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Navigating War: Has the War in Syria also Destroyed Journalism?

When a veteran war reporter like Robert Fisk constructs his argument regarding the siege of Aleppo based on ‘watching’ video footage, then one can truly comprehend the near impossibility of adequate media coverage on the war in Syria.

In a recent article in the British ‘Independent’, Fisk reflects on the siege, uprising and atrocious Nazi massacres in Warsaw, Poland in 1944. The terribly high cost of that war leads him to reject the French assertion that the current siege in Aleppo is the ‘worst massacre since World War Two.’

“Why do we not see the defending fighters, as we do on the Warsaw films? Why are we not told about their political allegiance, as we most assuredly are on the Warsaw footage? Why do we not see ‘rebel’ military hardware – as well as civilian targets – being hit by artillery and air attack as we do on the Polish newsreels?,” he asks, further demonstrating what he perceives to be the flaw of such a comparison.

Not that Fisk doubts that pictures of the dead and wounded children in eastern Aleppo are real; his argument is largely against the one-sidedness of the coverage, of demonizing one party, while sparing another.

Without reserve, I always find comparing massacres – to find out which is worse – tasteless, if not inhumane. What is the point in this, aside from mitigating the effect of a terrible tragedy, by comparing it to a hypothetically much greater tragedy? Or, as the French have done, perhaps exaggerating the human toll to create the type of fear that often leads to reckless political and military action?

The French and other NATO countries have used this tactic repeatedly in the past. In fact, this is how the war on Libya was concocted, purportedly to stave off the imminent Tripoli ‘genocide’ and Benghazi ‘bloodbath.’ The Americans used it in Iraq, successfully. The Israelis have perfected it in Gaza.

In fact, the United States’ intervention in Iraq was always tied to some sort of imagined global threat that, unsurprisingly, was never proven. Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was so eager to take part in the conquest of Iraq in 2003 that he contrived intelligence alleging that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was able to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes from the moment such an order was given.

The US went even further: it was only recently revealed that the US had hired a London-based firm, Bell Pottinger, to create fake al-Qaeda videos and news reports that were designed to appear as if written by legitimate Arabic media.

The propaganda videos were ‘personally approved’ by the commander of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq at the time, General David Petraeus, Salon and others reported.

We still do not know the specific content of many of these videos and to what extent such material, which cost US tax payers $540 million dollars, influenced events on the ground and our understanding of these events.

Considering the high financial cost and the fact that the company worked directly from inside Baghdad’s ‘Camp Victory’, ‘side-by-side’ with high-ranking US officials, one can only imagine the degree of deceit imparted upon innocent viewers and readers for years.

Compounded with the fact that the whole reason behind the war was a lie, the then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had no intention of ever informing reporters of what was really transpiring on the ground, and that countless reporters agreed to be ‘embedded’ with US-British forces, thus further contributing to the one-sided narrative. One is left to wonder if any truth ever emerged from Iraq.

Then, again, we know that hundreds of thousands have died in that catastrophic military adventure, that Iraq is not better off, and that thousands more are still being killed because this is what happens when countries are invaded, destabilized, hurriedly reassembled and then left to lick their wounds, alone.

The chaotic violence and sectarianism in Iraq are the direct outcome of the US invasion and occupation, which were constructed on official lies and dishonest media reporting.

Is it too much to ask, then, that we learn from those dreadful mistakes, to understand that when all is said and done, nothing will remain but mass graves and grieving nations?

As for the lies that enable wars, and allow the various sides to clinch on their straw arguments of selected morality, few ever have the intellectual courage to take responsibility when they are proven wrong. We simply move on, uncaring for the victims of our intellectual squabbles.

“The extreme bias shown in foreign media coverage of similar events in Iraq and Syria will be a rewarding subject for PhD students looking at the uses and abuses of propaganda down the ages,” wrote war reporter, Patrick Cockburn.

He is right, of course, but as soon as his report on media bias was published, he was attacked and dismissed by both sides on social media. From their perspective, a proper position would be for him to completely adopt the version of events as seen by one side, and totally ignore the other.

Yet, with both sides of the war having no respect for media or journalists – the list of journalists killed in Syria keeps on growing – no impartial journalist is allowed to carry out his or her work in accordance with the minimum standards of reporting.

Thus, the ‘truth’ can only be gleaned based on deductive reasoning – as many of us have successfully done, reporting on Iraq and Palestine.

Of course, there will always been the self-tailored activist-journalist-propagandist variety who will continue to cheer for death and destruction in the name of whatever ideology they choose to follow. They abide by no reasoning, but their own convenient logic – that which is only capable of demonizing their enemies and lionizing their friends.

Unfortunately, these media trolls are the ones shaping the debate on much of what is happening in the Middle East today.

While the coverage of war in the past has given rise to many daring journalists – Seymour Hersh in Vietnam, Tariq Ayyoub in Iraq, photo-journalist Zoriah Miller, and hundreds more – the war in Syria is destroying journalistic integrity and, with it, our readers’ ability to decipher one of the most convoluted conflicts of the modern era.

In Syria, as in Iraq and other warring regions in the Middle East, the ‘truth’ is not shaped by facts, but opinions, themselves fashioned by blind allegiances, not truly humanistic principles or even simple common sense.

“Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world — and never will,” wrote Mark Twain many years ago.

It was true then, as it is true in the Middle East today.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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