Tag Archives: Florian Zollmann

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 February 2020

“The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data”, US historian Howard Zinn says in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the 2004 documentary about his life.

A good example of this truism is a recent episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service – with US Colonel Andrew Milburn recounting his time fighting in what BBC presenter Alex Last calls “the Battle for Fallujah” in Iraq.

In the short radio piece – each segment of Witness History is just nine minutes long – Last provides some context for listeners: with the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation creating significant opposition, the city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar, had become an insurgency stronghold. In an attempt to subdue the resistance, the US undertook a huge assault on Fallujah in November 2004 – involving 20,000 troops backed by tanks and aircraft.

With a population of 250,000, Last notes there was estimated to be around 2,500 fighters in the city at the time of the attack, along with some 20-30,000 civilians.

“Honestly, it was rare that you saw civilians”, Milburn says about the urban warfare he experienced. “There was a kind of feeling ‘Look there aren’t civilians here, we have got tanks, we have got anti-tank weapons, let’s just use these instead of sending guys into buildings.’”

“That is when most of the destruction happened”, he remembers. “By the end of the battle [in December 2004]… it looked like the second world war. It looked like Dresden or Stalingrad”.

The US and Iraqi government forces lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, notes Last, with “conservative estimates” of “hundreds of Iraqi civilians” killed.

“It was a pyrrhic victory”, Milburn concludes. “Even as we won the city and we killed thousands of the insurgents there were many, many more being recruited – largely by pictures of us rubbling a city”.

As these quotes suggest, critical consumers can occasionally gleam some useful information from BBC reporting. However, Witness History’s focus is on the US experience, with all the problems that comes with this.

Last’s assertion that 20-30,000 civilians were left in Fallujah is a very low estimate, with a statement at the time from the top US general in Iraq, George W. Casey, suggesting the US military believed 60-100,000 civilians remained in the city at the beginning of the attack. The essential 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Newcastle University’s Dr Florian Zollmann also calls into question the BBC’s estimate of civilian deaths. After conducting a detailed analysis of media coverage of Fallujah, Zollmann suggests the total number of civilian dead was likely around 2,000. For example, in January 2005 the director of the main hospital in Fallujah reported there had been 700 bodies recovered from just one third of the city, 550 of them women and children.

Moreover, the programme omitted any mention of arguably the most important aspect of the carnage – that US forces carried out what would be considered war crimes if they were carried out by Official Enemy states like Iran, Syria or Russia. Indeed in the introduction to his 2007 verbatim play Fallujah academic and playwright Jonathan Holmes argues the US contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions in Fallujah.

The scene was set for the slaughter by US Lt Col Gary Brandl, who led the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment into the fight with these words: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Media reports at the time noted the US military and their Iraqi allies cut off the electricity and water supplies to the city, and, in an early operation, targeted Fallujah’s General Hospital. “Considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda”, the New York Times reported US Special forces and Iraqi troops smashed in doors, with patients and medical staff “rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.”

Testifying at the 2008 Winter Solider hearings, US Marine Michael Leduc explained how the rules of engagement changed for Fallujah – “now, we were operating under the assumption that everyone was hostile.” His battalion officer encouraged Marines to kill anyone using a cell phone and anyone they suspected of “manoeuvring against” them. The US implemented “a strict night time shoot-to-kill curfew”, The Times reported, with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot.”

“Every weapon available in our arsenal short of nukes is turned on Fallujah”, US Army Sergeant David Bellavia wrote in his memoir. This included White Phosphorus, with a 2005 edition of the journal Field Artillery confirming its use in Fallujah by publishing testimony from a US officer: “We used it… as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive].”

With the bloodbath in full swing, the US military blocked aid from reaching the city, with a convoy of food and medicine brought by the Iraqi Red Crescent refused entry to the city, according to the Guardian.

Furthermore, Associated Press reported that “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”.

Also unmentioned by Witness History is the key role played by UK forces. The British infantry battalion The Black Watch was redeployed from southern Iraq to the area surrounding Fallujah – to replace US marines sent into the city. “They have been used to block off insurgents running weapons into Baghdad and to plug escape routes for those fleeing the US assault on Fallujah”, a November 2004 BBC News article reported.

BBC World Service journalists may see themselves as part of an “impartial, accurate, trustworthy” news organisation, as a former World Service director once said. However, in reality their reporting, such as this episode of Witness History, often follows a propagandistic framing of Western foreign policy.

As Warwick University’s Professor Susan Carruthers noted in her 2000 book The Media At War, in wartime “the media have generally served the military rather well”.

Zollmann confirms this maxim very much applies to Fallujah, with his study comparing the US offensive in the Iraqi city to human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

His analysis shows how Fallujah was “framed in terms of reciprocal war and fighting” – remember the title of the Witness History episode: “The Battle for Fallujah”.  There was some critical media coverage, he notes, but this “was placed in an ideological context, which still assumed that ‘allied’ countries constitute legitimate and positive forces.”

This “politicised discourse” has huge ramifications, he argues, serving “to obscure the well-documented fact” US actions in Fallujah “also shared the properties of massacres and war crimes.”

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, is Zollmann’s damning conclusion. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

With the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media downplaying US-UK crimes it falls to those concerned citizens who are aware of the real history of Fallujah to make sure this dark chapter in US-UK foreign policy is never forgotten.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
10 August 2019

From what I can tell a new report from monitoring group Air Wars, concerning US media coverage of the US-led military interventions in Iraq and Syria since 2014, has been ignored by the entire British media, except for the Morning Star.

“News reporting on civilian casualties from international and US actions, was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict”, the study concludes.

The extraordinary depth of this Western power-friendly journalism is highlighted by Airwars’s survey of more than 900 US Department of Defense transcripts of press conferences. Incredibly the research “found that [US military] officials were… the first to raise civilian harm in three-quarters of the press conferences or briefings in which the issue was broached since 2014.”

This lack of coverage was linked by US journalists themselves to a variety of factors, including “the limited presence of reporters on-the-ground”, a news cycle dominated by US domestic politics and credibly sourcing claims of civilian casualties. However, these justifications ring somewhat hollow when you consider arguably the most interesting finding of the study: “Major US media were… five times more likely to report on civilian harm from Russian and Assad regime actions at Aleppo than they were from US and allied actions at Mosul” (the report notes “civilian harm outcomes” in Aleppo and Mosul “were often similar”).

So it turns out the US media does report on civilian casualties – as long as the civilians are harmed by Russian and Syrian government forces.

US writer and media critic Adam Johnson has humorously coined The North Korea Law of Journalism, in which “editorial standards are inversely proportional to a county’s enemy status”. If journalists are considering crimes committed by the US and its allies then “rock solid, smoking gun evidence” is usually required to run a story. In contrast, journalists can “pretty much make up whatever [they] want” with little or no evidence to back up their claims if they are criticising North Korea, and nations like Iran, Russia and Syria.

Though the Air Wars study only looked at US media, there are indications the British media also acts as a defacto “propaganda system” when it comes to reporting on Western intervention in the Middle East.

Take three well-known commentators working at two respected newspapers: The Times’s David Aaronovitch and Jonathan Freedland and George Monbiot at The Guardian. Monbiot is arguably the most radical journalist working in the mainstream media. No doubt all three of these experienced journalists see themselves as critically-minded, free-thinking writers.

Their Twitter feeds suggest a different story.

Culminating in December 2016, the battle for Aleppo involved Syrian government and (from September 2015) Russian forces unleashing hell on areas held by assorted rebel groups in the northern Syrian city.

Aaronovitch has tweeted about Aleppo 13 times. “Aleppo is Stalingrad” and the “destruction of Aleppo” is “awful” were two of his outraged hot takes.

Freedland tweeted about Aleppo six times up until December 2016.

Monbiot has tweeted about Aleppo nine times, according to Interventions Watch blog. “A monstrous crime against humanity” and “a crime beyond reckoning”, the enraged Monbiot commented.

Monbiot’s “response to events in another Syrian city, however, was markedly different”, Interventions Watch explains.

From June to October 2017 the US (with British support) led an intense assault on Raqqa, targeting the city being held by Islamic State with airstrikes and artillery barrages.

An April 2019 investigation by Amnesty International estimated the US-led coalition killed over 1,600 civilians during the assault. “Never before have I seen a city so completely devastated. Not just in one district area, but almost entirely”, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, reported after visiting the city. “Think Dresden and you’d be close.”

“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told The Times in December 2018.

Monbiot’s response to this slaughter? Tumbleweed. “Monbiot *said nothing*. Not a word of condemnation, not a single attempt to highlight the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding, not even a passing mention, either as it was happening, or afterwards”, Interventions Watch note.

Likewise, Aaronovitch and Freedland have not tweeted one word about the US-UK bloodbath in Raqqa as far as I can tell.

This brief Twitter review echoes the findings of Dr Florian Zollmann, Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, who analysed US, UK and German newspaper coverage of human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013) for his 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention.

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, he notes. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

This systematic bias can only increase the worrying level of ignorance of UK foreign policy amongst the British public – a status quo the government and military will be more than happy with.

“There is a general policy by the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons”, a senior British officer told the Sunday Telegraph in 2008. “If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.”

With the media providing such poor, power-friendly coverage, how is the general public supposed to gain an accurate understanding of the world? How can politicians make good decisions when it comes to future votes on war and peace? And what chance does the public have of understanding why many people in the Middle East and beyond have an unfavourable view of the UK?

Rather than being the tenacious Woodward and Bernstein-style Fourth Estate of journalists’ fantasies, it’s clear that when it comes to the Middle East the US and British media have, by and large, given their own governments and their militaries a free pass, shamefully helping to hide the bloody reality of Western military action from the American and British people.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
5 June 2018

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and author of the recent book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention (Peter Lang, 2017). Zollmann starts by setting out the main findings of his study.

Florian Zollmann: Leading news organisations in liberal democracies employ a double-standard when reporting on human rights violations: If countries designated to be ‘enemies’ of the West (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012) conduct human rights violations, the news media highlight these abuses and report demands for action to stop human rights breaches. Such measures may entail policies with potentially serious effects for the target countries, including sanctions and military intervention. If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2004 and Egypt in 2013) are the perpetrators of human rights violations that are similar or in excess of those conducted by ‘enemies’, the news media employ significantly less investigatory zeal in their reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are suggested.

My study shows, on the basis of an assessment of extensive quantitative and textual data, that the news media utilise different journalistic norms in terms of how they convey emotional sentiment, handle facts and evidence, use sources and perspective and classify events. These journalistic double standards, then, translate into a radically dichotomised news framing of problem definitions, responsibility of actors and policy options in response to what constitute relatively similar human rights violations: Official ‘enemies’ are depicted as pariah states, facing international condemnation and intervention. Western states and their ‘allies’ are depicted as benign forces, which may at best be criticised for using the wrong tactics and policy approaches. The dynamics of such dichotomised propaganda campaigns have had the effect that only some bloodbaths received visibility and scrutiny in the public sphere.

In Libya, conflict between government and opposition groups erupted on 15 February 2011. By 23 February, Western newspapers had provided generous space for quotations by US, UK and EU government spokespersons as well as partisan actors who demanded intervention in Libya in accordance with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. The dominant news media discourse depicted the actions of the Libyan government as atrocious crimes, ordered by the highest levels of governance. The United Nations Security Council eventually authorised the 19 March 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

Yet, whilst the International Criminal Court estimated that about 500-700 people had been killed in Libya in February, no independent investigation into the incidents had been conducted at the time of the NATO onslaught. As my study shows, the international press had acted as a facilitator for intervention in Libya. This so-called ‘humanitarian’ intervention was far deadlier than the violence that had preceded it. According to Alan J. Kuperman, ‘NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by about seven to ten times’. Moreover, it turned out that Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protestors (see here). My study also shows how the pretext for intervention in Libya was discursively manufactured.

Another case study in my book looks at news media reporting of so-called US-Coalition ‘counter-insurgency’ operations during the occupation of Iraq. In October 2004, the respected medical journal The Lancet published a studysuggesting that 98,000 people had been killed during the US-Coalition invasion-occupation of Iraq between 19 March 2003 and mid-September 2004. The authors of the study wrote that the violent deaths ‘were mainly attributed to coalition forces’ and ‘most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children’. On 8 November 2004, US-Coalition forces attacked the Sunni city Fallujah, the centre of Iraqi resistance against the occupation. US-Coalition air and ground forces used an array of heavy weaponry including artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other devices, like explosive coils to clear minefields, in residential areas. Fallujah was treated largely as a ‘free-fire zone’. It is estimated that during this assault between 800 and 6,000Iraqi civilians were killed.

As I document in my book, the Western press hardly reported these figures. The findings of the Lancet study were largely ignored and not linked with US-Coalition warfare in Iraq. In fact, the press depicted civilian carnage as ‘casualties’ – the tragic outcomes of ‘war’. Whilst the press included indignant statements by Iraqi actors and human rights organisations, there were almost no reports of any statements conveying policy options that would have put a constraint on the US-Coalition’s use of military force such as sanctions or measures in line with ‘responsibility to protect’.

IS: Why do elite newspapers in the West report foreign affairs in the way you describe?

FZ: The Western elite press draws heavily from government officials to define, explain and accentuate events. Such performance results from institutional imperatives: newspapers have to operate cost-effectively in the market system. The institutional requirement to make profits compromises journalistic standards, such as to report accurately and in a balanced way, to search for the ‘truth’, or to monitor the powerful. Markets incentivise the use of pre-packaged information provided by governments and powerful lobby groups. Nurturing such official news beats decreases the costs of newsgathering and fact-checking. Official statements are regarded as authoritative and their publication does not lead to reprimands.

Additionally, there has been a vast increase in government and corporate propaganda activities that feed into the news media cycle. If newspapers engage in critical investigations that undermine the official narrative, they face costly repercussions: denial of access to official spokespersons, negative responses by think-tanks and actors as well as the threat of libel suits. Because small losses in revenue may threaten their economic survival, news organisations are driven towards the powerful in society.

Commercial constraints are augmented by the integration of newspapers into quasi-monopoly corporations. According to the Media Reform Coalition, ‘Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with 3 companies in control of 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies in command of 81% of local newspaper titles.’ Such levels of media concentration encourage ideological homogenisation. For example, market concentration allows media owners to synchronise the news agenda and incentivises the recycling of information across different platforms. Corporate consolidation establishes market-entry barriers and prevents the launching of alternative newspapers. Finally, the commercial press is dependent on corporations that act as major advertising sponsors. The research I discuss in my book suggests that news organisations are inclined to not undermine the interests of their sponsors. Moreover, work by James Curran highlights how advertisers act as de-facto licensers: without advertising support, commercial news organisations go out of business.

IS: Did you find any significant differences between the US, UK and German press?

FZ: On a macro-level, there are strikingly similar reporting patterns in the US, UK and German press. This means that the dichotomised reporting patterns outlined above are replicated across countries independent of a newspaper’s national or ideological affiliation. Such a performance can be explained by the fact that US, UK and German news organisations are subject to the same economic constraints. Furthermore, US, UK and German governments share a similar ideological outlook in terms of US-led Western foreign policy objectives. We have seen numerous examples in recent years when the UK and German governments have supported US foreign policies, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news media broadly reflect this alignment. Of course, there are also differences. National political interests manifest in reporting as well. For instance, the German press included tactical reservations about using military force in Libya. This appeared to reflect national elite disagreements, as German politicians preferred other policy options. There were also differences in the quantity and detail of coverage. The US press arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage in terms of the amount of published material. The ‘liberal’ UK press reported in more detail on humanitarian issues and was more critical of US-Coalition actions in Iraq – albeit not in a way that substantially challenged policy.

IS: The ongoing war in Yemen is not one of the case studies you analyse in your book. From what you have seen of the media coverage of the Yemen conflict, does it conform to your thesis?

FZ: As I have written elsewhere, the Yemen case fits well in the framework of my study. The humanitarian crisis is largely a consequence of the blockade and invasion of Yemen orchestrated by a Saudi-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the West. During the war in Yemen, the US and UK have provided substantial diplomatic and military support to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there has been no willingness by the so-called ‘international community’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions in Yemen and R2P and related doctrines have not been seriously evoked. This, then, has been reflected in muted news media coverage. Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force. Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.

IS: What advice would you give to interested citizens keen to get an accurate understanding of world affairs?

FZ: I am hesitant to recommend specific news outlets. It is important to draw from multiple and diverse sources of information and to question official announcements, narratives and ideologies, independent of where they come from.

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2018

‘The biggest immediate single problem we face… is mainstream media reporting’, British historian Mark Curtis recently argued in an Open Democracy interview about UK foreign policy.

Florian Zollmann’s deeply impressive first book – which expands on his PhD, supervised by Professor Richard Keeble – goes a long way in engaging with this long-running issue for peace activists.

‘The news media in liberal democracies operates as a propaganda system on behalf of state-corporate elite interests’, he argues, using Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model as the foundation of his study.

Analysing elite newspapers in the UK, US and Germany, Zollmann, a lecturer in journalism at Newcastle University, compares and contrasts nearly 2,000 news, editorial and comment items covering human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

Zollmann’s findings are deeply worrying, with huge ramifications for journalists, activists and British democracy itself. ‘If countries designated to be “enemy” states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses’, he notes. ‘If, on the other hand, Western states or their “allies” are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.’ The level of indignation, the seniority of the officials blamed, and whether the media call for sanctions, action from the United Nations or so-called humanitarian military intervention – all largely depends on the identity of the perpetrators. It isn’t included as a case study, but the media’s (lack of) coverage of the Western-backed assault on Yemen is a further damning illustration of Zollmann’s thesis.

In addition to extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence, a wealth of references and an in-depth bibliography, the book also includes important accounts of the two devastating US-led assaults on Fallujah in Iraq, as well as critical facts and arguments effectively excluded from the mainstream media’s reporting of the West’s interventions in Libya and Syria.

At £29, this is a pricey purchase, and though it is clearly written and logically argued, the academic style may make it a little dry for some readers. However, I would strongly recommend peace activists get hold of a copy of Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention as it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the media’s propagandistic role in the West’s often deadly and counterproductive foreign policy.