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June 23, 2009


Alicia C. Shepard, NPR Ombudsman - How should NPR describe the tactics used to coerce information out of terrorism suspects? . . . The word torture is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that torture is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed. . .

Also, not all interrogation could be classified as torture. Sleep deprivation, nudity and facial slaps are different from, say, pouring water on a cloth over someone's face for 20 to 40 seconds to create the sensation of drowning -- a practice known as waterboarding. . .

If journalists use the words "harsh interrogation techniques," they can be seen as siding with the White House and the language that some U.S. officials, particularly in the Bush administration, prefer. If journalists use the word "torture," then they can be accused of siding with those who are particularly and visibly still angry at the previous administration.

There has been no clear consensus on what constitutes torture, noted Brian Duffy, NPR's former managing editor in late April. . .

NPR decided to not use the term "torture" to describe techniques such as water-boarding but instead uses "harsh interrogation tactics," Duffy told me.

I recognize that it's frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric. But the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate. People have different definitions of torture and different feelings about what constitutes torture. NPR's job is to give listeners all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put it in context.

"I understand the desire to 'call a spade a spade,' but it is not for journalists to start labeling specific practices torture," said Duffy. "That's what the debate is about -- what constitutes torture?"

To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the characterization. For example, reporters could say that the U.S. military poured water down a detainee's mouth and nostrils for 40 seconds. Or they could detail such self-explanatory techniques as forcing detainees into cramped confines crawling with insects, or forced to stand for hours along side a wall.


Anonymous Mairead said...

I wonder whether he washed his hands after.

Choosing "not to choose sides" is to choose sides, and the worst one.

The only responsible thing to do is to go with the consensus of medical opinion (it's torture), or introspect one's own probable reaction to being the victim (it's torture), or go with past assessments by the US when some other country did it (it's torture).

June 24, 2009 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Listening to NPR is torture enough for me.

June 25, 2009 2:55 PM  

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