The obstacles to reporting the truth about war

A foreign journalist reports from a afar during Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of Gaza. Israel barred journalists and aid workers from entering the territory during the bombardment. (Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye)

On 8 April 2003, Spanish cameraman Jose Couso was among the two journalists assassinated in a United States strike against the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. The other was Taras Protsyuk, a Reuters television cameraman. On the same day, Al-Jazeera’s Tareq Ayyoub died from serious wounds he had suffered from a separate US attack in Iraq.

To this day, Couso’s family is fighting for justice, having filed a case under the laws of universal jurisdiction in Spain against the three US soldiers who fired against the Palestine Hotel, which was known to host journalists and no Iraqi forces.

“There is no such thing as freedom of expression as such in the world we live in today. More journalists have been killed in Iraq than in any other war in history. Journalists are there to expose reality to the world, and they should be protected, while instead they are attacked,” Javier Couso, Jose’s brother, told The Electronic Intifada. “That said, it doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are brave and fight for free expression, because there are many.”

According to global media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 25 journalists have been killed so far this year while doing their job. Additionally, there are 157 journalists currently in prison following attempts by oppressive governments to silence them. States identified by the human rights organization as “predators” that actively violate the universal human right to freedom of expression include Iran, China, Russia, Egypt and Libya.

According to RSF, 77 journalists and media workers have been kidnapped since the US-led invasion in 2003, and nothing is known to this day of their whereabouts. The Brussells Tribunal, an independent coalition of artists, intellectuals and activists who denounce the US and its allies’ war on the Middle East, is among the numerous organizations that cite the Iraq war as the world’s most dangerous conflict for journalists in history. According to the tribunal, at least 355 journalists and media professionals have been killed since 2003.

In Iraq, the US-promoted practice of “embedding” foreign reporters into the military has been widely discussed, and although it is by no means new, it is perhaps in this Arab country under occupation that the phenomenon has been most widely promoted. Journalists who have sought to cover the political, social and economic reality of Iraq under occupation without collaborating with the US and its allies have done so at their own risk, though being “embedded” has provided no guarantees of safety, either.

Meanwhile, journalists have also historically suffered from obstacles of varying degrees to their right to cover Israel’s repression of the Palestinians and aggression against its neighbors. It is currently extremely difficult for foreign journalists to enter Gaza, for instance, making it very hard for the international media to cover the illegal siege which has affected all aspects of life in Gaza for three years now.

Both local and foreign journalists covering the situation for Palestinians under Israeli occupation have also been maimed or even killed over the years, mainly by the Israeli military. These have included five murders of Palestinian journalists from the period between the start of 2008 and 3 May 2010, according to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

The threats of death, maiming and incarceration are perhaps the worst and most direct obstacles to the objective coverage of situations in which human rights violations are committed daily. But by no means do they alone account for problems relating to global coverage of war, politics and human rights in the Middle East today.

Swept under the rug

This reality has become more evident than ever with WikiLeaks’ groundbreaking release of 391,832 US-classified intelligence documents on the Iraq war. The event is extraordinary on many levels, mainly because Iraqis now have hard, detailed proof for what, as Iraqi blogger Layla Anwar wrote, they have known and have been denouncing for years. In fact, the de facto declassification of the archives has not received nearly as much media attention as the event deserves, while it now appears to be practically out of the mainstream outlets’ agenda, precisely because it exposes part of the daily abuses committed in Iraq. In a televised interview with Al-Jazeera English, Sabah al-Mukhtar, president of the Arab Lawyers’ Union, pointed out that the information disclosed in the leaked documents is only “the tip of the iceberg.”

The facts are widely known and discussed amongst the Arab public but it has required a leak of this size for mainstream news channels in the West to begin discussing some aspects of Iraq and the Arabs’ daily reality. This makes evident that journalists working in Western Europe and the United States face a very different but no less problematic set of obstacles in their day-to-day professional practice, as do readers searching for a varied, objective and detailed approach to national and international news coverage.

On one hand, there is no lack of news coverage in terms of word count and airtime of a great many topics that are of global interest. Disasters, both natural and man-made, receive plenty of media attention as they unfold, such as the January 2010 Haiti earthquake or the winter 2008-09 Israeli offensive on Gaza.

“In Europe, when we hear about the violation of human rights beyond our borders it is because the number of people who have been massacred is higher than usual, or because European governments have an economic or political interest involved,” Natalia Diaz, Spanish filmmaker and an advocate for freedom of expression, told The Electronic Intifada. “Naturally, mass media reports do not mention these political interests. At any rate there is hardly ever an effort at contextualizing or analyzing the facts.”

What journalists, academics, activists and artists also frequently denounce is a short-term attention span, whereby mass media outlets frequently abandon disaster areas and other major stories too quickly though conditions may continue to be precarious. This becomes a sensationalist approach to politics and war, one that dehumanizes reality.

A structural problem

According to Spanish filmmaker and reporter Alberto Arce, there is no lack of excellent Western journalists who work hard to expose human rights violations everywhere, including in Palestine. “The problem is with the editors, media companies, management and the political decisions that take precedence over the work of journalists,” Arce told The Electronic Intifada. Arce was among the few foreign journalists who were present in Gaza before Israel launched its assault in December 2008. During the three weeks of bombardment, Israel denied foreign correspondents access to the Gaza Strip.

Regarding conflict in the Middle East, Arce explained that “I believe there is an ill-intentioned attempt at misinformation, hypocrisy and bias.” In his view, this bias does not originate from the media country offices, but that the news is skewed at a higher level, namely from newspaper, radio and television headquarters working under government pressure.

Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, Jose Carlos, a young Spanish former radio journalist, said he was “shocked by the level of politically-motivated censorship” at some of the most prestigious media outlets in his country. “Based in Madrid, I worked on the national radio channel’s news program, and I witnessed how news and interviews were actively skewed according to political motivations. Whichever party was in power at a given time dictated what news had to look and feel like, as opposed to allowing the media to reflect reality. I left the channel out of disgust, and to be honest I doubt I will ever work as a journalist again,” he said.

Less spectacular but no less serious methods of coercion, according to Arce, include institutional economic pressure on journalists to change. While his work during the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza was widely publicized across Spain and Latin America, Arce has experienced severe difficulties securing work in the aftermath.

Journalists who are loyal to the principles of ethical reporting have become “a stinking irritant,” Arce said. “Newspapers now prefer to employ people who clap at press conferences and who are willing to go out for drinks with the people they are interviewing.” As such, it is barely surprising that journalists who continue to strive for transparency and providing the public with information on their governments’ international policies suffer such economic difficulties that they work other jobs in order to survive. Others may even consider abandoning the profession altogether.

Media silence fuels ignorance

The phenomenon of over-exposure with little or no interest in context and other aspects of ethical journalism is not the only problem that media workers and human rights activists have to face in the West. Other subjects are treated with complete silence. Among the topics highlighted by Arce and Diaz are Egypt’s increasingly powerful workers’ movement and the systematic violation of human rights in Syria. “Stories on Palestine are manipulated but at least the topic is now on the agenda,” said Arce. Meanwhile, Diaz added, “The list of issues that never make it into Western media is long and varied. It is no secret, for instance, that US companies are being taken to court in Colombia, but do we hear about this in the mainstream media?”

Ian Douglas, coordinator of the International Initiative to Prosecute US Genocide in Iraq, recently experienced the silence of the mainstream media when his team filed a legal case for US genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq. “My experience with the Western media was its absence. I’m not sure what it takes to get noticed, but apparently filing a legal case against four US presidents and four UK prime ministers under laws of universal jurisdiction for genocide in Iraq, amongst other crimes, is not enough,” Douglas told The Electronic Intifada.

“Our case was filed amid the build-up to the UK Iraq Inquiry, so no one could claim that Iraq was a non-issue,” Douglas said. “Regardless, no mainstream source in the US or UK covered our action. For this distinction we were selected by the respected Project Censor as one of the top silenced stories of 2009-2010. What was the prime cause of this lack of coverage? In a word, power.”

In short, power’s considerations appear to enter into every aspect of media work today, whether stories make it in some form or another into the public domain via the mainstream news or not. “The media runs after and props up those in power, criminal or otherwise,” said Douglas. “It appears to be a structural problem at this juncture in history.”

Though one intended result of this mass manipulation may be mass ignorance and therefore passivity in the face of injustice, there is still sufficient information available in the public domain to counter this attempt at silencing dissent. For one, the Internet continues to provide non-traditional avenues of information and communication that nullify attempts by centers of power to disable opposition, according to Iraqi human rights activist and analyst Asma al-Haidari.

Further, as global action proved in February 2003, when demonstrators across the world took to the streets in global opposition to the impending US-led invasion of Iraq, citizens of conscience do not require a large mass of information in order to make up their minds on where they stand on war and human rights violations.

Regardless of the complexity of the attempts to misinform the public and to make us blind to reality as it unfolds, “We cannot escape our responsibilities and we cannot claim to be alone,” said Douglas. “We must not forget: information is only important to the extent to which it becomes operative. The point is not to better analyze the world, but rather to change it.”

Serene Assir is a Lebanese independent writer and journalist based in Spain.