On January 11, 2010, we sent out a media alert titled, ‘Were Afghan children executed by US-led forces? And why aren't the media interested?’
The alert concerned credible reports that American-led troops had dragged Afghan children from their beds and shot them during a night raid in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan on December 27 last year. Ten people were killed, including eight schoolboys from one family. We noted that the alleged atrocity had been almost wholly ignored by the corporate media, including the BBC.
Two months after these disturbing allegations surfaced, The Times correspondent Jerome Starkey sought out two local men whose children and other relatives had been killed. (‘Nato admits that deaths of 8 boys were a mistake’, The Times, February 25, 2010; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/afghanistan/article7040166.ece). Starkey invited the men to Kabul where:
“They provided pictures of their dead sons, a sketched map of the compound and copies of the compensation claim forms signed by local officials detailing their sons’ names, relatives and positions at school. Their story was supported by Western military sources.”
After its initial shameful attempts to deny culpability, Nato now asserts that the raid had been carried out on the basis of faulty intelligence and should never have been authorised:
“Knowing what we know now, it would probably not have been a justifiable attack. We don’t now believe that we busted a major ring.”
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The Times correspondent reported the testimony of Mohammed Taleb Abdul Ajan, father of three of the boys who were killed:
“‘When I entered their room I saw four people lying in a heap,’ said Taleb. ‘I shook them and shouted their names but they didn’t respond. Some of them were shot in the head. Some of them were shot in the chest.
“‘I was praying that in the next room maybe they were still alive but when I went in I saw everyone was dead. I saw blood on their necks. I became crazy. I don’t remember what I felt.’” (‘Assault force killed family by mistake in raid, claims Afghan father’, The Times, February 25, 2010; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/afghanistan/article7040216.ece)
However, a Times editorial on the same day managed to portray the atrocity in the required context of a “just war”:
“The legitimacy of the cause in Afghanistan is called into question by civilian deaths. The conflict needs to be conducted with regard for the native population.” (Editorial, ‘Just War’, The Times, February 25, 2010; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article7040089.ece)
The stated benign aims of Western governments have to be taken on trust; just as the Soviet government portrayed +its+ invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as an act of humanitarian intervention initiated at the “request of the [Afghan] government”. The aim of that earlier occupation, the Soviet people were reassured, was “to prevent the establishment of... a terrorist regime and to protect the Afghan people from genocide”, and also to provide “aid in stabilising the situation and the repulsion of possible external aggression”. (Nikolai Lanine and Media Lens, ‘Invasion: A Comparison of Soviet and Western Media Performance’, November 20, 2007; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/07/071120_invasion_a_comparison.php)
The final payoff line from The Times leader could have come from a Pravda editorial of thirty years ago:
“In order to defeat our enemies we must be seen to be better than them.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the corporate media averted its gaze from the bloodied remains of dead Afghan schoolchildren.
The Malodorous Myth of BBC Balance
In December, BBC news online had posted these two brief ‘balanced’ reports of the US-led killing of the Afghan schoolchildren:
‘Afghanistan children killed “during Western operation” ’, December 28, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8432653.stm
‘Afghan MP accuses US troops of killing schoolchildren’, December 30, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8434800.stm
In the first of these reports, the BBC observed:
"Nato said it had no record of operations or deaths in the area."
"The BBC's Peter Greste in Kabul says Kunar province is remote, snowbound and dominated by the Taliban, so the investigation into Saturday's alleged incident will be difficult."
The second report commented:
"The BBC's Peter Greste in Kabul says it is impossible to verify either account. He says it is possible that both are broadly correct - and that the victims might well have been school students, but that they helped the insurgency."
When Media Lens readers challenged the BBC’s failure to report the allegations fully and responsibly, the response from the corporation was galling:
“It's worth noting that the circumstances of the incident are disputed, unlike some previous examples of civilians killed by coalition forces. The Afghan government and the UN believe that civilians were killed as the result of the US operation in Kunar. NATO still does not accept this and strongly argues that US forces killed insurgents.” (Email from BBC complaints to Media Lens reader, February 19, 2010)
Evidence of a massacre is even stronger now than it was then, less than a month ago. And yet we are not aware of any subsequent BBC news reports, or any corrections or apologies.
On February 27, we contacted two senior BBC editors: Helen Boaden, director of BBC news, and Steve Herrmann, who is responsible for BBC news online. We pointed out that Jerome Starkey of The Times had now been able to verify the reports that Afghan schoolchildren had been shot dead in the December raid involving US forces. We asked the BBC editors, in light of the latest Times reporting:
“What will you and your colleagues be doing to follow up your previous reports?
“With the resources that the BBC has available, why were you apparently unable to do what Mr Starkey has done and investigate – and now indeed verify - the initial disturbing allegations of Afghan schoolchildren being shot?
“How will these latest revelations affect how you deal with Nato statements in future?”
We have yet to receive any response from Helen Boaden or Steve Herrmann.
We emailed the same questions to BBC reporter Peter Greste. In an email dated March 2, he told us that he is normally based in Kenya - he had been covering Afghanistan for the Christmas and New Year period, and had left Kabul early in January. He passed on our inquiry to the BBC’s Kabul bureau editor “who will get back to you in due course.” Instead, a response was then sent to us by Sean Moss, a “divisional advisor” at BBC complaints, who wrote blandly:
“As I'm sure you will appreciate, it is not feasible for the Kabul bureau to enter into a dialogue with individuals. If you would like to make a complaint, you need to do so through the webform at www.bbc.co.uk/complaints.” (Email, March 15, 2010)
As many of our readers will be all too aware, the BBC “complaints” procedure is a standard corporate tool for deflecting public challenges, ensuring that little of substance actually changes.
Meanwhile, the killing, and the propaganda campaign, continue. Last week, Starkey reported that another night raid carried out by US and Afghan gunmen this month led to the deaths of two pregnant women, a teenage girl and two local officials - an atrocity which Nato then tried to cover up. (‘Nato “covered up” botched night raid in Afghanistan that killed five’, The Times, March 13, 2010; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/afghanistan/article7060395.ece)
The family were offered “American compensation” - $2,000 for each of the victims. “There’s no value on human life,” said Bibi Sabsparie, mother of two of the dead. “They killed our family, then they came and brought us money. Money won’t bring our family back.”
This latest horror has again been buried by the UK media, along with its victims.
BBC staff employed to manage complaints from the public are adept at robotically indicating where the latest Western crime has been ‘impartially’ reported – BBC radio bulletins, a paragraph or short online report, or perhaps a snippet on the BBC News Channel or the World Service. But the glaring omission is of any in-depth, headline coverage on the main BBC television news watched by millions. Nothing must question the state ideology that, while “mistakes” might happen, the aims of the government are benevolent.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Mark Thompson, BBC director general
Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Steve Herrmann, BBC news online editor
Richard Colebourn, BBC Kabul bureau editor
Please send a copy to the Chair of the BBC Trust. The Trust is responsible for ensuring that the BBC upholds its public obligation of impartiality:
Michael Lyons, Chair of the BBC Trust
Our full list of media contacts can be found at:
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