In recent years, policy and decision makers have given increasing attention to the importance of media coverage in the context of wars. Much as a result, we witness ever-more complex ‘media offensives’ in which, stakeholders are willing to go further than ever before in order to hoist their victory flags on our television screens and monitors. Within such an environment where truth is merely a corollary to the success or failure of detailed media campaigns designed in dark rooms of power, it is quite expected that issues of morality — or even basic human instinct, for that matter — are suspended in stupor.
The grand conceit of mass media in Afghanistan and Iraq is now an open-secret. From the initial engineering of entirely misleading narratives up to present day coverage of on-ground realities, the achievements of propaganda in battlefronts that have erupted in the post-9/11 world will make their way into history as some of the most eminent examples of wholesale deceit and deception.
One alarming development in this vein has been what some may call the ‘militarization’ of media warfare. Silencing the voices of journalists and media outlets (brutally, if needed), has become a feature of modern wars. It is not in the least surprising in this regard that 2009 marked the bloodiest year on record in terms of journalist fatalities. At one level, this ploy serves to pre-emptively counter the possibility of having to deal with ‘awkward’ questions about war conduct. Yet it is perhaps in its capacity to generate widespread fear and terror that this strategy attempts to circumscribe the role of reporting, and thus predetermine the contours of victory on the media scene.
In Iraq, we witnessed the rise of novel phenomena; from the notion of embedded journalists to the concept of RRMT (Rapid Reaction Media Teams). During Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006, one of its first targets were the broadcasting headquarters of the Al-Manar television network and the Al-Nour radio station in its bid to settle the outcome of the media war at the outset. Two years later, we had a far more evolved strategy to block-out media coverage during Israel’s war on Gaza; the infamous ‘Hill of Shame’ brought about the notion of ‘spectator sport’ reporting. Journalists and TV crews were gifted with a “spectacular panoramic” overview of the bleeding warzone from a distance safely calculated by the party that was doing all the bombing.
For all these instances, the object is evidently clear: to shield the perceptions of the outside world from the scourges of war. All we witness after the censoring is a bite-sized version of all the suffering and pain, the ‘blood and gore’. Sights and sounds are packaged precisely in order to little arouse (if at all) the primordial human instincts of compassion and empathy.
Despite the tragic experiences and setbacks suffered in the last few years, the same trend continues with total impunity. As the adage confirms, the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. In the provinces of north-west Pakistan, the empire carries out drone strikes at will whilst the dead remain faceless and fade away as disputed statistics. In the war-torn Yemeni province of Saada, the situation is arguably far more desperate.
During the last two months, the intensity of battle has taken a turn for the worst. With the advent of direct Saudi and US involvement in the war against Houthi ‘rebels’, the battlefront has seen relentless bombardment day after day. Still however, imagery out of Saada has been limited to rising smoke plumes from lifeless hills in a jagged terrain. Obvious questions arise on the intent of filters and newscasts by airing such images, which I leave to the reader.
Images of innocent children forcibly robbed of life are missing altogether in this de-sensitized version of war; the screams and squeals of the wounded, the sorrow-filled faces and abjectness of widows and orphans do not feature in this war. By associating lifeless images of bombed hills with the deadly loads of F-16s, our perceptions are not only conditioned but ultimately, it is our natural reaction to the deep agony and torment suffered by fellow humans that is curtailed. Newscasts and orchestrators of PR campaigns establish — albeit implicitly, through their coverage — that in the case of the ravaging war in Saada, the Saudi-Yemeni-US military alliance is only ‘wiping out’ rogue rebels whilst innocents remain untouched by the blind killing and destruction.
Similarly, at the propaganda level the Houthis have been variously branded as clients of Iran,1 and more recently as noted by Jane Novak who is a long-time analyst and expert on Yemeni affairs, airstrikes on Al Qaeda are being conflated with strikes on Houthis to give a veneer of legitimacy to the ongoing bloodshed.2 Whatever asymmetry that exists in the military firepower of the two sides is simply being carried forward and multiplied on the media battlefield.
Whilst the tools available for media and communication have greatly evolved, such a spectre of media warfare is neither arbitrarily unique nor modern at its heart. It is rather, merely another chapter in the age-old standoff between power and truth.
According to the Islamic tradition, our sense of duty towards the Divine firmly interlocks with securing the rights of the vulnerable and downtrodden. Silence in the face of oppression is akin to partaking in oppression. Human beings are thus individually and collectively established by faith as ‘monitors of power’; whenever power transgresses its natural confines as a tool to establish justice, it becomes incumbent for a Muslim to make a stand. Such sentiments are shared in one way or another by, dare I say, the majority of humanity.
For those who reject to live subject to the rule of whips and lashes, there is thus a need to wake up and make a dignified stand against the constant drive (by those in power) to immune us all from the agonies of our fellows as a matter of norm; carried out all the while, under the rubric of grand slogans in service of the meagre interests of a tiny elite.
- ‘Emperors of Silent Wars,’ Dissident Voice, 14 December 2009. [↩]
- ‘Airstrike Blowback,’ Armies of Liberation, 23 December 2009 [↩]