Selective Outrage: Iran And Libya

News that a fourth scientist in two years, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, had been assassinated in Iran by an unknown agency generated minimal outrage in the press.

Patrick Cockburn noted in the Independent:

While the identity of those carrying out the assassinations remains a mystery, it is most likely to be Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad…

The Sunday Times published a meticulous account of the planning and execution of the attack provided by “a source who released details’ on the actions of ‘small groups of Israeli agents” operating inside Iran.1

Julian Borger’s article in the Guardian warned against “Goading a regime on the brink”.

We wonder if the Guardian would have described the Iranian assassination of scientists on US or Israeli streets as ‘goading’. We also wonder if Borger would have described these as terrorist attacks.

Using the media database Lexis-Nexis we have been able to find just one example of a UK journalist describing Roshan’s assassination as an act of terror – New Statesman‘s senior political editor Mehdi Hasan writing in the Guardian. Otherwise, almost all references have been limited to the use of the word by Iranian officials behind scare quotes. (After challenges from Media Lens and other activists, Borger did publish a rare example of non-Iranian use of the term.)

By contrast, in October, the US accused Iran of recruiting a used car salesman, Manssor Arbabsiar, as part of a terrorist plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in a restaurant in Washington, DC. In that case, journalists had no qualms about using the word terror without inverted commas. Karen McVeigh reported in the Guardian:

Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalised US citizen, was arrested last month, and stands accused of running a global terror plot that stretched from Mexico to Tehran.

The Daily Mail:

An extraordinary terrorist plot has been foiled – which would have seen the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. murdered on American soil.

The Telegraph:

Iranian government officials were accused by the Obama administration of plotting a string of deadly terrorist attacks on American soil.

On Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald posted numerous similar examples from the US media. The alleged Arbabsiar plot was subsequently debunked by analyst Gareth Porter.

As Greenwald observed, “accusing Israel and/or the U.S. of Terrorism remains one of the greatest political taboos”. Responding to a Media Lens reader who had suggested, not unreasonably, that “a terrorist is one who brings terror to another person”, Channel 4’s Alex Thomson wrote:

Your definition of a terrorist as one bringing terror is nonsensical as it would encompass all military outfits’ including ‘the Royal Fusilliers [sic].2

Is that really so absurd? After all, following the murderous firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, prime minister Winston Churchill wrote to Bomber Command:

It seems to me that the moment has come that the bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.3

Presumably, then, one can argue that the RAF is a terrorist organisation.

Returning to last week’s assassination, while no-one has yet suggested that Iran is now obliged to bomb Washington, Borger argued:

If Americans had been killed in the Georgetown restaurant that was supposedly the target [of the debunked Arbabsiar ‘plot’], the Obama administration would have been obliged to respond militarily.

In similar vein, the aptly-named James Blitz asked in the Financial Times:

But even if an immediate military conflict… is averted, this still leaves a wider question: how much longer can Israel and the US wait before they bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?

The day after Roshan’s killing, Andrew Cummings, formerly an adviser on the Middle East and US affairs in the UK cabinet office national security staff, commented in the Guardian on ‘the risks’ of ‘this audacious approach’ – he meant the murdering of scientists. The sub-heading explained:

The death of another Iranian scientist has led to criticism of such actions, but Tehran’s refusal to co-operate leaves little alternative.

Cummings clarified:

What many people fail to recognise, though, is that a covert campaign, while rife with physical, diplomatic and legal risks, is the lesser of many evils.

And yet, as Patrick Cockburn noted:

The US has found no evidence

Tehran is trying to make a nuclear bomb, though US politicians [and US-UK journalists] often speak as if this was an established fact…

The US National Intelligence Estimates on Iranian nuclear progress, the collective judgement of all the US intelligence organisations, said there was no evidence Iran had been trying to build a bomb since 2003. The Defence Intelligence Agency concluded that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme at that time was directed against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and when he was overthrown by the US, it was ended.

Compare this with Blitz’s version:

Some western intelligence agencies believe Iran will bide its time a little longer and enrich more uranium – but will not take the big strategic decision to race for the bomb in 2012. Still, in every other respect, the auguries are not good.

Again by contrast, Greg Thielmann, a former US State Department and Senate Intelligence Committee analyst, told veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh last year: ‘there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb’.

Readers might respond that Cummings and Blitz are entitled to their baseless views, and the Guardian and FT are perfectly entitled to publish them – that’s what free speech is all about. We agree.

But a problem arises when we try to imagine the Guardian publishing a piece justifying the Iranian killing of a US scientist on a US street one day after he had been murdered. And try imagining the FT hosting an opinion piece that asked: ‘How much longer can Iran wait before launching its bombers against the US and Israel?’

Tawergha – ‘Get Out, Black Animals’

One might think that a corporate media system would act independently of the state – there is no formal mechanism of control. But as the ingrained bias sampled above indicates, this often turns out not to be the case. With regard to human rights, for example, corporate media typically do not simply pick a subject and lavish it with attention. Rather, political power selects an issue, frames the coverage, and media corporations jump on the bandwagon.

Type a household name like ‘Halabja’ into the UK media database search engine Lexis-Nexis, for example, and it produces more than 1,800 references to Saddam Hussein’s 1988 gassing of Kurds. Similarly, the words ‘Srebrenica’ and ‘massacre’ generate nearly 3,000 hits. Both issues have been afforded vast, impassioned coverage.

In truth, for Western commentators, the importance of these horrors is most often rooted, not in the scale of suffering inflicted, but in their utility for justifying the West’s military interventions. Thus an editorial in the Independent observed of Libya:

Concern was real enough that a Srebrenica-style massacre could unfold in Benghazi, and the UK Government was right to insist that we would not allow this.4

A Times editorial commented:

Without this early, though sensibly limited, intervention, there would have been a massacre in Benghazi on the scale of Srebrenica.5

Of course, media concern for human rights could be sincere – journalists are human beings, after all, and human beings often do care about the killing of civilians. But then the record requires some explanation.

Consider the massacre of 53 Libyans at the hands of ‘rebel’ fighters in Sirte last October. The Daily Telegraph reported:

Human Rights Watch said 53 people appeared to have been shot dead in a hotel in the centre of the city when it was under the control of fighters from Misurata. The badly decomposed bodies, some with their hands bound behind their backs, were found in a garden of Hotel Mahari.6

According to Lexis-Nexis, the word ‘Mahari’ generates a total of eight articles mentioning the massacre across the entire UK press, with one mention since October. Widening the search to ‘Sirte’ and ‘killing’ produces a few additional mentions.

Or consider the fate of the dark-skinned Tawergha people, former slaves brought to Libya in the 18th and 19th centuries. Until recently, some 31,000 of them lived in a coastal town, also named Tawergha, 250 km east of the capital Tripoli. The UN news agency IRIN reported the ethnic cleaning of the town by Nato-backed forces:

Their town sits empty – doors hanging open and homes burned; the sign leading to the city has been changed to New Misrata and its population told not to return.

As for the people:

In an abandoned Turkish company compound on Airport Road in Tripoli, more than 1,500 displaced Tawergha spend their days brushing away flies and watching their children play with toy guns amid piles of rubbish.

Here, women and children have huddled around on the uncovered mattresses they sleep on, weeping. They arrived in early November after a physically and emotionally draining journey from Tawergha, having been displaced by armed men every time they settled somewhere new.

Every one told of a father, son or brother who is either dead or in jail…

[One] young woman told stories of Tawergha detainees receiving electric shocks, having cold water poured on them and being burned with cigarettes by the revolutionaries from Misrata who were holding them. “This is Abu Ghuraib, not Libya!… We have done nothing wrong. If they continue to beat us and attack us for no reason, it will become a cycle,” she said.

A rare, excellent mainstream article by Åsne Seierstad in The Times supplied additional details:

“Slaves,” says graffiti on a wall. On a road sign, the town’s name has been scribbled over. “Misrata,” it says now. The commander of the local victors, Ibrahim al-Halbous, had already said it: “Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata.”

The article continued:

“Brigade for cleansing of black slaves,” proclaims one scribbled message on a wall along the road to Misrata. “Hairdresser. Free haircut,” says another. Large sections of the town are in ruins after the battles.

Seierstad found that Tawerghans were still not safe even in Tripoli:

Seven or eight people live in each room, in corridor after corridor, barrack after barrack.

But the construction site has no guards, and the avengers from Misrata can enter even here. They arrive at night. The men sleep fully clothed, ready to flee. Some nights earlier, an armed gang arrived at 2am. “You are all going to die,” they shouted. “Get out, black animals.”7

Last summer, the then Prime Minister of Libya’s National Transitional Council, Mahmoud Jibril, said:

When it comes to Tawergha, in my view, this is nobody’s business but the people of Misrata’s. This cannot be dealt with according to theories and textbooks about national reconciliation in South Africa, Ireland or Eastern Europe.8

Using a different spelling, the Telegraph has so far supplied one sentence:

Tawarga has been forcibly emptied of residents by rebels and looted.9

The sentence doesn’t appear in the online version.

A Guardian article barely hinted at the ethnic cleansing, reporting merely that Tawarga’s “mostly black population fled in August when rebel forces captured it”.

Chris Stephen described the ethnic cleansers’ attitude towards Tawargans as a “gripe”.

Seumas Milne mentioned Tawerga in a single sentence.

According to Lexis-Nexis, the Independent has published two articles focusing on the atrocity – a substantial piece in September and a further 102 words in November, totalling 867 words.

Curiously, The Times has published the most significant mentions. In addition to Seierstad’s piece, Andrew Gilligan published a substantial report: ‘The ghost town where rebels took their revenge’ in September. 10  A later article reported ‘The expulsion of the entire 30,000 population of Tawarga, a satellite town of Misrata…”11

James Hider also commented briefly in October:

The town of Tawarga was accused by neighbouring Misrata of siding with Gaddafi’s forces, and is now all but deserted and largely ruined.12

Since Seierstad’s article on December 3, there have been no mentions in any UK newspaper of this clear case of ethnic cleansing by Western-backed forces. As ever, media outrage splutters and falls away when the West is implicated in a crime against humanity. And as ever, this could hardly contrast more starkly with the incandescent “something must be done!” outrage in response to the crimes of official enemies. Lexis-Nexis finds no mention of any British or American politician commenting on Tawergha’s fate, and finds no mentions in any editorials. Now imagine the coverage if Iran, or Syria, or North Korea had been responsible.

Commentators sometimes lament the fact that the “mainstream” media system is “controlled” by profit-seeking corporations. It is not; it is made up of corporations. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Media companies are key elements of a corporate system that utterly dominates politics.  In reality, US-UK military interventions are state-corporate military interventions. It ought to come as no surprise that the corporate media propagandises on behalf of its own interventions and works hard to hide the ugly consequences from a public with the power to resist.

  1. Marie Colvin and Uzi Mahnaimi, “Israel’s secret war,”  Sunday Times, January 15, 2012 []
  2. Forwarded to Media Lens, February 25, 2005 []
  3. Blitz, Bombing and Total War, Channel 4, January 15, 2005 []
  4. Leading article, “The mission that crept,” Independent, July 29, 2011 []
  5. Leading article, “Death of a dictator,” The Times, October 21, 2011 []
  6. Ben Farmer, “Libya will be a “moderate” Muslim nation, country’s interim leader insists,” Telegraph, October 25, 2011 []
  7. Åsne Seierstad, “Four months ago, 30,000 people lived in this town. So where did they go?” The Times, December 3, 2011 []
  8. Seierstad, ibid []
  9. Richard Spencer; Ruth Sherlock; Rob Crilly, “Gaddafi’s son flees to Niger as rebels make more gains,” Telegraph, September 12, 2011 []
  10. The Times, September 11, 2011 []
  11. Libya Tom, “Murder and rape campaign brings revenge to ghost town,” The Times, September 29, 2011 []
  12. James Hider, “Where there was unifying hatred, now there is a vacuum,” The Times, October 22, 2011 []

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The second Media Lens book, Newspeak: In the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2009 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.