Medialens compare and contrast the coverage in the mainstream media of the attacks on Fallujah during the Iraq war, and the current attack on Misrata in Libya by Muammar Gadaffi's forces.
Operation Phantom Fury
In November 2004, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network reported the impact of Operation Phantom Fury, a combined US-UK offensive, on Iraq’s third city, Fallujah:
'Approximately 70 per cent of the houses and shops were destroyed in the city and those still standing are riddled with bullets.' ('Fallujah still needs more supplies despite aid arrival,' http://www.irinnews.org, November 30, 2004)
An Iraqi doctor, Ali Fadhil, reported of the city:
'It was completely devastated, destruction everywhere. It looked like a city of ghosts. Falluja used to be a modern city; now there was nothing. We spent the day going through the rubble that had been the centre of the city; I didn’t see a single building that was functioning.' (Fadhil, ‘City of ghosts,’ The Guardian, January 11, 2005)
Main battle tanks, bombers, attack helicopters and thousands of assault troops were flung into the attack. But this was no Stalingrad. 'Coalition' forces faced young fighters in tracksuits armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. A US Marine sergeant told a British news team: 'We'll unleash the dogs of hell, we'll unleash 'em... They don't even know what's coming - hell is coming! If there are civilians in there, they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.' (Channel 4 News, November 8, 2004)
A health centre was bombed, killing 60 patients and support staff. The Independent reported claims that 'a large number of people, including children, were killed by American snipers'. Refugees also accurately reported that the US had used cluster bombs and white phosphorus weapons. A Red Cross official estimated that 'at least 800 civilians' were killed in the first nine days of the assault. Dr Rafa'ah al-Iyssaue, the director of Fallujah's main hospital, said that more than 550 of 700 bodies recovered were women and children.
Last year, the Independent reported:
'Dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study.' (See our media alert for details)
At the time of the offensive, a Times leader was unmoved by the devastation:
'This is not a struggle that, contrary to how it has been presented in some quarters, the Americans were very gung-ho about. It has, nonetheless, become evident that those either loyal to the old Baathist order or keen volunteers for Islamist terrorism would not cease to use the city as the centre of their operations.
'In this context, the US military had to act decisively or fail those entitled to its protection.' (Leading article, ‘Taking Fallujah,’ The Times, November 10, 2004)
The Telegraph applauded Britain’s contribution:
'The men of the Black Watch are on their way home, their mission accomplished. We should congratulate them not only for their successes in Fallujah and in Operation Tobruk, which they have just completed, but also for their pragmatism and courage in the face of the unknown.’ (Leading article, ‘Mission accomplished,’ Telegraph, December 6, 2004)
On ITV, anchors Nick Owen and Andrea Catherwood talked over animations depicting the high-tech equipment deployed in Fallujah:
'The marines can call on some of the latest technology, like The Buffalo, that can locate and destroy mines and booby troops using a robot arm.' (News at 18:30, November 10, 2004 )
An animated Buffalo was shown approaching a cartoon car, which exploded as the Buffalo's extendable arm touched:
'They've also got the Packbot. It's a small remote-controlled robot fitted with a camera which can climb stairs and even open cupboards to search houses and other buildings for explosives.'
The slaughter inspired a 'shooter' video game for Xbox, Six Days In Fallujah. Too much even for the British press, the game was dropped, but seems to have been resurrected by a different company.
No weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. There was no evidence of a link to al Qaeda. And yet few in the media questioned the right of the Western army of occupation to destroy a major Iraqi city in the name of 'protection'.
Massacre In Misrata
By contrast, last month, The Times published a leader with the title, ‘Revealed: The full horror of Misrata’:
'While the suppression of dissent is commonplace in Libya, the bombardment of Misrata's estimated 300,000 inhabitants has been exceptionally cruel.' (Leading Article, ‘Revealed: The full horror of Misrata,’ The Times, April 10, 2011)
The editors added:
'Two Sunday Times journalists - the first from Britain inside the besieged city - find Colonel Gadaffi's pitiless troops slaughtering civilians and leaving children to die.'
This week, Murdoch’s humanitarians again lamented Misrata’s grim fate:
'Colonel Gaddafi's forces are still bombarding Misrata, a city that has seen terrible human suffering as the besieged inhabitants, without food, medicine or shelter from the artillery and missiles, endure daily casualties.' (Leading article, ‘The cost of stalemate,’ The Times, May 2, 2011)
The Telegraph has shared the Times’ outrage:
'Not content with deploying tanks, rockets, and snipers, the Libyan dictator has now taken to using cluster bombs - a weapon banned in most countries because of the risk they pose of indiscriminate injury.'
Back in 2005, Aljazeera reported:
'Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq’s health ministry, said that the U.S. military used internationally banned weapons during its deadly offensive in the city of Fallujah.' The official reported evidence that US forces had "used... substances, including mustard gas, nerve gas, and other burning chemicals in their attacks in the war-torn city."' (‘US used banned weapons in Fallujah - Health ministry,' March 3, 2005, http://www.aljazeera.com)
Despite this and copious other evidence, the BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, told Media Lens in March 2005 that her reporter in Fallujah, Paul Wood, had seen 'no evidence of the use of such weapons'. The issue is much more clear cut in Misrata, it seems. The BBC commented recently:
‘The wounded arrive with horrific injuries - the result of mortars, grenades, and snipers. An increasing number have lost limbs - which may be the result of cluster bombs.
‘The use of what look like cluster bombs explains some of the horrific injuries doctors are seeing. We found remnants of these widely banned weapons attached to a makeshift barricade in a district near the front line. The rebels there told us they had been used on homes and a supermarket.’
The BBC’s Lunchtime News of April 27, referred to unspecified 'reports' that 'put the death toll at over 450' in Misrata. Curiously, a piece in the same broadcast put the toll at 400. But then there is no need to make sense of the figures or to provide sources – or to consider arcane issues of methodology - when the bad guys are doing the killing.
Elsewhere, Campaign Against Arms Trade asks: ‘Why is the British Government surprised at what Colonel Gaddafi has done with the weapons it has sold him?’ Kaye Stearman comments:
UKTI DSO [UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation, the Government's arms export unit] set up a permanent office in Tripoli to facilitate arms company activities. Libyan top brass were invited to attend Farnborough International Airshow in 2010 and Defence Security Equipment International arms fair in London in 2009.
'In turn, British arms companies exhibited at arms fairs in Libya. Britain had the largest pavilion at Tripoli’s Libyan Defence and Security Exhibition in 2010.
'In 2009, EU arms exports to North Africa doubled from 985 million euros to two billion euros. In Libya, they reached 343 million euros (compared to 250 million euros the year before). The main suppliers in the five years 2005-09 were Italy, France and the UK...'
Cluster Bombs - Some Awkward Facts
The US website Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted that the New York Times had reported:
'Military forces loyal to Col. Moammar el-Gadhafi have been firing into residential neighborhoods in this embattled city with heavy weapons, including cluster bombs that have been banned by much of the world.'
The NYT strongly suggested that the use of cluster bombs helped justify Nato's cause:
'The use of such weapons in these ways could add urgency to the arguments by Britain and France that the alliance needs to step up attacks on the Gadhafi forces, to better fulfill the United Nations mandate to protect civilians.'
The newspaper mentioned as an aside:
At the same time, the United States has used cluster munitions itself, in battlefield situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in a strike on suspected militants in Yemen in 2009.'
The reality is far uglier, as FAIR noted:
'The U.S. was criticized by Human Rights Watch for using cluster bombs in populated areas in Afghanistan, killing and injuring scores of civilians (Washington Post, 12/18/02). Amnesty International (4/2/03) called the U.S.'s use of cluster bombs in civilian areas of Iraq "a grave violation of international humanitarian law." (See FAIR Action Alert, 5/6/03.) NATO employed cluster bombs in its bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo War, with one attack killing 15 civilians in the town of Nis (BBC, 5/7/99); more than 2,000 unexploded munitions from cluster bombs are estimated to remain on Serbian territory, continuing to endanger civilians (AFP, 3/10/09).
'The "suspected militants" attacked by a cluster bomb in Yemen in 2009 turned out to be "21 children and 20 innocent women and men" (NewYorkTimes.com, 12/9/10)--all killed in the U.S. attack.'
FAIR added, 'You can be sure that none of these examples of U.S. use of cluster bombs in civilian areas prompted the New York Times to suggest that they justified military attacks on the United States in order to protect civilians.'
There is also the embarrassing fact that British and American officials colluded in a plan to hoodwink parliament over a proposed ban on cluster bombs. WikiLeaks revealed that David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary under Labour, approved the use of a loophole to manoeuvre around the ban and allow the US to keep the munitions on British territory.
In a straightforward propaganda piece in the Guardian, Xan Rice wrote:
'In their attempt to end the uprising, Gaddafi's forces have killed at least 1,000 people. Around 90% are civilians who have died because of indiscriminate shelling or shooting, doctors here say.'
Again, no need to provide serious evidence for the figures.
Having previously lauded ‘a war in Libya with the noble aim of protecting civilians,’ the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn now looks on as 'Justifiable action against impending massacre turns into imperial intervention.' The notion that the war has suddenly turned 'into imperial intervention' might salve Cockburn’s conscience, but in fact there has been no change, no turn, because there never was a 'noble aim'. As Richard Keeble reported in a recent guest media alert, the West has been trying to topple Gaddafi for four decades. Likewise, over many decades, the West has been utterly ruthless in using violence to secure the region’s natural resources. It makes no sense to view the current war in isolation from the long, abysmal historical record, and the obvious drivers and goals of US-UK foreign policy. Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, blogged the point that matters:
'Bahrain is putting 47 doctors and nurses on trial for treating wounded and dying protestors. Again there is total silence from the UK and US governments at this sickening human rights abuse by our “ally” in the Gulf. There is no discussion of sanctions against Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. There no longer seems to be even the slightest attempt to disguise the double standards. Human rights are merely an excuse to attack those who oppose UK and US interests, meaning corporate wealth; those who promote those interests can rape, kill and pillage whosoever they please.'
On April 20, we challenged the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus on his coverage of the war in Libya:
I'm sure you believe your reporting is completely neutral. You write: "there seems to be a general sense that something more must be done..." to help rebels "defeat their government opponents on the ground". You ask "But what? None of the options are quick or simple". You then provide three military options: [Nato ‘boots on the ground’, ‘equip and train’ rebels and ‘advice and support’ for rebels].
Can you see that, to be neutral, you would have to pen a companion article outlining military options that would help pro-Gaddafi forces defeat the rebels and Nato? Inconceivable, of course.
Marcus responded the same day:
Sorry I disagree with your logic. I don't believe my reporting is neutral - I know it is. We must leave it at that - we are not going to agree.
He added: “I am paid precisely not to have strong views but to try to analyse events fairly which I have done.”
We replied, again on the same day:
Thanks Jonathan. It's not about agreeing; it's about providing reasonable arguments to justify important positions. To be balanced, the BBC would have to outline options that might enable pro-Gaddafi forces to win the war. This the BBC would never do because it would be seen as an endorsement for Gaddafi's cause. And this is why your report was not neutral - it's fine to offer a de facto endorsement for the rebels' cause, even though the BBC doesn't just believe, but knows it's neutral.
It's just a rational argument - you're free to ignore it, of course.
Our point - an obvious one, we would hope - is not at all to suggest that we support Gaddafi's tyranny or his atrocities. Our point is that, time and again, our ostensibly independent mass media fall into line when the state declares war. When the official enemy attacks civilians our media howl with righteous outrage. But when our own governments, the people we elected, do the same or much worse - when they reduce a major city to utter ruins - our media applaud the tough choices made by a 'warrior president', or celebrate the clever, high-tech tools that make the task that bit easier.
As long as our compassion is filtered through a screen of self-interest, so that we notice suffering when it suits us and ignore it when it does not, our world will be filled with violence and the lucrative industries it spawns.