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Iraq, The Graveyard Of Western Journalism

American soldiers prepare to storm a building in Iraq
American soldiers prepare to storm a building in Iraq during the recent conflict

With all due caution given the source this recent Q&A with Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former senior correspondent with Reuters, featured on Russia Today deserves a far wider audience than it has got. Yes, it is RT, yes everything they say or write should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, however…:

Andre Vitchek: Andrew, as the former head of Reuters in Iraq, you are perhaps now comparing how the Middle East has been covered, to the coverage of events in this part of the world – Southeast Asia.

Andrew MacGregor Marshall: …To me as a journalist, it’s our duty to tell the truth. And if we have to break the local laws to do so, we have to do that. And if we are not willing to do it, we at least have to say in our stories that we can’t tell the full truth, because local laws prevent us.

And this was a process that had begun, I think, in Iraq. Because almost from the start in Iraq, Reuters and all foreign journalists could see it was a catastrophe; it was an ill-thought out intervention; there was massive corruption, massive incompetence, and this fact is now so widely recognized… I don’t think it is now even up for debate that the US and British-led intervention in Iraq was a disaster.

We had lost six staff during my time there… They were killed; five of them killed by the US military, allegedly by mistake, and one killed at a checkpoint by a sectarian death squad.

I started to think: we’d sacrificed so much to be there and my Iraqi staff especially, had sacrificed so much… and in the end, when I looked back, had we really helped any understanding of what happened? I don’t think we did. Every day we’d focus on the latest car bombing and the number of dead… and the number of dead became almost incomprehensible; you’d have 80 dead in car bombings in one day, you’d have 50 headless corpses dumped in the street in Baghdad… So it was a constant stream of horror that was making our headlines…

AV: Was it designed like this? Of course Reuters is not the only media outlet, the only agency, which has adopted this approach…

AM: I don’t think it’s so much an obvious conspiracy. It’s just the debate is framed in a way that it delegitimizes opposing viewpoints. I have been a member of the mainstream media for 17 years of my career, and I believed I was doing good, nobody ever told me I should follow a certain political line and certainly nobody ever told me that I should lie, and if they ever had I would refuse. I think most of my colleagues in the mainstream media are similar.

But what was interesting is that it’s more insidious than that. There is a certain discourse that becomes normalized, in which certain views are acceptable and others not. And if you make obvious statements, you know, like about the role of banks or global superpowers, and about the disaster that’s befallen the world in many areas in recent years, you are often marginalized as some sort of loony figure. And there is a “cult of moderation,” of being “neutral”’ in the media. Being neutral is normally held to be that if there is a crazy right-winger or left-winger, you are somewhere in the middle. But obviously, truth is not always in the middle. We may not always know the truth, but there is objective truth. And it does not always lie in the middle between the two extremes.

I think it is through this process that the mainstream media basically becomes a tool of misinforming people, rather than informing people. It’s not so much deliberate lies, although some clearly do engage in deliberate lies, but it’s just the sense that there are some things that are safe to say that we become conditioned that they are safe to say, and there are other things that we probably know them to be true, but if we say them we are mocked or delegitimized.

AV: Is there a self-censorship?

AM: Absolutely!

The US narrative that Abu-Ghraib was just a few bad people, who did things that were not allowed, is ridiculous. We have seen Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib and Bagram, and many other US detention centers. We have seen torture, and sexual torture became normalized. But when I was trying to report any story like this for Reuters, my editors would demand enormous evidence. I had to jump over innumerable hurdles to prove that my staff had been tortured. And I knew these men very well and I knew they were telling me the truth.

But if we wanted to report on atrocities by a militant group in Baqubah or Fallujah, we would just write “that it had been reported,” and there would be no attempt to ask us to prove what happened, because it was just assumed that this is what the militants do – they do bad things, and the Westerners do good things. So the standard of proof was totally different. It was done in a subtle way. We were never told to lie, and we were genuinely always trying to tell the truth. But looking back I can see we were coming from very constrained cultural lands, for we looked at things with a certain mindset and we failed to understand that most Iraqis and indeed most of the people in the Middle East and around the world, they don’t look at the world from a Western or US-centric mindset.

AV: Andrew, how horrible was Iraq? You were there; you witnessed atrocities committed by the West, by the United States… How bad was it really? Perhaps more than a million people died?

AM: Yes.

AV: … Before the invasion and after the invasion…

AM: It was a shocking time. It changed me forever. These kinds of times change anybody. Of course the people that are most changed and traumatized are the national populations who are involved. But it was the first time that I was exposed to the extreme violence that became “normal,” where every day there were corpses on the street. Every day there were bombings, and it’s a terrible thing when the car bombings, decapitations, and torture become routine. And the danger of it is that the readership or the audience for this news becomes desensitized… And to some extent I am desensitized now by the coverage of Syria. I think one of the challenges for journalists and film-makers is to find a way to engage the audience, because people don’t want to be depressed by pictures of bloodshed and horrors… But they need to be aware of it.

AV: So when their governments commit atrocities in their name and in the name of their cultures, you think we should be sensitive to the viewers who elect these governments?

AM: No, I don’t believe we should be sensitive, but we need to find a way to engage the audience. A complaint that I often hear from journalists, including me sometimes, is that the audience wants to click on a story about Paris Hilton, but not on a story about car bombing in Syria… and I think, that’s human nature. People do want to often avoid unpleasant news. And they often do want to read celebrity froth.

AV: Andrew, where is Iraq going?

AM: Well, as you know, Iraq is falling apart. The Kurds will probably have their own state, which they probably deserve, because their people have been stateless for so many years. But what we are seeing is a much wider Shia versus Sunni conflict, across the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia in particular, and also the Gulf countries, are playing a baleful role. And we see the tentacles of this spreading much further, even into Indonesia and Malaysia.

Iraq is an artificial country that was created by the British by cobbling together various groups that don’t really want to live together. And like so much else in the Middle East, it’s unraveling and it’s proven to be a disaster. So it is an unfolding tragedy. We cannot look at what’s happening in Iraq without looking at the wider Middle East context, which is also an unfolding tragedy, and I think it could well be the defining conflict for our era.”

The suspected female soldier Deilar Kanj Khamis, who served under the nom de guerre Arin Mirkan, a member of the Women’s Protection Unit of the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) of Kurdistan

Talking of which, from the CS Monitor:

“Fighting around Kobane is turning increasingly desperate, as the forces of the self-declared Islamic State threaten to overrun the Syrian border town’s Kurdish defenders.

Syrian Kurdish official Idris Nahsen told Agence France-Presse that IS forces are within a kilometer of the town to the south, but their latest attempt to advance had been repulsed by Kurdish forces. Although airstrikes by US-led coalition forces had helped slow the IS advance on Saturday, Mr. Nahsen said airstrikes alone would not be enough to break the siege on Kobane.

According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a female suicide bomber was among those who engaged IS forces, killing herself at an IS post on Sunday. The Observatory told AFP that is was the first time that such a tactic has been used by Kurdish fighters against the Islamic militants. Nahsen confirmed to AFP that the bombing had taken place, though he did not say whether it would be repeated. “I don’t know. It is related to the situation. We don’t have this strategy,” he said.

The BBC reports that the Kurds in Kobane areangry that they have yet to receive help from Turkey, which promised last week that it would prevent the town from falling to the IS advance. Turkey has yet to act beyond patrolling the border, however. Turkish forces did deploy tear gas Monday against crowds of observers and reporters who had gathered along the border. The BBC’s Paul Adams reports that one of the gas canisters shattered their vehicle’s rear windshield and set the van on fire briefly.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that Turkey’s apparent reluctance to act may stem from fears of fueling a resurgence of Kurdish separatism, which it has long tried to suppress. The Monitor notes that the Turkish government has been negotiating a peace deal with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an outlawed Kurdish militant group, but that deal is now in jeopardy.”

While Kurdish female suicide bombers are not unknown they are still rare enough to make international headlines (unlike the countless, mainly young people who have sacrificed their lives in such attacks over the last two decades). If the reports are true (and it is a big if) then the contagion of violence unleashed by the United States and its allies in the early 2000s has poisoned the entire region.

Related to which is this…

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