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Dec

2007

The Faceless And The Dead - The Guardian And Iraq's Refugees
Friday, 07 December 2007 01:14

by Media Lens

“See The World Through Their Eyes”

For several months now, non-UK visitors accessing the Guardian website have been shown an endlessly revolving animation in three segments that would not look out of place on FAIR, ZNet, or indeed Media Lens.


The second segment shows a nervous-looking woman in traditional Arab dress with intense flames reflected in her eyes. The third has two grief-stricken women, again in Arab dress, with one carrying a frightened child - their images are reflected in a soldier’s goggles. The animation ends with the words:

“See the world through their eyes. The Guardian Weekly Global Network (theguardian weekly.co.uk)”

These images are shown hour after hour, week after week, to people visiting the site. This surely is a newspaper subjecting Western policies to fierce critical analysis. It must be focussing relentlessly on Iraqi, Afghan and other civilian suffering as a result of these policies.

But in reality, the Guardian has a long history of supporting Western state violence and of suppressing the truth of its consequences.


In 1956, the Guardian’s editors backed military action during the Suez crisis:

“The government is right to be prepared for military action at Suez“, the paper wrote, because Egyptian control of the canal would be “commercially damaging for the West and perhaps part of a plan for creating a new Arab Empire based on the Nile”. (Leader, August 2, 1956; cited, Murray Mcdonald, ‘50,000 editions of the imperialist, warmongering, hate-filled Guardian newspaper,’ July 2007)

In 1991, a Guardian leader hailed the righteousness of Operation Desert Storm in almost biblical terms:
“The simple cause, at the end, is just. An evil regime in Iraq instituted an evil and brutal invasion. Our soldiers and airmen are there, at UN behest, to set that evil right. Their duties are clear ... let the momentum and the resolution be swift.” (Leader, January 17, 1991, ibid)
Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team, later reported that the ensuing allied bombardment “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq — electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, 'The Ambiguities of Power — British Foreign Policy since 1945', Zed Books, 1995, pp.189-190)

The Guardian used the word ‘evil’ three times in a single paragraph in its leader. The same emotive word has not been used once in any Guardian editorial to describe the Bush-Blair-Brown invasion of Iraq — a war crime that has cost the lives of one million people and forced 4 million more from their homes.

In March 1999, the lack of United Nations approval did not deter the Guardian from again supporting war:
“The only honorable course for Europe and America is to use military force to try to protect the people of Kosovo.” (Leader, ‘The sad need for force,’ The Guardian, March 23, 1999)
Guardian journalist Maggie O’Kane later conceded of Kosovo:
“...this is a tale of how to tell lies and win wars, and how we, the media, were harnessed like beach donkeys and led through the sand to see what the British and US military wanted us to see in this nice clean war”. (O’Kane, The Guardian, December 16, 1995)
In December 2001, the Guardian celebrated a quick victory in Afghanistan:
“... the US-led campaign in Afghanistan continues to be far more successful than the pessimists, and even most optimists, ever thought possible. It is always harder to act than not to act, but the action taken by the US has been largely vindicated, at least in the short term... This is not a reason for silly gloating; but it certainly ought to be a reason for those who have consistently claimed to know that each stage of the operation would create some new and worse catastrophe to confess that they got it wrong. Their confidence turned out to be fear. Their apparent knowledge was in fact ignorance. Their belief that history would prove them right proved only the more useful lesson that history repeats itself until it does not. The war was largely over by Christmas after all.” (Leader, ‘They did it their way: George Bush, not Tony Blair, is the victor,’ The Guardian, December 8, 2001)
In February 2003, just four years after Kosovo, the Guardian was once again happy to lend credence to an obviously fraudulent pretext for war:
“It is not credible to argue, as Iraq did in its initial reaction to Mr Powell [at the Security Council], that it is simply all lies... Iraq must disarm.” (Leader, ‘Powell shoots to kill,’ The Guardian, February 6, 2003)
Four days after US tanks entered Baghdad in April 2003, leading Guardian commentator Hugo Young was quick to justify Blair’s war of aggression — the supreme war crime:
“For a political leader, few therapies compare with military victory. For a leader who went to war in the absence of a single political ally who believed in the war as unreservedly as he did, Iraq now looks like a vindication on an astounding scale... No one can deny that victory happened. The existential fact sweeps aside the prior agonising.” (Young, ‘So begins Blair's descent into powerless mediocrity,’ The Guardian, April 13, 2003)
A Time To Say Goodbye

Like the Guardian’s animation, columnist and Guardian assistant editor Madeleine Bunting gives the impression that her newspaper is a compassionate voice against violence. Bunting recently lamented how the slaughter in Iraq had been “normalised into the background of our lives”. A “public revulsion” at the violence remains, but “the horror gives way to exhaustion”. (Bunting, ‘The Iraq war has become a disaster that we have chosen to forget,’ The Guardian, November 5, 2007)

Part of the problem, Bunting continued, was that the war has become almost impossible to report, taking “either terrifying courage or extraordinary ingenuity” to bring images to our screens of those caught up in the disaster.

But something doesn’t add up. As Bunting noted in her own article, fully one in six Iraqis has been displaced from the country, many escaping to Syria (1.4 million) and Jordan (750,000). Are we really to believe that it takes “terrifying courage” for journalists to fly to Damascus and Amman to cover their plight? And yet coverage of the suffering of Iraqi refugees is almost completely absent from the British media. In fact, there has been so little in-depth reporting we may struggle to imagine what it looks like.

A sublime example is provided by the courageous young Iraqi writer, Riverbend, on her Baghdad Burning website.

In her September 7 entry, ‘Leaving home,’ she gave an insight into the tragedy that has engulfed Iraq’s 4 million refugees. The misery of lives uprooted by fear and violence was communicated through the simple truth of the details recorded. As she and her family prepared to leave Baghdad, their life-long home, each family member was able to take just one suitcase full of personal belongings. Riverbend wrote:
“Two months ago, the suitcases were packed. My lone, large suitcase sat in my bedroom for nearly six weeks, so full of clothes and personal items, that it took me, E. and our six year old neighbor to zip it closed.... I packed and unpacked it four times. Each time I unpacked it, I swore I’d eliminate some of the items that were not absolutely necessary. Each time I packed it again, I would add more ‘stuff’ than the time before.”

“It was a tearful farewell as we left the house. One of my other aunts and an uncle came to say goodbye the morning of the trip. It was a solemn morning and I’d been preparing myself for the last two days not to cry. You won’t cry, I kept saying, because you’re coming back. You won’t cry because it’s just a little trip like the ones you used to take to Mosul or Basrah before the war...

“It was time to go and I went from room to room saying goodbye to everything. I said goodbye to my desk — the one I’d used all through high school and college. I said goodbye to the curtains and the bed and the couch. I said goodbye to the armchair E. and I broke when we were younger. I said goodbye to the big table over which we’d gathered for meals and to do homework. I said goodbye to the ghosts of the framed pictures that once hung on the walls, because the pictures have long since been taken down and stored away — but I knew just what hung where. I said goodbye to the silly board games we inevitably fought over — the Arabic Monopoly with the missing cards and money that no one had the heart to throw away.

“I knew then as I know now that these were all just items — people are so much more important. Still, a house is like a museum in that it tells a certain history. You look at a cup or stuffed toy and a chapter of memories opens up before your very eyes. It suddenly hit me that I wanted to leave so much less than I thought I did.

“I cried as we left — in spite of promises not to. The aunt cried... the uncle cried. My parents tried to be stoic but there were tears in their voices as they said their goodbyes. The worst part is saying goodbye and wondering if you’re ever going to see these people again. My uncle tightened the shawl I’d thrown over my hair and advised me firmly to ‘keep it on until you get to the border’. The aunt rushed out behind us as the car pulled out of the garage and dumped a bowl of water on the ground, which is a tradition — its to wish the travelers a safe return... eventually.”
How often have we been allowed to be touched by this kind of truthfulness humanising Iraqi misery for the reader? Where is the media focus on personal details with the power to transform anonymous masses, mere numbers, into people? Where is the depth of concern suggested by the Guardian in its website animation?

In fact, the Guardian did set aside 625 words for Riverbend to publish a curiously bland piece in May (’Goodbye Baghdad,’ May 11, 2007') — the only time she has ever appeared in the paper in four years of searing eyewitness commentary. Even we have published almost twice as many words (1,155) in a single article in the Guardian over the same period.

The only other appearance Riverbend has made in the UK press was in a much more substantial, 2,500-word piece in the Sunday Times (April 2, 2006). The other 19 mentions she has received in national quality newspapers have been mostly brief reviews of her book Baghdad Burning.

Riverbend’s words were written in a country that has seen perhaps a million people killed since 2003, and 1.5 million more killed as a result of sanctions since 1990. In his crucial book, A Different Kind Of War — The UN Sanctions Regime In Iraq (Barghahn Books, 2006), former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, writes:

“At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical and mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-for-Food Programme.” (p.144)

The result:
“The [US-UK] hard-line approach prevailed, with the result that practically an entire nation was subjected to poverty, death and destruction of its physical and mental foundations.” (p.161)
And this was the major reason why, as von Sponeck notes, the number of excess deaths of children under five during 1991-1998 was between 400,000 and 500,000. (Ibid, p.165)

This was even before the even worse catastrophe that has followed the 2003 invasion. We need to be clear, than, that Riverbend’s words describe experiences comparable to history‘s very worst tragedies — she is a latter-day Anne Frank. And these events are happening now, a few hours from London, as a result of our own government’s actions.

It is shocking to read Riverbend and to realise just how alienated we are from the truth of Iraq. We know because, in reading her words — of the 6 year-old neighbour helping to heave the suitcase closed, of the beloved table where the homework was done — the reality of the Iraqi people suddenly rushes into focus. We can picture Riverbend doing her homework, we know her tears on leaving her home, we can imagine her little neighbour, because we have known all of these things in our own lives. She could be any articulate, intelligent young woman writing from any city in Britain.

We are reading the impressions of a soul sensitive to the pain of separation from familiar objects, to empty spaces on walls, to the uncertainty of separation from neighbours and relatives — and yet it is this same soul that has endured 12 years of ferocious bombing, dictatorship and sanctions, and four more years of cataclysmic violence. This consciousness, this sensitivity, could so easily have been snuffed out at any time, like so many others have been.

On February 20, the normally restrained Riverbend wrote of the gang rape of an Iraqi woman, Sabine, by Iraqi “security forces“. She concluded her piece with these words:
“As the situation continues to deteriorate both for Iraqis inside and outside of Iraq, and for Americans inside Iraq, Americans in America are still debating on the state of the war and occupation — are they winning or losing? Is it better or worse.

“Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts: It’s worse. It’s over. You lost. You lost the day your tanks rolled into Baghdad to the cheers of your imported, American-trained monkeys. You lost every single family whose home your soldiers violated. You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out and verified your atrocities behind prison walls as well as the ones we see in our streets. You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters and militia heads to power and hailed them as Iraq’s first democratic government. You lost when a gruesome execution was dubbed your biggest accomplishment. You lost the respect and reputation you once had. You lost more than 3000 troops. That is what you lost America. I hope the oil, at least, made it worthwhile.”
This honesty shamed just about every last journalist writing in the UK media. Riverbend now writes, far less often, as a refugee in Syria.

The Guardian Performance — Just Numbers

In the last six months, the Guardian has focused in less than a dozen articles specifically on the plight of Iraqi refugees. Mostly, these have been short, dry news pieces documenting the latest statistics of suffering from the latest aid agency reports. On July 31, Jonathan Steele covered a report by Oxfam and a network of 80 aid agencies that described “a nationwide catastrophe, with around 8 million Iraqis — almost a third of the population — in need of emergency aid”. (Steele, ’Children hardest hit by humanitarian crisis in Iraq,’ The Guardian, July 31, 2007)

On August 27, Ian Black’s report was titled “Displaced Iraqis double despite US military surge” (Black, The Guardian, August 27, 2007). No irony was intended in Black’s use of “despite”, although it would be unthinkable in coverage of any other illegal Great Power occupation.

More statistics followed from Suzanne Goldenberg on September 20: “2m Iraqis forced to flee their homes: Many move several times in search of safety and jobs Ethnic map redrawn, says Red Crescent report.” (Goldenberg, ‘Refugees in their own land,’ The Guardian, September 20, 2007)

There were no descriptions of spaces on walls, no little neighbours struggling with suitcases, no tears — just numbers.

Five days later, Richard Norton-Taylor reported similar figures in a 326-word piece. On October 11, Julian Borger noted that Amnesty International had criticised Britain over its forced returns of Iraqi refugees. The usual aid agencies were quoted:
“‘There are more and more makeshift camps in abysmal conditions, with terrible sanitation and water supply, very little or no healthcare, and no schools,’ Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said yesterday.” (Borger, ‘Iraqi provinces shut out internal refugees,’ The Guardian, October 11, 2007)
To be sure, the details of British government indifference were disturbing enough. Out of 740 rulings on the fate of Iraqi refugees last year Britain granted asylum to 30, according to Home Office figures. The US allowed entry to 535 Iraqis last year, less than a fifth of the number it accepted in 2000, three years before the war began.

And we recall how Tony Blair insisted, with quivering jaw, that compassion for the fate of Iraqi civilian suffering was of course at the very heart of the US-UK motivation for attacking that country:
"But the moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam... Yes, there are consequences of war. If we remove Saddam by force, people will die, and some will be innocent. And we must live with the consequences of our actions, even the unintended ones. But there are also consequences of 'stop the war'. There will be no march for the victims of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule, no righteous anger over the torture chambers which if he is left in power, will remain in being..." (Blair, 'The price of my conviction', The Observer, February 16, 2003)
On October 20, the Guardian’s Michael Howard finally did supply a couple of paragraphs of personal testimony on the fate met by Iraqis who had fled their homes in Baghdad as they faced bombardment from Turkey in the North of Iraq. (Howard, ‘Kurdistan: Iraqis who fled homes in fear face new terror as Turkey targets PKK rebels,’ The Guardian, October 20, 2007)

And on December 5, Michael Howard wrote of “thousands of refugees and internally displaced people who are returning to their former homes following the recent lull in sectarian violence”. (Howard, ‘UN promises aid as displaced Iraqis head home,’ The Guardian, December 5, 2007)

This is the propaganda version of events being widely pushed throughout the media. A week earlier, the Guardian’s own Jonathan Steele had reported a UN survey of Iraqi refugees which described their real reasons for returning to Iraq: “only 14% felt security had improved. Forty-six per cent said they could no longer afford to stay in Syria, and 25% said their visas had expired and they were ‘obliged to leave‘.” (Steele, ‘Refugees celebrate first bus back to Iraq,’ The Guardian, November 28, 2007)

In the last six months, the Guardian has published not a single in-depth report based around eyewitness accounts of the suffering of Iraqi refugees.

This is not an isolated phenomenon linked to “compassion fatigue”, as Bunting would have us believe. Analysis of the media record shows that human beings are consistently divided into “worthy” and “unworthy” victims.

On January 19, 100 eminent doctors backed by a group of international lawyers wrote to Tony Blair of Iraq:
“Sick or injured children, who could otherwise be treated by simple means, are left to die in their hundreds because they do not have access to basic medicines or other resources. Children who have lost hands, feet, and limbs are left without prostheses.” (The Letter: 'Sick or injured children, who could be easily treated, are left to die in hundreds')
The doctors added:
“... we call on the UK Government not to walk away from this problem, but to fulfil its obligations that it entered into under Security Council Resolution 1483 during the period 22 May 2003 to 28 June 2004“.
But the government did walk away and the Guardian failed to report the story.

On September 14, a report by the British polling organisation, Opinion Research Business (ORB) revealed that 1.2 million Iraqi citizens “have been murdered” since the March 2003 US-UK invasion.

The Guardian failed to report the poll.

In 2006, Hans von Sponeck published his forensic, damning account detailing US-UK responsibility for the catastrophic impact of sanctions on Iraq. The Guardian has not reviewed the book, nor even mentioned its existence.

Abandoned by the British government and the British media, the Guardian included, Iraq’s refugees continue their struggle for survival. Posting from Syria, one newly displaced refugee, Riverbend, writes:
“As we crossed the border and saw the last of the Iraqi flags, the tears began again. The car was silent except for the prattling of the driver who was telling us stories of escapades he had while crossing the border. I sneaked a look at my mother sitting beside me and her tears were flowing as well. There was simply nothing to say as we left Iraq. I wanted to sob, but I didn’t want to seem like a baby. I didn’t want the driver to think I was ungrateful for the chance to leave what had become a hellish place over the last four and a half years.”
In the same endearing spirit of endlessly thoughtful observation and indomitable optimism, she adds:
“We were all refugees — rich or poor. And refugees all look the same — there’s a unique expression you’ll find on their faces — relief, mixed with sorrow, tinged with apprehension. The faces almost all look the same.”
But for British journalism, their faces do not look the same — they do not even exist.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor Email: alan.rusbridger@guardian.co.uk

Write to Siobhain Butterworth, readers' editor of the Guardian Email: reader@guardian.co.uk

Write to the letters page Email: letters@guardian.co.uk

Visit www.4basra.org and consider donating to support children's hospitals in Basra, Iraq.

Please send a copy of your emails to us Email: editor@medialens.org

The Media Lens book 'Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media' by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Pluto Books, London ) was published in 2006. John Pilger described it as "The most important book about journalism I can remember."

For further details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here.
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