[Reader-list] Media War 1.3

Ravi Sundaram ravis at sarai.net
Wed Oct 10 23:15:16 IST 2001

Todays Indian Express suddenly reported on the Al-Jazeera bureau in Delhi, 
(it opened quite some time ago, no one reported it then), following US 
attacks on that channel. This is a piece by Robert Fiske one of the few 
critical voices in the media.

Ravi Sundaram

Robert Fisk: Lost in the rhetorical fog of war
'The Taliban have kept reporters out; does that mean we have to balance 
this distorted picture with our own half-truths?'
09 October 2001

A few months ago, my old friend Tom Friedman set off for the small Gulf 
emirate of Qatar, from where, in one of his messianic columns for The New 
York Times, he informed us that the tiny state's Al-Jazeera satellite 
channel was a welcome sign that democracy might be coming to the Middle 
East. Al-Jazeera had been upsetting some of the local Arab 
dictators  President Mubarak of Egypt for one  and Tom thought this a good 
idea. So do I. But hold everything. The story is being rewritten. Last 
week, US Secretary of State Colin Powell rapped the Emir of Qatar over the 
knuckles because  so he claimed  Al-Jazeera was "inciting anti-Americanism''.

So, goodbye democracy. The Americans want the emir to close down the 
channel's office in Kabul, which is scooping the world with tape of the US 
bombardments and  more to the point  with televised statements by Osama bin 
Laden. The most wanted man in the whole world has been suggesting that he's 
angry about the deaths of Iraqi children under sanctions, about the 
corruption of pro-western Arab regimes, about Israel's attacks on the 
Palestinian territory, about the need for US forces to leave the Middle 
East. And after insisting that bin Laden is a "mindless terrorist''  that 
there is no connection between US policy in the Middle East and the crimes 
against humanity in New York and Washington  the Americans need to close 
down Al-Jazeera's coverage.

Needless to say, this tomfoolery by Colin Powell has not been given much 
coverage in the Western media, who know that they do not have a single 
correspondent in the Taliban area of Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera does.

But why are we journalists falling back on the same sheep-like conformity 
that we adopted in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo war? For here we 
go again. The BBC was yesterday broadcasting an American officer talking 
about the dangers of "collateral damage''  without the slightest hint of 
the immorality of this phrase. Tony Blair boasts of Britain's involvement 
in the US bombardment by talking about our "assets'', and by yesterday 
morning the BBC were using the same soldier-speak. Is there some kind of 
rhetorical fog that envelops us every time we bomb someone?

As usual, the first reports of the US missile attacks were covered without 
the slightest suggestion that innocents were about to die in the country we 
plan to "save''. Whether the Taliban are lying or telling the truth about 
30 dead in Kabul, do we reporters really think that all our bombs fall on 
the guilty and not the innocent? Do we think that all the food we are 
reported to be dropping is going to fall around the innocent and not the 
Taliban? I am beginning to wonder whether we have not convinced ourselves 
that wars  our wars  are movies. The only Hollywood film ever made about 
Afghanistan was a Rambo epic in which Sylvester Stallone taught the Afghan 
mujahedin how to fight the Russian occupation, help to defeat Soviet troops 
and won the admiration of an Afghan boy. Are the Americans, I wonder, 
somehow trying to actualise the movie?

But look at the questions we're not asking. Back in 1991 we dumped the cost 
of the Gulf War  billions of dollars of it  on Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But 
the Saudis and Kuwaitis are not going to fund our bombing this time round. 
So who's going to pay? When? How much will it cost us  and I mean us? The 
first night of bombing cost, so we are told, at least $2m, I suspect much 
more. Let us not ask how many Afghans that would have fed  but do let's ask 
how much of our money is going towards the war and how much towards 
humanitarian aid.
Bin Laden's propaganda is pretty basic. He films his own statements and 
sends one of his henchmen off to the Al-Jazeera office in Kabul. No 
vigorous questioning of course, just a sermon. So far we've not seen any 
video clips of destroyed Taliban equipment, the ancient Migs and even older 
Warsaw Pact tanks that have been rusting across Afghanistan for years. Only 
a sequence of pictures  apparently real  of bomb damage in a civilian area 
of Kabul. The Taliban have kept reporters out. But does that mean we have 
to balance this distorted picture with our own half-truths?

So hard did a colleague of mine try, in a radio interview the other day, to 
unlink the bin Laden phenomenon from the West's baleful history in the 
Middle East that he seriously suggested that the attacks were timed to fall 
on the anniversary of the defeat of Muslim forces at the gates of Vienna in 
1683. Unfortunately, the Poles won their battle against the Turks on 12, 
not 11, September. But when the terrifying details of the hijacker Mohamed 
Atta's will were published last week, dated April 1996, no one could think 
of any event that month that might have propelled Atta to his murderous 

Not the Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon, nor the Qana massacre by 
Israeli artillery of 106 Lebanese civilians in a UN base, more than half of 
them children. For that's what happened in April, 1996. No, of course that 
slaughter is not excuse for the crimes against humanity in the United 
States last month. But isn't it worth just a little mention, just a tiny 
observation, that an Egyptian mass-murderer-to-be wrote a will of chilling 
suicidal finality in the month when the massacre in Lebanon enraged Arabs 
across the Middle East?

Instead of that, we're getting Second World War commentaries about western 
military morale. On the BBC we had to listen to how it was "a perfect 
moonless night for the air armada'' to bomb Afghanistan. Pardon me? Are the 
Germans back at Cap Gris Nez? Are our fighter squadrons back in the skies 
of Kent, fighting off the Dorniers and Heinkels? Yesterday, we were told on 
one satellite channel of the "air combat'' over Afghanistan. A lie, of 
course. The Taliban had none of their ageing Migs aloft. There was no combat.

Of course, I know the moral question. After the atrocities in New York, we 
can't "play fair" between the ruthless bin Laden and the West; we can't 
make an equivalence between the mass-murderer's innocence and the American 
and British forces who are trying to destroy the Taliban.

But that's not the point. It's our viewers and readers we've got to "play 
fair" with. Must we, because of our rage at the massacre of the innocents 
in America, because of our desire to cowtow to the elderly "terrorism 
experts", must we lose all our critical faculties? Why at least not tell us 
how these "terrorism experts" came to be so expert? And what are their 
connections with dubious intelligence services?
In some cases, in America, the men giving us their advice on screen are the 
very same operatives who steered the CIA and the FBI into the greatest 
intelligence failure in modern history: the inability to uncover the plot, 
four years in the making, to destroy the lives of almost 6,000 people. 
President Bush says this is a war between good and evil. You are either 
with us or against us. But that's exactly what bin Laden says. Isn't it 
worth pointing this out and asking where it leads?

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