Rebel or militant: What's the difference?

The complainant, Chris Tait, believes that militant is pejorative and rebel is not. He thought CBC News deliberately and erroneously used the term rebel to describe Syrian fighters against Bashar al-Assad, denoting bias in the coverage. I didn’t agree with his characterization or that there was a policy breach.

COMPLAINT

You objected to CBC reporter Derek Stoffel’s description of the “gun-toting folks attacking the Syrian government” as the opposition. You characterized this as a “special polite label.” You believe that this is ideological, and that CBC News is making its editorial decisions based on Canadian and American support for various regimes:

If the CBC reports on a dictatorship the West supports, the gun toting folks will (with 99% certainty) be decried as ‘militants’. This has been the case in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Please explain how the terms are applied to such a precise formula.

You noted that some years ago, a past CBC Ombudsman said that “armed groups not part of the government must be called ‘militants’ yet that term is never used when the CBC reports on Syria.”

You cite other examples when opponents of the “Iraqi dictatorship” are described as militants yet in another newscast on the same date “those attacking the Syrian government were celebrated as ‘rebels.’” You believe this to be a consistent pattern and that it is driven by a particular ideological perspective:

There are numerous examples of the formulaic use of language in this way by the CBC. Obviously, the language is very important. If it wasn't, the CBC would use universal terms instead.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, the Managing Editor of Radio and Television News, replied to your complaint. He did not agree that Derek Stoffel’s choice of word reflected a bias. And he said he completely disagreed with your assertion that different labels are used based on whether there is Western support for one side in the conflict:

With so many conflicts and uprisings around the world at any given time, it’s never easy to apply “labels” to groups of people. Each situation is different, and our challenge is to communicate to the audience at any given time the best descriptor we can find for each story we air. Frankly, there is rarely a perfect label, as each word carries a meaning, which can be interpreted - or misinterpreted - by the listener.

He pointed out that this was a brief news story which ended with an attempt to start peace talks. He added that the report stated that who might attend those talks was still unknown:

He reports then that “Some opposition rebel groups are meeting in Saudi Arabia today... to consider their participation.”

In this context of possible partners in a peace process, with dozens of groups involved in the conflict with the Syrian government, using the phrase “Some opposition rebel groups” is entirely appropriate. It is easy to understand that as the talks come together, some of the rebel groups in opposition to the government are considering attending. The word “militant” would add very little, and could be misconstrued to mean militia groups that support the government of Bashar al-Assad. After five years of war, it was important to convey that the groups opposed to the Syrian government were not aligned with one another, or even sure about whether to take part in the talks.

REVIEW

The CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy dealing with language use.

CBC is a language model for its audiences. Good usage and accuracy are essential to high quality journalism. Our language should be simple, clear and concrete.

Journalistic style is accurate, concise and accessible. Our purpose is to make complex subjects understandable. When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand.

The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.

Clarity is also essential when numbers and statistics are involved. It is essential to avoid confusion and to take care to properly grasp the numbers used.

The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration. Language is constantly evolving. We will be attentive to shifts in the meaning of words. We consult language resources and editorial management as needed to grasp the impact of expressions that are open to multiple interpretations and capable of offending some audience members.

In this particular instance, Mr. Stoffel was referring to groups who violently oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad. This is what his script said:

The bleak situation inside Syria comes as world powers again try to negotiate an end to the bloody civil war that’s raged for nearly five years now. Peace talks are set to begin tomorrow in Geneva though the official list of who will attend hasn't been finalized. Some opposition rebel groups are meeting in Saudi Arabia today to consider their participation but once again hopes for a diplomatic settlement remain low.

The language and tone are about as neutral as it gets. The use of the phrase “opposition rebel groups” is a quick way to explain who is involved. CBC News has extensively reported about the conflict and the players. I think it is fair to say from that, and from the earlier part of this news report about the difficulty in getting relief supplies to areas of the country, that this is a bloody and violent struggle.

The words “rebel” and “militant” do have slightly different meanings – although in both cases it connotes strong resistance. In the case of a rebel, it is usually used in the context of opposition to a duly constituted authority, and the word militant, according to the Oxford dictionary anyway, connotes someone who is “aggressively active in support of a political cause.” A militant can use warfare, but the term can also be used by someone actively and aggressively involved in a political cause.

The construct that one is more negative than the other is your opinion, and you are entitled to it. But it does not oblige CBC to agree with it or assign the use of one word or another to particular groups according a particular world view. And while dictionary definitions are important, language is evolving and nuanced, and the context and clarity, as the policy points out, is also important.

You cited other examples of the descriptor of rebel and militant. One has to accept your underlying premise that one is more pejorative than the other to find concern there. I do not see systematic bias in these terms, and therefore there is no violation of policy.

I was curious about your recollection that a previous Ombudsman had said that “armed groups not part of the government must be called ‘militants.’” I found a review from February 2005 by David Bazay, Ombudsman at the time. He actually quoted the then head of news, Tony Burman, as having told you “CBC News often used ‘militant’ to describe those who are not part of an established military, but who are engaged in fighting or violence, typically as part of a claimed struggle toward a political goal.” He said “often used,” but there was and still is not a dictum to do so.

In this case you asked Mr. Bazay to rule whether CBC News used the word militant “exclusively to refer to Arabs, and only Arabs opposed to U.S. foreign policy.” There was no discussion about the appropriate use of the word rebel. And for the record, he did not agree with your assessment.

It is valuable to be reminded about the need for as precise use of language as possible. Having said that, there is no reason to dictate the use, or banning, of a particular way of describing various groups involved in armed struggle.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman