From kiosks and newspaper stands, headlines grab for the attention of passers-by, declaring “Tunisia’s triumph,” and announcing “The beginning of the end of the Islamic State’s terrorist dream.” Images of flag-draped coffins in a sea of people are accompanied by captions describing “an atmosphere of pride and emotion.” On Tuesday, March 8, Prime Minister Habib Essid assured the public of security forces’ victorious battle in Ben Guerdane, the south-eastern coastal town approximately 33 kilometers from Ras Jdir, which reports claim is a coveted ISIS enclave. Public figures and media personalities continue to point a finger at human rights activists as a hindrance to the country’s successful “war on terrorism.” On prime time television, Minister of Education Neji Jalloul, invited to play “Top or Flop?” on El Hiwar’s Klem Enness, commended a selfie taken by soldiers in front of the corpses of two attackers.

In contrast with the triumphant discourse of officials and mainstream news outlets in Tunisia, a more foreboding tone has been adopted by foreign media. French and English-language news reports have focused on the sentiments of shock and fear following Monday’s “bloody attacks,” embracing a fearful reality that the Libyan war is spilling over into Tunisia.  A prognosis that “the worst is yet to come” for Tunisia takes into account the continued cross-border mobility of jihadists in spite of international assistance for enhanced security measures, and deems the most recent attack in Ben Guerdane to be evidence of the gradual break-down of security forces since 2011. Others estimate that Monday represents a turning point in the tactics and motives of the previous three attacks, likening the assault to the violence in Gafsa on 27 January 1980.

The Ben Guerdane attack was repulsed by security forces but marks a new departure,” writes analyst Michaël Béchir Ayari of International Crisis Group. Ayari judges that “this was no simple “terrorist” attack … It was an attempt at local insurrection, coordinated by some 50 members of IS sleeper cells in Ben Guerdane. The term “terrorist” would obscure the political objectives of the assault: win the support of a part of the city’s notoriously rebellious population by inciting an insurrection even as it takes military control of the city.” Ayari warns that Tunisia should expect further attacks and offers seven recommendations to “mitigate their impact.”

As ever, Tunisian netizens remain alert to how foreign media covers the country’s current events.  On Monday, some readers reacted to widespread use of the term “militants” in English-language outlets, presuming the meaning to be same as the French equivalent of which the translation is “activist.” In response to their disdain, others, including the Managing Editor of Tunisia Live, responded by providing the correct definition of the word and clarifying the precision of its use in coverage of the recent attack.

Indeed, in its Editorial Guidelines chapter on “Language When Reporting Terrorism,” the BBC cites “militant” as a preferred alternative to terms relating to “terrorism” given that the latter represents a “difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones.” Apart from official reports (public statements and Travel Alerts), English language news reports have in fact used “terrorism,” “terror,” and “terrorist” sparingly, opting for alternatives such as “clashes,” “chaos,” “assailants,” “fighters,” and “gunmen.”  As the BBC notes in its Guidelines, “Words can be used with precision to make clear what has happened and still convey the awful consequences without needing to resort to labels.”

Agence France Presse (AFP) guidelines encourage similar precautions. According to Inès Bel Aïba, the agency’s Deputy Bureau Chief in Tunis, AFP journalists are cautioned to “only use the term “terrorists” between quotation marks and in quotes, and sparingly. As for the term “violence,” explains Bel Aïba with reference to recent reporting on the events in Ben Guerdane, “we used it briefly before moving on to use “attacks.” For essentially real-time coverage, we always seek to use the most appropriate term to describe facts. The term “violence” was used…in two alerts, but we rapidly determined it more appropriate to use “jihadist attacks.” 

If, in the past five days, foreign media has avoided some of the clichés that have haunted past reporting (over- or misuse of terms like “terrorism” and “jihadists,” assumptions and stereotypes relating to religion and extremism), Tunisia’s mainstream media has not. Indeed, with each attack—Bardo, Sousse, downtown Tunis, Ben Guerdane—over the past year,  government officials, politicians, and prime time media figures alike have acted in concert to pump out news narratives tainted by politics. Imagining Tunisia as the victim of mainstream media’s pathological treatment of news and information, Thameur Mekki observes that “Denial of editorial and social responsibility only worsens the patient’s state … impulsiveness is taken for patriotism. Rationality is taken for desertion” … of a false national unity that in reality never intended to include all segments of Tunisia’s citizenry.