The wars our media would rather we forget

Mar 19, 2022
Angelina Jolie speaks with Syrian refugees
Jolie points out "The lives of civilian victims of conflict everywhere are of equal value.” Image: Flickr / Asad Abbas

What is the basis of the double standards exhibited by the media? The cone of silence about the plight of the wretched of the earth in forgotten war theatres is underpinned by a maze of strategic and financial considerations.

Any belief that war―which is unbridled violence on a large scale―was on the decline in the modern era is being dispelled, as a myth designed to appeal to a belief in the better angels of our nature. It was in fact always a myth tailored to suit existing ruling elites who like to posture as being tribunes of peace different from preceding bearers of power who viewed war as a natural instrument to expand space under their hegemony.

Other myths about war are produced by the contemporary media. For example, it seems automatic for the media to treat people caught up in conflicts differently according to criteria never spelt out. This is a phenomenon that the media picked up from politicians who had less than noble reasons for their selective grading of war victims.

The media ranking of people confronting war has a strange echo with Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s. In September 1938 as Hitler was planning to annex Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain told the House of Commons: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Today the concept of a quarrel in a far-away country has changed. Western politicians and the media are falling over themselves to claim kinship with Ukraine, a country under fire and not far from Czechoslovakia. The Western press is overflowing with stories of hospitals being bombed, and families killed, and how an allied European nation must be given every form of lethal weaponry and safe refuge for its citizens.

The humanitarian crusade by the Western media is selective in its geographical reach. The boundaries of what constitutes a far-away country have shifted over the decades. Syria has been a war zone for years, and carpet-bombed by Russian planes. Saudi jet fighters have razed to the ground Yemen buildings and infrastructure in another war that has dragged on for years. Libya is another war-torn land of sorrow and suffering. The list goes on. And yet the silence about these charnel houses from Western politicians and media is deafening.

It has taken a celebrity to highlight the double standards regarding the approach of the West to the war in Ukraine and the horror inflicted on ordinary people in Yemen and other extant conflict zones. UNHCR Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie, visited Yemen in early March in an attempt to draw attention to the desperate need for humanitarian aid there and elsewhere.

Jolie noted the escalating numbers fleeing the war in Ukraine and yet also cogently noted “we cannot be selective about who deserves support and whose rights we defend. Everyone deserves the same compassion. The lives of civilian victims of conflict everywhere are of equal value.” Jolie also pointed out Yemen was on the cusp of a famine and confronting “the worst cholera epidemic in the world in decades.” She could have added that the Yemen war death toll is an estimated quarter of a million, including ten thousand children. Jolie’s visit attracted almost zero media attention, while an endless stream of images of destroyed buildings and people suffering in Ukraine swamped the Western media.

What is the basis of the double standards exhibited by the media? Ukraine receives saturation compassionate coverage and yet the unimaginable horrors in Libya, Syria and Yemen and other places are treated as forgotten wars waged in far-away countries by people the media treats as “people of whom we know nothing.”

Race plays a role. On the issue of race Libya, Syria and Yemen occupy space European powers contested during the twentieth century, and racism became an enduring feature that outlasted the formal empires of the colonial epoch. Racism was also a keynote of the Nazis’ occupation of Ukraine in WW2. The Germans who governed Ukraine believed they were following the British example in India in their racist and oppressive approach to the local population. Yet today fleeing Ukranians are welcomed as kith and kin Europeans, and the media mirrors this view. In stark contrast, the media treat Libya, Syria and Yemen as failed and forgotten states, and reinforce the politicians’ mantra that access to sanctuary in Europe for their suffering is not available.

Race, important as it is, only goes part of the way in explaining the difference in media coverage of people caught in the crossfire in Ukraine, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Geopolitical issues are a fundamental factor in the lack of reporting of the suffering of the civilian populations in Libya, Syria and Yemen. In a nutshell, Washington wants to keep the media focus well away from its failure in a region of the world where it is fast losing its hegemonic role. And other powers are not keen to advertise that they want to fill the US void.

The US administration has made a pivot to Asia and the Pacific, and the compliant media are consumed by a hawkish obsession with China. Libya, Syria and Yemen are seen as peripheral states. The news cycle has moved on as Washington has reorganized its priorities, and the cry from the wretched of the earth in Libya, Syria and Yemen and other distant war affected zones is stifled in news rooms.

This cone of silence about the plight of the wretched of the earth in forgotten war theatres is underpinned by a maze of strategic and financial considerations. Material interests exist that elites in countries with vested interests in the fate of Libya, Syria and Yemen are not keen to have aired in their media. Stories about multiplying sanctions and escalating arms delivery to Ukraine matched with shots of civilian suffering are good copy. Other war-blasted zones get scarce column inches and no TV correspondents standing on destroyed bridges amidst fleeing civilians.

The US has lost out in post-Gaddafi Libya. In its paranoia about China it focuses on the Chinese move to expand its role in Libya. But it is the Italians and French who have established a grip on the rich Libyan oil and gas fields. The Italians and French engage in sharp diplomatic skirmishes far from the disinfectant of media light as they back proxy warlords favourable to either Italian or French energy giants. ENI and Total have a field day while a fragile truce exists that allows a spike in oil production, but more barrels per day is mirrored by a broken society.

In Syria the US pull-out under Trump opened the door for Putin to realize the dream of Russia becoming a power broker in the Middle East. What the Russian Romanov Czars had long desired but failed to achieve Putin pulled off. In the first few days of the Russian campaign 150 thousand civilians fled and the horror has been unremitting. The US abandoned its hope of creating a client state in Syria, and left the Russians to settle accounts with those seeking to impose an Islamic State in Syria. Once the US left its media caravan also packed its bags and Syria slipped off TV screens and newspapers.

In Yemen the US has had better luck, but it is not keen to have the glare of publicity shone on its dirty war. Just as the Romans used Germanic tribes as proxies to fight their wars as the Western Roman Empire began to crumble, the US has turned this ploy into an art form as its power declines. In the Iran-Saudi proxy war in Yemen the US is in the background pulling strings. Its objective is to crush the Yemeni rebels supported by Iran, and restrict Tehran’s influence in the Middle East. The Saudis are backed by US military and intelligence support. Biden is less keen on the Saudis than Trump, but the US line in Yemen remains intact. And the British are there, as junior US partners, giving full military and other support to the Saudis.

There is no media outcry about the role of the US and Britain in the Yemen killing fields with its devastating civilian cost. The Saudis are staunch Washington and London allies, and apart from its oil they are a vital export market for arms. At the same time the Russian role in Ukraine is irresistible prey for media moral outrage and Russia’s history in Western eyes makes it easy to cast it as a pariah.

In a world rife with inequalities it should be unsurprising that there is a media hierarchy of wars when it comes to reporting the experiences of suffering civilians. And the unedifying racial and financial calculus that underpins such rankings will never make the front pages or the six o’clock news headlines. That is not the shock of the new, but nevertheless it is shocking.

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