Shortly after news broke of a deadly January 27 attack by Islamic terrorists on a hotel in Libya’s capital, Al Jazeera English executive Carlos van Meek shot out an email to his employees.
“All: We manage our words carefully around here,” the network’s head of output wrote to staff at the Doha-based news channel’s New York and Washington, D.C. newsrooms. “So I’d like to bring to your attention some key words that have a tendency of tripping us up.”
“One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” the Al Jazeera executive wrote.
The word “extremist” was labeled off-limits. “Avoid characterizing people,” van Meek said. “Often their actions do the work for the viewer.”
According to van Meek’s instructions, Al Jazeera English employees are not to use the Arabic term “jihad.”
“Strictly speaking, jihad means an inner spiritual struggle, not a holy war,” he said. “It is not by tradition a negative term. It also means the struggle to defend Islam against things challenging it.”
Instead of “terrorists,” van Meek told his employees to use the terms “fighters” and “militants” — but only in certain contexts. “For example, we can use the term [militant] to describe Norwegian mass-killer Andres Behring Breivik or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh,” he wrote.
In a 2013 seminar held at Northwestern University in Qatar, van Meek was described not only as “head of Al Jazeera English,” but also as the person charged with “establishing Al Jazeera in America.”
He was also given responsibility for responding to criticism of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the terrorist attacks on the offices of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo — criticism driven, in part, by another set of leaked emails obtained by National Review Online that showed a sharp divide between network staff about whether Mohammad cartoons published by the French magazine served as a deliberate provocation to violence.
After spending years as something of a pariah in the West for its perceived anti-Americanism and support of terrorist groups, Al Jazeera has made a concerted effort to moderate its image by hiring a slew of Western correspondents and, in 2013, creating Al Jazeera America. As a Westerner picked up by Al Jazeera after stints at Fox News, ABC, NBC and elsewhere, van Meek was part of that push.
But internal pushback on the network’s Hebdo coverage and continuing leaks of company emails illustrate persistent newsroom tension between Al Jazeera’s roots in Doha and the media outlet’s expansion into the United States.
Stories written on Al Jazeera’s English-language website are a mixed bag when it comes to the use of the banned terms. Those from October and December of last year — describing Islamic terrorists and German nationalists, respectively – both make use of the term “extremist.” Reference to “militants” and to a “militant group” can also found in stories describing Islamic fundamentalists, mostly in reports from autumn 2013 or early 2014.
But with one exception, the word “Islamist” is found exclusively in scare quotes. And National Review Online could find no stories where Al Jazeera English writers used the terms “terrorists” or “jihadists” outside the context of a direct quotation.
In a write-up of the January 27 assault on the Corinthia Hotel in Libya, which killed 8, Al Jazeera called the Islamic State terrorists responsible for the attack “gunmen.”
UPDATE: Following this piece’s publication, Al Jazeera English spokeswoman Jocelyn Austin pointed National Review Online to a Youtube video uploaded in November 2014 explaining the network’s decision to ban the term “Islamist.” The video does not mention the words “terrorists,” “jihadists,” or “militants,” or explain why these are also off-limits to Al Jazeera correspondents.
Full email after the jump
All: We manage our words carefully around here. So I’d like to bring to your attention some key words that have a tendency of tripping us up. This is straight out of our Style Guide. All media outlets have one of those. So do we. If you’d like to amend, change, tweak.. pls write to Dan Hawaleshka direct who is compiling the updates to the Style Guide and they will be considered based on merit. No mass replies to this email, pls.
EXTREMIST – Do not use. Avoid characterizing people. Often their actions do the work for the viewer. Could write ‘violent group’ if we’re reporting on Boko Haram agreeing to negotiate with the government. In other words, reporting on a violent group that’s in the news for a non-violent reason.TERRORISM/TERRORISTS – One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. We will not use these terms unless attributed to a source/person.
ISLAMIST – Do not use. We will continue to describe groups and individuals, by talking about their previous actions and current aims to give viewers the context they require, rather than use a simplistic label.
NOTE: Naturally many of our guests will use the word Islamist in the course of their answers. It is absolutely fine to include these answers in our output. There is no blanket ban on the word.JIHAD – Do not use the Arabic term. Strictly speaking, jihad means an inner spiritual struggle, not a holy war. It is not by tradition a negative term. It also means the struggle to defend Islam against things challenging it. Again, an Arabic term that we do not use.FIGHTERS – We do not use words such as militants, radicals, insurgents. We will stick with fighters. However, these terms are allowed when quoting other people using them.
MILITANT – We can use this term to describe individuals who favour confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause. For example, we can use the term to describe Norwegian mass-killer Andres Behring Breivik or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. But please note: we will not use it to describe a group of people, as in ‘militants’ or ‘militant groups’ etc.
J. CARLOS VAN MEEK | HEAD OF OUTPUT | NEWS
AL JAZEERA ENGLISH