Global Voices

Russian state media scolds independent outlets for ‘neutral’ word choice in counter-terror operation reports

RT’s Russian-language website attacked other media outlets for using the word “killed” instead of “liquidated” or “neutralized.”

Russian FSB officer during the operation in Tyumen. Via nac.gov.ru with permission to use with attribution

On April 13, 2019, a counter-terrorist operation unfolded in the Siberian city of Tymen. An assault squad surrounded a house in Tyumen’s residential suburb, evacuated the locals, and exchanged fire with two people holed up inside, killing both. There were no other casualties or victims. The FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency, declared the operation a success and said the two men were Islamic State militants who were plotting a domestic terrorist attack.

The agency didn’t offer much evidence to back up its claim, but it criticized the media for live-streaming the operation. A source in the security services told Znak.com, a regional news outlet:

Мы недовольны стримом, который вели СМИ. Он появился в лицее [там был оперативный штаб] до того, как начался штурм. Террористы могли увидеть стрим, тем более один из них довольно хорошо ориентировался в соцсетях, как показывает его страница.

We are unhappy with the media’s livestreaming [of the operation]. It had originated from a school (where the operation’s HQ was stationed) before the assault began. The terrorists could have seen the livestream, given that one of them was quite well-versed in social media, as his page shows.

Typically, Russian state media outlets take these claims at face value, calling persons killed in such operations “terrorists” without adding any qualifiers such as “suspected” or “alleged.” This time, however, RT’s Russian-language website went even further and attacked other media outlets for using neutral language such as “killed” instead of “liquidated” or “neutralized.”

The terrorists in Tyumen were liquidated, while according to Meduza and Dozhd [independent news website and TV channel] they were “killed”. Okay then

RT’s tweet reignited an ongoing debate about “dehumanizing” language in news reports about terrorism. State loyalists defended RT’s decision to use words such as “liquidated” and its subsequent criticism of publications who had abstained from doing so. Andrey Medvedev, a war reporter for the government-owned Rossiya channel, wrote on his Telegram channel:

Убить можно человека. Или даже животное. Вот живодеры, скажем, убивают собак. Террориста, который поставил себя вне закона, можно только ликвидировать. Или уничтожить. Или вычистить. Потому что тот, кто пришел в наши города чтобы взрывать мирных людей, убивать (вот тут уместно именно это слово) их,  нести смерть, расстреливать и сеять горе – он уже перестал быть человеком. Он порождение тьмы. Его можно только ликвидировать. Как ликвидируют очаг заболевания. Как ликвидируют колонию опасных бактерий. Как вырезают опухоль и ликвидируют метастазы с помощью облучения.

A person can be killed. Or even an animal. Animal abusers, for example, kill dogs. But terrorists who put themselves outside the law can only be liquidated. Or annihilated. Or cleansed. Because those who come to our cities to blow up innocent people, to kill (this is where this term is appropriate) them, to bring death, shoot and sow misery — they are beyond humanity. They were born of darkness. They can only be liquidated. Like a hotbed of disease or a colony of virulent bacteria. Like a cancerous tumor and its metastases are removed by radiation.

Other media professionals warned that journalists shouldn’t adopt the language of government agencies, even when there’s a credible threat. Dmitry Kolezev, the deputy editor of Znak.com, wrote:

Даже если мы в целом доверяем нашим силовикам, ФСБ и НАК, мы не должны описывать реальность удобным им языком. Терроризм — страшная угроза, но ярлык «террорист», повешенный в пресс-релизе ФСБ, не должен затуманить наше сознание и заставить слепо верить всему, что говорится в сообщении. Потому что сегодня «террористами» могут быть действительно бородатые террористы с бомбой, а завтра — экстремисты из телеграм-чатика, послезавтра — организаторы митингов, а потом и вы сами. Ярлыки — опасная вещь.

Even if we fully trust our security services, the FSB and the NAK [National Anti-Terrorist Committee], we’re not under an obligation to reflect reality in a language they are comfortable with. Terrorism is a grave threat, but the label of “terrorist” dispensed in a FSB press release should not cloud our judgement and make us take at face value everything the press release says. Because today the “terrorists” are actual bearded, bomb-wielding terrorists, tomorrow it’ll be extremists from a Telegram chat, the day after tomorrow it’s protest organizers and then it’ll be you. Labels are a dangerous thing.

Ironically, RT’s own English-language social media feed used exactly the kind of language they were mocking their Russian colleagues for:

Hahaha

The “killed vs. liquidated” debate is far from new. Back in 2013, Oleg Kashing, a prominent Russian journalist, wrote on the independent website Colta.ru:

Но вдруг когда-нибудь редактор очередного новостного сайта, получив от государственного агентства пресс-релиз об очередном подвиге силовых структур, сядет его переписывать и вместо «уничтожены» напишет «убиты», а вместо «террористы» — «люди». Впишет в двух местах фразу «как утверждают в ФСБ», а в заголовке вместо «спецоперация» напишет «стрельба». Ничего сложного и ничего принципиально важного, но когда такое произойдет, я подумаю, что мы действительно живем в другой стране.

One day an editor at one of the news websites will receive in their mailbox a press release from a state news agency, praising another heroic feat of the security services. A quick rewrite will follow, replacing “eradicated” with “killed” and “terrorists” with “persons.” They’ll throw in a qualifier “according to FSB’s claims” in a couple of places and then put in “shooting” instead of “special operation” in the headline. It’s nothing complicated or critically important, but when something like this finally happens, I’ll believe that our country has indeed changed.

Russia in 2019 is indeed in many ways different from what it was in 2013, and not necessarily in a positive way. But Oleg Kashin must probably appreciate the fact that many Russian news editors do now consciously eschew the language of government handouts in favor of more neutral wording when dealing with sensitive and controversial subjects like terrorism, as the social media exchange above in this article shows.

Originally published in Global Voices.

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