About that elusive ‘context’

Jun 6, 2024
Newspaper. Global

Why do mainstream journalists write as if today’s events just popped up out of nowhere? Why has it become de rigueur to ignore the events of all the yesterdays and yesteryears that brought us here? Where is that elusive ‘context’ in stories on Ukraine, Gaza, China and others? Without context, how can we navigate our way through the propaganda of an empire anxious to preserve its hegemony and a military-industrial complex pursuing ever increasing profits?

Every time I read yet another context-free news story on the war in Ukraine, I find myself thinking of British historian Orlando Figes. There are many eminent scholars and journalists whose writings provide the desperately-needed context for news stories on Ukraine. But I always think of Orlando Figes. Perhaps because I loved his dazzling masterpiece “Natasha’s Dance -A cultural History of Russia.” Or perhaps because everything he writes is nuanced and in context.

In a 2013 article Is There One Ukraine? | Foreign Affairs Orlando Figes wrote “Given how divided Ukraine is on these issues—and how incompatible Russia’s desires are with the European Union’s—Ukraine ought to consider applying a precedent from elsewhere in eastern Europe: deciding the country’s fate by referendum. The 1993 partition of Czechoslovakia, the so-called velvet divorce, was a mostly amicable division that was ratified, and thus legitimised, by the country’s own citizens. Ukrainian politicians could similarly allow the public to decide the basic course of the country’s foreign policy. It would be a messy process, and there would be many who argue reasonably that Ukrainian identity consists precisely in maintaining some link with both East and West. But foreign policy by referendum would be preferable to the permanent division of Ukraine, which is looking increasingly like a possibility. And given Ukraine’s tragic twentieth-century history, it would certainly be preferable to a solution imposed by an outside power.” Now, eleven years later, we are living through the ‘solution imposed by an outside power’, and edging closer to a nuclear abyss.

These days, the mantra of human shields is used as a justification for killing civilians. Yet there is much more to human shields that we never hear of. In his article Neve Gordon | On Human Shields, Neve Gordon writes “Synagogues and schools were not the only places Zionist paramilitary groups used to hide fighters and equipment. The Magen David Adom (Red Star of David) station in Netanya has a plaque which says that ‘the medical centre was used to cover and camouflage the operations of Haganah’s command centre in Netanya – the military arm of the state to come.’ This plaque also suggests that the pre-state use of civilian sites as a cover for military purposes is something that Israelis today should be proud of.” He concludes his article with “The attempt by the Israeli authorities to justify their carpet bombing and blame Palestinians for bringing disaster on themselves through the use of ‘human shields’ is not only political sophistry, but forgetful of Israel’s own history.”

In Historically Ignorant Israelis Are Easy Prey for Propagandists – Opinion – Haaretz.com B.Michael writes “An example: IDF public relations is always happy to announce an “arms cache” has been found in a school, hospital, mosque, residential neighbourhood… Conclusive proof of the monstrosity of the Hamas enemy desecrating the sacred, exploiting hospitals, and concealing weapons of mass destruction in peoples’ homes. Ugh! They should be ashamed! We never do that. It is therefore good and righteous that we’ve bombed their schools, hospitals, mosques and residential neighbourhoods. Indeed, we never did such a thing.

We only had secret arms caches during the Yishuv, which of course is not a despicable arsenal. The Yishuv era caches are part of the heritage of our heroic underground. The arms we concealed there were pure, meant to fight the foreign occupier and those who hate us. There were about 1,500 Jewish arms caches in the Yishuv. They were concealed in schools, synagogues, hospitals (including Hadassah), beneath the Torah Ark in an orphanage, in hundreds of people’s homes, and dozens of public facilities. But how is this comparable? It’s their impure “weapons arsenals,” it’s our clean and pure arms caches. Shame. Shame.”

If we delve further into the issue of human shields, we discover that the question of who counts as a human shield is a political one. We learn that innocent civilians trapped in a war zone close to non-state fighters are always described as human shields, and their murder has been legitimised by state militaries. However, states also have military targets in urban areas where civilians live and work. If non-state fighters attack those military targets and civilians are killed, those civilians are never ‘framed’ as human shields.They are always described as innocent civilians and their death is always described as a war crime. Why the different framing? Journalists do not ask.

The expected Saudi-Israel normalisation agreement is hailed as something wonderful and the US eagerness for it to be concluded is palpable. I am incredulous. The media, however, is not. It parrots the narrative of the US. The agreement will bring security and peace to the region, they say. Really? One would laugh if it weren’t so tragic. Where is the context? Where are the yesteryears of Saudi Arabia with its Friday public beheadings, its critics executed for the wrong social media post, its murder and gruesome dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, not to mention its gift of Wahhabism to the world? How can a ménage à trois of this Saudi Arabia, Israel with its hands full running a genocide in Gaza and an ethnic cleansing enterprise in the West Bank, and the US, that doyen of endless wars, bring peace to the region? But the media neither asks the question nor delves into the context. The US says the agreement is something good so it must be good. They say it is to be celebrated so let’s chill the champagne.

There is no dearth of easily accessible material to help provide context. So why do mainstream journalists and commentators persist in writing context-free stories and commentary? I suspect there are two reasons: ignorance of context by junior journalists with no time to research the background of their stories, and wilful suppression of context by senior journalists tethered to the views of their employers and fearful of the wrath of powerful lobbies. I do feel for both groups, the first labour under the pressures of a relentless news cycle and the second have mortgages and rents to think of. And their fears of powerful lobbies are not unfounded. Nevertheless, some of those in the second group are financially secure and would not starve if they stopped warmongering, concealing historical contexts and defending the indefensible. For them, much as I try, I can muster neither empathy nor sympathy.

Many of us are fortunate to have access to context-rich news and opinion. Sadly, the majority of people get their information from the mainly context-free stories and opinion pieces in mainstream media. And the absence of that elusive ‘context’ is helping push away that equally elusive ‘peace with justice’.

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