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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 33, August 9, 2014

A Look at Choice of Words in our Media

Friday 8 August 2014

by Anil Chamadia


The Indian Express, the leading English language daily, published a news report on the front page of its June 30, 2014 issue with the following heading, “Delhi’s RTI ‘terrorist’ hunting victims on a bike, with cameramen in tow”. Shalini Narayan in her report has described a man’s torturous behaviour with people around him. The man, one Anil Dutt Sharma, has been termed as an anti-social and a ‘terrorist’. The reporter lists a number of cases wherein Sharma is reported to have been intimidating people using the bogey of Right to Information (RTI) Act. The Act enables an Indian citizen to seek information from any government office or subsidiary, financed wholly or partly by the government.

Initially, the report uses the word “black-mailing” for Sharma’s acts of omission and commission. The newspaper has devoted almost one-fourth of a page to this report (including the first and second pages). This report was prominently published in its web edition as well. We are not questioning the veracity of the report but wondering if the word terrorist should have been used so recklessly by the newspaper.

the Indian media has not shown any sensibility towards using sensitive words. It has been feeling free to use the word terrorist to any incident that is accompanied with any form of violence. But, in the media’s parlance, it is attributed mostly to non-government violence. We are not here to differentiate between govern-ment and non-government violence and decide which one should be called an act of terrorism. Our concern here is limited to the fact that a tendency has developed regarding the use of this word in such a way that even the misuse of a law can be termed a terrorist activity.

Reckless use of words is not a recent phenomenon. It can be traced back to the eighties with the use of the word Mafia. All those who were involved in or a part of illegal acts and heading such groups were called mafia. Later, its use became wider. Many such words came by the time and were later vigorously used to absurd degrees. For instance, the word terrorist has now been used for Naxal and Maoist activities too. In fact, it has extended to be used for robbery and bloodshed also! In the same way Social Terrorism is now used to express the fight between untouchables and backwards.

When an adjective is used to define an incident, it also signifies its social, economic and political implieations. It takes a long time to coin a single word for an action which required a long sentence previously. A word is communi-cated to a society with all its inherited meanings which it acquires in due course of time in society. That is why words are considered the power of the media.

In recent times, words like violence, terrorism, extremism and separatism have been so intermingled with each other that the society starts getting influenced by the media’s view instead of communicating with it. History is full of debates and discussions about the use of such words, which could have wide social and political connotations. For instance, when Barry Collin used the word Cyber Terrorism first in 1982, it invited a big debate within and outside the country. When 7/7 happened in London in 2005, it generated a big debate over calling the accused terrorist just because the British media was very sensitive about calling its own citizen a terrorist and it knew its domino effect.

Words are dynamic and very sensitive. Hence the media need to take extra care while using such words. But developing countries including India are a victim of importing foreign words and using them as it is, without realising its consequences. It seems that developing countries are merely carrying forward the words created by the countries which control the entire business of information and communication. Basically these words, created by the developed West, are also a form of domination. The word Sikh Terrorism in the context of Punjab was first used by a foreign media outlet. Then it created the term Islamic Terrorism. It continues to create new terminologies. Now we have RTI Terrorist to define a person misusing the Right to Information!


1. http://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/education-extremism-and-terrorism-what-should-be-taught-in-citizenship-education-and-why/introduction

2. http://www.internetjournalofcriminology.com/Awan_ Debating_The_Term_Cyber-Terrorism_ IJC_Jan _2014.pdf 

[N.B.: To know the different aspects of the 7/7 debate in 

Britain, one can use different website search engines.]

Anil Chamadia is the editor of a monthly research journal Mass Media and the Chairman of Media Studies Group.