The Media, Terrorism and the Murder of an Iranian Nuclear Scientist
Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan in January was killed in Tehran by a bomb attached to his car. In the tense international atmosphere over Iran’s nuclear program, the way in which different news outlets covered the assassination reflected national attitudes towards Iran, and towards the definition of terrorism.
The assassination of nuclear scientists in Iran is not a new phenomenon. At least five Iranian nuclear scientists were killed during 2010 and 2011. But the international news media has been divided over whether these murders constitute acts of terrorism. A review of the reports on this latest killing by the BBC, CNN, Haaretz and Fars News Agency, for example, finds that only two of these outlets included the terrorism label in their reporting.
The first headline concerning the incident by Iran’s state-owned Fars News Agency was cautious It simply stated that “an Iranian university professor was killed in a terrorist bomb blast.” Arguably, a civilian was killed for political means – thereby fully upholding the widely held definition of terrorism.
But there is a debate on whether Roshan is actually a civilian. Some critics argue that his job as a nuclear scientist took away his civilian label. The logic behind this view is that the nuclear program has an alleged military element. In Iran, the public is generally supportive of the nuclear energy program, but public opinion drops when it comes to support for a nuclear weapon. By working on a nuclear weapon program–if there is such a program and that is what he did–then his critics argue that Roshan put himself into the military sphere, thereby leaving the protection of being a civilian.
In a follow-up report on the assassination, Fars quoted Finian Cunningham of the Global Research report to give international weight to the government’s claim that this was, in fact, an act of terrorism.
“Cunningham added that the US, along with the ‘British MI6, Mossad and local proxies’ have been orchestrating a campaign of terrorist subversion in Iran with the aim of overthrowing the establishment of the Islamic Republic,” said the Fars article.
While neither the BBC, Haaretz nor CNN labeled this as a terrorist attack, CNN’s follow-up report of Roshan’s death did mention terrorism, but not out of the mouth of one of its own reporters. The day following the incident, Iranian ambassador Mohammad Khazee was invited on CNN to discuss Roshan’s death. Ambassador Khazee defended the “peaceful” nature of Iran’s nuclear program, and then added: “Any pressure, terrorist attacks, are not going to deprive Iranians from the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,”
As a cable news network concerned with having a wide general audience, it made sense for CNN to be neutral in its language surrounding the killing of Roshan, while simultaneously bringing on an Iranian representative to give their interpretation of the attack. Its unclear if this was done intentionally, but it gave Iran the chance to make the terrorist charge, without CNN getting its cable news hands dirty.
With their own nation’s history of somewhat tense relations with Iran, the BBC’s coverage of Roshan’s death was quite neutral. Even though the United Kingdom is not directly involved in the tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, it is an ally to the United States.
“Mr. Ahmadi-Roshan died immediately while his driver died later of head wounds,” the BBC article reported on the same day as the attack.
What is notable about the BBC’s word choice is that they stated three times that Roshan “died,” only reporting his death as a “killing,” once in the article. Yet, they used the word “killing” to refer to the deaths of other Iranian nuclear scientists. They are seemingly taking a more neutral approach in describing this incident due to the tense international context in which this attack occurred.
The initial report from Israeli media outlet Haaretz had an interesting word choice for its headline, “Tehran car bomb kills nuclear scientist.” The headlines of the BBC, CNN, and Fars News Agency all had something to the effect that Roshan was killed, not that the bomb killed him – this making his death active, rather than passive, depending on how they used the verb in the headlines.
For some, this might seem like a game of semantics, but subtle word choice is telling of a nation’s stance on politicized issues. And no media outlet can deny the subtleties in in deliberate word choice. Making “killed” a passive verb and stating that Roshan was killed by a car bomb takes away the dramatic impact of simply stating that Roshan was killed. Perhaps Haaretz is trying to make less of this issue in this tense context, especially considering how Iran put a large proportion of blame on Israel for the attack.
Haaretz included a report from the Fars News Agency in their immediate coverage of Roshan’s death. Using a statement from Tehran’s deputy governor Safarali Baratloo, Haaretz quoted Baratloo as saying, “the bomb was a magnetic one and the some ones previously used for the assassination of the scientists, and is the work of Zionists [Israelis].”
This brings up another contentious point in a cross media analysis, how Haaretz and CNN responded to Iran’s accusations of their nation orchestrating the attack on Roshan. On a CNN broadcast The United States’ Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta responded to a question at an overseas United States army base about alleged American involvement in the incident.
“We were not involved in any way with regards to the assassination that took place there,” Secretary Panetta said, “We have some ideas of who might be involved, but we do not exactly know who was involved.”
This is in sharp contrast to responses from Haaretz. While Haaretz’s immediate report of the incident denied Israeli involvement in the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years, they gave a much more hazy response to Roshan’s death specifically.
“A senior Israeli official told is quoted in the report as saying ‘yeah, one more … I don’t feel sad for him,” Haaretz reported, referencing the report of Roshan’s death in a Time magazine article.
The article never outright denies any alleged involvement in the assassination, but rather goes on to comment on the tense context of the incident. Addressing concerns of a possible Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, Haaretz reported “U.S. defense officials are becoming increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to carry out such a strike.” The paper is simply laying out what the Israeli government said and isn’t challenging it by trying to quote other respected sources within the nation.
If these varying approaches to reporting the assassination of Roshan say anything about the future of Middle Eastern conflict involving Iran and Israel, they indicate that in this increasingly tense situation, the public has to look for subtle cues to provide insight into future action. Politics is a game, and what better way to win than with word manipulation. You could call it political scrabble.