would fall apart. On the cynical end, allies are always good and enemies most vile, but then the notion of "truth" loses all meaning. Everyone picks a point in between.
    – Therac
    Nov 27, 2023 at 4:47
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    Going back 50 years, the term "communist" was used by the USA in exactly the same way as they now use "terrorist". Having a catch-all "bad guy" name helps sell whatever the politician is currently pushing, whether it's accurate or not isn't that important as long as it's recognisable.
    – DBS
    Nov 27, 2023 at 11:15
  • 1
    I'm accepting Will's answer, not because his one is any worse, but because he's a new user and needs more rep, while this answer has plenty of upvotes. Nov 28, 2023 at 3:44
  • “The term "terrorist" is more often applied to a most-disliked enemy, rather than to one that uses terror tactics.” I don’t think that is true at all. I cannot think of an use of the word to mean anything particularly different than its dictionary definition: someone who attempts to influence a political process by violence against noncombatants. Once in a while, it’s used to include attacks on legitimate targets (like the Pentagon in 2001) by unlawful combatants, and even more rarely, by attacks on civilians by legitimate military, but those are both arguably correct. Nov 29, 2023 at 21:35
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I think the odd one here is actually the BBC (or actually the UK government) and not VOA. Both the US and the UK have very high standards of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Both the BBC and VOA are independent news agencies. They may get their financing from their government but they don't officially represent the views of their respective governments.

Hence one would expect that it is none of their governments concern how they designate any specific group. That should be a decision up to the news organisation. This appears to be the case for VOA and used to be the case of the BBC apparently until a few days ago. The BBC also had some news pieces where they explained why they made the (controversional) choices they made. Now it seems the UK government pressured the BBC into naming these organisations the way the UK government deems appropriate.

Edit: A little more research. First, there is no official pressure from the UK government. Various politicians publically voiced their disapproval but that doesn't have any direct legal weight. The BBC themselves explained that after talking to some Jewish organization they will stop using the word militants when referring to Hamas. They still don't call them terrorists. It seems they just write Hamas directly whenever they are mentioned. There are also whistle blower reports that the UK government regularly tries to pressure the BBC into presenting news in specific ways.

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    Agree. Apparently the media in the US is also asked to "respect" US State Department advisories to US diplomats. A recent advisory recommends that the term "de-escalation/ceasefire,” “restoring calm,” and “end to violence/bloodshed” should be avoided when referring to the conflict in Gaza strip.
    – sfxedit
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:30
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    Do you have any reference to back up "the UK government pressured the BBC"? The financial times article linked in the question mentions criticism from UK politicians, but about a bombing, not the naming. But even mere criticism from politicians is arguably far too low of a bar to be referred to as "being pressured by the government" (at least in the age when everyone is on social media criticising everything all the time).
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 26, 2023 at 23:23
  • @NotThatGuy The FT article is unfortunately behind a paywall for me. I just scrolled through a bunch of recent BBC coverage of the war and as far as I saw they always just seems to say 'Hamas' directly without calling them terrorists or militants or anything like that. Can you tell me what the FT article actually claims?
    – quarague
    Nov 27, 2023 at 6:33
  • @NotThatGuy Can't find an immediate link for this case, but the following link might be relevant. thenational.scot/news/…
    – Graham
    Nov 27, 2023 at 7:46
  • @quarague I somehow managed to access it for free, but you can also view the article in the Google cache. It says the BBC stopped using 'militant' "in the wake of criticism", but doesn't say from who. It says the UK government has "proscribed" / classified them as terrorists, but not that they pressured the BBC to do the same. It says the BBC received criticism "from UK politicians over an early report on the bombing", but not about the classification.
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 27, 2023 at 9:21
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The answer to the second part of the question "why is it apparently not getting the same level of flak as the BBC?" is not fully answered without acknowledging the vastly different roles the BBC and Voice of America have in media discourse.

The BBC is by a country mile the single most pervasive and trusted source of news in the UK. Voice of America, by contrast, doesn't even make any of the equivalent top 15 lists of outlets worth asking about in the US. Even in US markets the BBC has more penetration than Voice of America.

This elevated status the BBC enjoys in British society means that its language choices inherently matter more to people, especially when the use of language is politically contentious.

But on top of this, that status is also instrumental to what has made the BBC itself of one of the major culture war battlegrounds in UK politics for many years. There is political capital to be made not only in referring to parties of the conflict in and around Gaza in the preferred terms of different political actors, but also in whether the BBC is deemed to be doing a good or a bad job of its public service remit.

If Voice of America mattered more politically to Americans, there would surely indeed be more flak, especially considering public attitudes in the US side considerably more with Israel so little reason to expect Voice of America audiences to be any more receptive to a softer approach towards Hamas than BBC audiences would.

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    This is 100% correct. I'm an American and I have no clue what VoA is but absolutely know what the BBC is. If I were looking for anything close to the BBC in the USA I would say either PBS or NPR both of which are partially funded by the CPB which gets its funding by the US Government. Nov 28, 2023 at 21:19
  • Voice of America isn't even for Americans, it's primarily intended to be broadcast in other countries. Nov 29, 2023 at 19:30
  • The Voice of America is a US government agency. It is not supposed to be independent, any more than the EPA or the DoD is supposed to operate without oversight. Nov 29, 2023 at 21:31
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Maybe VOA refers to the group as militant because, technically speaking, the militant affiliate has not been itself designated by the US State Department as terrorist as of now. Only the Al Aqsa Brigade itself has been designated as terrorist.

The local militant group — affiliated with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of the secular nationalist Fatah party — posted a cryptic statement just after the two men were reported killed. "We did not wrong them, but they wronged themselves," it said.

Palestinian Militants Kill 2 Alleged Informers for Israel


Notes:

  1. In general, there sometimes is a considerable lag of time between the terrorist acts and the subsequent official designation of the group as terrorist by the United States. Despite the frequent description in the media of Russian activities in Ukraine since February 2022 as terrorist, the Russian government is still not designated by the US as a terrorist group.

  2. I do not agree with the explanation suggested in the comment by alamar: "Perhaps they want to have street cred with developing Maghreb and Middle East countries, where calling those groups terrorists may seriously hurt their standing?" A casual search for "terrorist" on the VOA site reveals 36883 matches, the majority of which refer to Arab or Muslim entities. What's another designation entre amis when you have this wall of terrorism?

VOA search for "terrorist"

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    Just checking one of those stories, it starts with "the armed wing of the Palestinian militant group Hamas" voanews.com/a/… Terrorist is mentioned later on "The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., U.K., EU and others." and " [...] the Israeli foreign ministry Friday summoned the ambassadors of both countries for a "harsh rebuke" and accused the European leaders of "supporting terrorism."" But VOA never seems to call Hamas terrorist themselves. Nov 25, 2023 at 23:36
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    Actually, it's pretty good. You're probably right that they didn't mention any terrorist orgs [as such] in that piece because of the "affiliated" business. Nov 25, 2023 at 23:44
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    @Fizz This might seem like playing with semantics but I have the impression, VOA is trying to be a neutral news agency here. So they will report that various governments call Hamas a terrorist organisation (fact). They will report on the attacks Hamas committed in Israel (fact). But they will not call Hamas a terrorist organisation (value judgement). That is essentially the argument the BBC used that I linked in my answer.
    – quarague
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:43
  • 3
    "the Russian government is still not designated by the US as a terrorist group." The old ha-ha-but-serious joke applies here: a terrorist is someone with a bomb but no air force to deliver it. Nov 28, 2023 at 1:12
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    @EllieKesselman I am not sure I understand your comment. I mentioned that the militant affiliate of the Al Aqsa Brigade has not been itself designated by the US State Department as terrorist as of now. But Hamas was designated, of course - I do not claim it was not. Nov 28, 2023 at 14:58
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This is not an exhaustive search I've done, but VoA appears to "forget" to mention that Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade is a designated terrorist organization in some other stories that mention the group, more directly:

Masked militants from Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to the Fatah movement, hold their rifles and the Palestinian flag during a protest to condemn the decision by President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in Gaza City, Dec. 7, 2017.

Israeli forces have killed the man widely regarded as the head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank, a leading Palestinian militant group. [...]

He was seen by many as the top military leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank. The group has been at the forefront of many attacks against Israel this year and is the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of the secular Fatah party, claimed he was a member. In a poster announcing his death, the group said he died “in an armed clash” with Israeli forces “defending the homeland." The poster showed him posing with two assault rifles.

So, I suspect this more of an olive branch to Fatah/PA/PLO, or at least trying to be more diplomatic towards them. Not quite conclusive because I've found few stories in VoA about those Fatah-linked brigades.

This is unlike stories about Hamas, even pre-2023 ones, that carry the reminder:

Designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Hamas has traditionally been a close ally of Iran, itself a stronger supporter of the Syrian government.

Money is hard to transfer for Hamas using the international banking system because of global money-laundering regulations aimed at preventing funding of designated terrorist groups.

Stories about Hezbollah or the TTP that also carry the reminder (accidentally found while search for the other ones):

Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, has been increasingly targeted by U.S. sanctions in the past few months.

Pakistan’s Peshawar High Court on Wednesday ruled that Ehsanullah Ehsan, the former spokesman of U.S.-designated terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), be kept in captivity.

OTOH, there are also some older stories about Hamas that never carry the reminder about terrorism (designations), e.g. one from 2009

The blast killed Ahmed Ibrahim Sari - a member of the armed wing of the Hamas militant group.

It's also true that VoA published both pieces from syndicated sources (AP, Reuters, AFP and a few more obscure ones I had not heard of before like "polygraph.info"--actually, this one turns out to be VoA's own fact checking sister site) and apparently its own authors, or at least individual contributors. Some of the older pieces don't have a byline. Searching for the 1st sentence from that on Google one doesn't return any other sites but VoA's, although for such old stories it's possible wire services might not have them online anymore.

One of the recent stories self-syndicated from "polygraph.info" about Hamas and related groups also doesn't use the word terrorism at all, although the piece is entirely about those groups targeting civilians, so perhaps that was considered damning enough.

attempts to whitewash what militant groups in Gaza call Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the series of coordinated attacks launched by Hamas into areas of Israel bordering the Gaza Strip on October 7 that sparked the ongoing conflict. [...] Documents found on the bodies of Hamas militants outlined their plans to kill civilians [...] Contrary to claims spread by Iranian state media, Hamas did not just kill soldiers and “illegal settlers.”

0

I'm writing this as an answer because it is too much to fit in a comment. I realize that an answer has been accepted, and am not trying to contradict it. The U.S. government has designated Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997, see the Director of National Intelligence website. This applies to the greater Hamas governing authority as well as the Izz-Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades.

The Investment Office also covertly held assets in Algeria-based Sidar Company and UAE-based Itqan Real Estate JSC, both of which appeared to operate as legitimate businesses, but in practice, were controlled by Hamas and transferred money to the group. A significant portion of funds transferred by these companies to Hamas were allocated to the group’s military arm, the Izz-Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades.

Hamas's Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades even has its own virtual currency exchange in Gaza that provides money transfer services and Bitcoin. So it isn't difficult at all for them to get money. They recently received $500 million. Getting to the point now:

  • Hamas is Islamist and governs Gaza; their military is Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades.
  • Fatah is secular nationalist and governs the West Bank; their military is the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Both brigades are designated as terrorists by the U.S. government and do terrorist things. Al Aqsa has been designated as terrorist since 2002 per US government website, along with splinter groups which are also designated terrorist groups, to whom any of the terrorists associated with the news article in question could have belonged, thus were terrorists:

  • Palestine Liberation Front
  • Palestinian Islamic Jihad
  • Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
  • Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command
  • Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades-Nidal al-Amoudi Division
  • Popular Resistance Committees.

Do note that Fatah is not designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. although it once was. Fatah is a reverse Arabic acronym for Palestine Liberation Movement.

Note that the referenced Voice of America article here Palestinian Militants Kill 2 Alleged Informers for Israel was written by the Associated Press (AP) wire service! Look at the upper left of the page. It indicates that. I read the same article in Al Jazeera yesterday. Here is the AP article, Palestinian militants kill 2 alleged informers for Israel and mob drags bodies through alleys. So, the AP didn't choose to use the U.S. government's designation of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade as terrorists. The AP is generally sympathetic to Palestinians... Or they behave like they are sympathetic, in order to get the most up to date access to breaking news stories.

Voice of America is DEFINITELY supposed to represent groups as terrorists if so designated by the U.S. government! They went quasi-rogue when former President Trump was elected. Their reporters said horrible things about Trump on Twitter and in VOA articles for all four years he was in office, which is NOT what U.S. state media should do! The Voice of America's coverage is sufficiently lax that they didn't check the AP's article before publishing it on their website.


Voice of America has been having some serious issues, so that might be another explanation for the seeming anomaly.

On 8 February 2023, the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman sent a letter to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO in response to recent censorship at VOA that calls into question its journalistic standards. VOA was found to have censored criticism of itself and USAGM:

This action points towards an agency openly violating its statutory requirements of editorial independence, integrity, and objectivity. Congress needs answers about the continuing self-interested censorship.

A few months later, an inquiry by the House Committee on Appropriations about the VOA leadership failures from 2014 through the present. The concern is bipartisan now:

Never in VOA's history have there been so many doubts about the agency leadership's competence and effectiveness as in recent months and years, including the dangerous and embarrassing failure to evacuate USAGM staff from Afghanistan before the takeover by the Taliban. The latest incident of executive dysfunction, reported first by an English-language newspaper in Kyiv, Ukraine, and picked up by the Washington Post, stems from serious concerns that USAGM's senior leaders allowed the VOA Russian Service to hire former President Vladimir Putin's state media employees without proper vetting of their previous work in Russia.

Yes, I realize that VOA is putatively independent, but VOA and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (RFERL) are de facto U.S. state media. We have no other.

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The term is appropriately used because they don't know if it is a terrorist organisation.

The modern usage of a militant is someone:

favouring confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause. (Oxford Dictionary).

and that of a terrorist is:

a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. (Oxford Dictionary)

The term militant can be applied to non-violent political activism too, like the Green peace activists, or even to Gandhi himself. A militant can choose to be violent, like joining a resistance army. Even then, he doesn't become a terrorist until he deliberately uses violence against innocent civilians as a political tool.

An implication that everyone in Palestine fighting the Israelis (for their land and right to self-determination) should be unequivocally labelled as terrorist is itself faulty.

Note that the VOA article is talking about the Palestinian activists in the West Bank. The Palestine Liberation Organization that operates from there is an umbrella organisation that supports all kinds of different political groups fighting Israel for the cause of the Palestinian nation (note that Hamas is not a member of the PLO). And it does includes some political groups that are decidedly violently militant and some who have been labelled as terrorist by Israel and / or some western countries. Despite all this, Israel still has an uneasy understanding with the PLO.

The VOA is just being cautious when talking about an organisation it doesn't seem to know much about:

In the Tulkarem refugee camp, a local militant group accused two Palestinians of helping Israeli security forces target the group ... The local militant group — affiliated with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of the secular nationalist Fatah party ...

That they are a separate group itself implies that they don't fully agree will Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades' political ideology or methods. Affiliation can mean anything from limited political co-operation to intelligence sharing to financial backing. It becomes even more confusing when you learn that Israel themselves have permitted members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade to join Palestinian Security Forces in a 2007 Amnesty deal. Note how the Chicago Tribune reported this - Militants accept amnesty - members of a terrorist organisation are now being referred to as "militants" because of their (hopefully) changed political ideology.

References:

  1. Gandhi's truth: on the origins of militant nonviolence.
  2. Greenpeace Rethinks Its Militant Methods.
  3. Palestine Liberation Organization.

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