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`Embedded' truth

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

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The Western media's coverage of the invasion has been neither credible nor objective. By far, they have simply toed the line of the political and military establishments of the U.S. and the U.K.

THIS war was supposed to have been fought to achieve the most honourable of objectives - to bring freedom and liberty to an oppressed people. As such, the media of the United States should have striven to set high standards of transparency and objectivity, which they claim to be their benchmark. Instead, much of the coverage of the war by the U. S. media and by a broad section of the British media was akin to the now-famous photograph showing a crowd of Iraqis cheering as the statue of Saddam Hussein was being pulled down in Baghdad's Firdaus square.

In the form in which it was published in most newspapers around the world, the photograph encapsulated the message that the U.S. administration had conveyed before the war and for its duration. The Iraqis who were trampling the statue were as happy and eager to vent their ire at the deposed oppressor as the U.S. had claimed they would be. That one photograph served to refute the doubters and the anti-war protesters and vindicate those who had authored the invasion. The only problem with the published version of the photograph is that it is a complete distortion of the events that actually took place in Firdaus square.

The information portal Information Clearing House.Info got hold of and published a series of photographs of the self-same event, taken from different angles and distances. The close-up shots showed only Iraqis on and about the fallen statue. But, as the camera angle changes and the lens widens and withdraws to a greater distance, the scene morphs into something wholly different. It becomes obvious that Iraqis are not the only ones present and that there are as many if not more U. S. servicemen in the vicinity. As the camera moves further back, it becomes apparent that the Iraqis who had supposedly pulled off this great "Berlin wall" moment were merely a handful and probably a select bunch that had been let through the ring of American tanks that had sealed off and sanitised the road intersection. Finally, there is the last photograph - actually the first in the series - which shows U.S. Marines perched atop a ladder leaning on the statue, throwing a noose around Saddam's bronze countenance, which, by then had been covered by the Stars and Stripes. The rope led to an armoured recovery vehicle of the type used to tow away broken-down tanks. It was this vehicle, named after some former U.S. martial figure, and not the people of Iraq that hauled Saddam's effigy down.

Among those shown to be dancing on Saddam's graven image were some who were later identified as close associates of Ahmed Chalabi, the quisling whom the Americans want to install on the throne of the Caliphs. It would be tempting to dismiss this farce if it were not for the real tragedy that underlies it. It is just a representative sample of the manner in which the invasion has been sold to a segment of the international community that could have effectively aborted the Bush administration's military plans - the U.S. electorate.

Even before the war was launched, the U.S. public was conned into believing that it was necessary to protect its interests. It was systematically made to perceive the campaign as one fought through honourable means and with the noble objective of liberating the Iraqi people. The campaign of deception took place in parallel with the military action and included the near-complete black-out of reports and images of civilian casualties, the glossing over of mounting evidence that the war was not related to its stated objectives and a persistent effort to show that the Iraqis too were celebrating the Anglo-American advance. There were occasions when the effort to show the war in a positive light acquired sinister overtones. Of the dozen journalists who were killed in the course of the war, at least a couple, if not more, died in circumstances that can be mildly described as dubious.

The Qatar-based television channel Al Jazeera was one of the very few media organisations that consistently telecast images of dead and wounded civilians. Its coverage of the war irked the U.S. administration and the right wing in that country to such an extent that pressure was put on Qatar's Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani to black out the channel. Al Jazeera was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, its website was hacked and its telecasts were blacked out in most parts of the U.S. The death of its correspondent Tareq Ayyoub in an Anglo-American air attack on the channel's Baghdad station seemed to be part of a pattern. Ayyoub was on the roof of the Baghdad station when the fighter-bomber targeted it. Earlier, Al Jazeera officials in Qatar had provided the co-ordinates of the channel's Baghdad office to the U.S. Central Command's headquarters and had been promised that it would not be attacked. The Central Command has offered neither an explanation nor an apology for the attack and the killing of Ayyoub.

A day later, a U.S. tank opened fire on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, killing two cameramen working for the news agency Reuters and the Spanish network Telecinco respectively, and wounding three others. It was well known from countless dispatches that the hotel housed almost all the international journalists covering the war from the Iraqi side. Since the Central Command could not plead ignorance, it opted for an outright lie. The U.S. military said that its tank had opened fire because a sniper had shot at it from the Palestine Hotel. Journalists who were either in the hotel or on the road outside are unanimous that they did not hear the sound of a sniper's gunshots. Although it would be impossible to determine whether the deaths of these journalists were caused deliberately, scribes reporting the war from an Iraqi perspective did have the perception that the U.S. establishment was hostile towards them.

Peter Arnett, who during the Vietnam war gained a reputation for getting to the scene of fighting even before the supporting military units did, lost his job with the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) for merely stating on Iraqi television that the invaders had not been able to stick to their original time table. Expressing his shock at being dismissed, Arnett wrote about the enormous sensitivity within the U. S. government to reports coming out of Baghdad. "The right-wing media and politicians are looking for any opportunity to be critical of the reporters who are here, whatever their nationality," he wrote.

A few freelancers and representatives of small media organisations, who tried to follow the path of the invasion on their own (without being "embedded"), were detained, harassed and beaten up by soldiers for being in places where they were not "authorised" to be. A journalist of the calibre of Robert Fisk (The Independent), with a formidable reputation for reportage on West Asia and its wars, had to suffer the ignominy of having his integrity and credibility questioned in the House of Commons by British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon. Michael Wolff, who wrote for New York Magazine, was abused by a low-key White House functionary and savaged with hate mail for merely questioning the utility of "5am follies", which is what the daily briefings at the Qatar base of the U.S. Central Command had been reduced to.

While the military and political leaderships of the Anglo-American combine made a special effort to stifle any signs of independence in the media, there were not many journalists or institutions either who covered themselves with glory. Far too many journalists, whether embedded with forces or reporting from the briefing centres in Kuwait and Qatar or anchoring news programmes, seemed to have been carried away by the high-tech weaponry and treated the war as an elaborate video game unconnected to the lives of real people.

The politico-military leadership tried to dress up this invasion as some sort of Second World War redux, using terms such as "Allies" to describe a miserable two-and-a-half-bit combination, and "Desert Rats" for the British Division as if it was fighting the "Desert Fox" Erwin Rommel instead of a badly depleted Iraqi army and holding summits in island resorts as if Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was Stalin reincarnated. The media preferred to suspend its inherent wisdom and and go along with this charade unquestioningly.

Reports from the electronic media in Baghdad carried routine reminders that journalists operating inside Iraqi lines were restricted in their movements and that their work was being monitored. Until the second week of the war, when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) started doing so, hardly any attempt was made to inform viewers or listeners that the same conditions and restrictions applied to journalists operating behind the lines of the Anglo-American forces.

Stories that could, and should, have been followed up were ignored. Whether it was the use of cluster bombs against Iraqi villagers in Hilla, or the widespread use of depleted uranium munitions, or the number of instances when civilians, including children were killed at roadblocks by trigger-happy Anglo-American soldiers, no serious effort seems to have been made to elicit a response from senior military officials in Kuwait or Qatar or the capitals of the invading forces.

The overall impression created by the Anglo-American media, especially the embedded variety, was that the entire operation was carried out in as humanitarian and sensitive a manner as possible. It was only as the operations were winding down, and the less popular reports started making the rounds, that a different picture began to emerge. In these reports, the Anglo-American troops emerge as jittery, nervous young people who were often overwhelmed by the circumstances in which they found themselves and therefore responded with less discrimination than was expected of them.

None of the networks showed the courage displayed by Al Jazeera to relay gruesome pictures of dead and wounded civilians, including little children. They seemed to be only too eager to put out their military establishments' spin that the damage to civilians could have been caused by Iraqi weaponry. Fisk and The Independent nailed at least one lie - that the death of several dozen civilians in a market in Baghdad was caused by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile that had gone astray - by producing the serial number on a piece of shrapnel, which established that it was American. But, by then Geoff Hoon, who implied that Fisk had been duped by the Iraqis, had moved on to other topics and was allowed to get away with chicanery.

That the invasion was an epochal event in West Asian affairs, indeed in global affairs, is hardly a justification for the media's reluctance to alienate the military establishments of their countries. In a situation where the unfolding events would have incalculable effects on the citizens of their own countries, the media were under an even greater onus to report the facts freely and accurately. A large section of the media did not take the pains to explore the possibilities that were open. They did not ask the critical, or even the obvious, questions. Foremost among them were the questions pertaining to the reasons cited to justify the invasion, not one of which could have stood up to serious scrutiny.

For over a decade, the U. S. administration and its military establishment have said that an intrusion into Iraq will be necessary at some stage because it was the only realistic means by which its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could be eliminated. With military operations almost over and with the U.S. and British troops supposedly in control of most of Iraq, no traces of these weapons or the facilities to manufacture them have been found. But the media in the U.S. and the U.K. showed no signs of any serious desire to hold their governments accountable. It continued to give credence to versions offered by the military. For instance, when the Anglo-American forces overran a petroleum facility in the early days of the war, the military spokespersons reported that apparel intended to protect the wearer against chemicals had been found on the site. This was supposed to be critical evidence to prove that Iraq had an undisclosed chemical warfare capability. Not a single reporter seems to have pointed out that gear to protect a person from chemicals is usually found in oil facilities, or bothered to ask whether the quantity of protective gear found at the site was way beyond the normal.

As the Anglo-American forces closed in on Baghdad and entered the "red zone", the media's coverage of the issue of WMDs changed from the pathetic to the ridiculous. The "red zone", the world was informed, was the area outside a 30-km radius from Baghdad into which the Iraqis could lob artillery shells filled with chemical munitions. The raising of the WMD bogey was a blatant attempt to convenience the military just as it was about to besiege and then batter its way into a city of six million people.

The media then went about protecting its collective rear by spinning out all kinds of speculations about the Iraqis and their WMD potential, including the theory that the Iraqis had refrained from using WMDs because they did not have them in the first place.

The U.S. military establishment seems to have miscalculated that the Iraqi people, suffering under the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein, would revolt when the "liberating" armies got close, or at least welcome the liberators once they chased the oppressors. But even after Saddam and his henchmen disappeared from the scene and the Iraqis, including the Shias, continued to protest against the Anglo-American presence, the mainstream media in the U.S. and the U.K. appeared reluctant to report the depth of Iraqi resentment against the invasion. Reports about Iraqi protests were either rounded off with quotes from stray characters who spoke of their goodwill towards the U. S., or "balanced" out with the suggestion that the resentment would die out once security and civic services were restored.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 09, 2003.)

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