Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Glory but not the Gore
A group of American soldiers have been captured by Iraqi forces - but the mainstream media in the United States has not shown footage of the event. Providers sponsoring Internet news have censored pictures of prisoners-of-war and casualties. The government has denounced any screening of POWs or fatalities in print and broadcast media, stating that this is in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network, was the first to report that American soldiers had been captured south-eastern Iraq. Within minutes, the images spread across the world. Al-Jazeera and others say they report the news as they see it - and gore is just as much part of war as the glory that comes with flag-waving coverage.
In the first week of the American-led war against Iraq, Americans are witnessing the war and its repercussions take place in real time. With the help of technology, the coverage of this war will show us more than we have ever seen before, and faster. We are bearing witness to a new form of the ultimate reality television. Yet American television and media censorship have determined and demanded that we do not need to see it all. We can see the glory, but not the gore.
Anyone who has been watching American news television in the last several weeks has already been introduced to some of the technology that the news networks are trying out - improved satellite phones, videophones and more. Night vision equipment allows us to see Iraq torched by night. The lipstick camera is so small that news reporters attach it to a pilot's helmet to capture unforgettable moments in what will surely be the making of modern history.
These information times are different from those of Desert Storm. In 1991, the world got its information, to all intents and purposes, from a single news source - CNN. Journalists were restricted in where they could go and what they could photograph, report on and investigate. Video footage was supplied by the military and screened by censors. The technology was more cumbersome and less versatile than today. This time around, we have "embedded journalists" - reporters who are based with US troops abroad. The journalists eat drink and sleep with the troops. They become "one of the boys."
These journalists are offered what American media sources are describing as "unprecedented" access. The danger in such a concept is that American reporters start to identify so closely with American soldiers that we as American viewers will get a one-dimensional view of war and will not get the stories that paint its full picture. Increasingly, stories from the war zone are told from one side - the American side. You will find few embedded journalists with the liberty to jump to the Iraqi sideline to get a victim's perspective or photograph a family's lost home, life or loved one.
American television shows us the macroscopic view of bombing on Iraq, but not the microscopic one that gives numbers faces. It then comes down to Al-Jazeera to look through another lens. And Al-Jazeera war is not the war of CNN: Al-Jazeera war's has dead people in the streets and wailing mothers clinging to bleeding babies. I watch in "shock and awe" as the humanity of liberation begins to haemorrhage before my eyes. It is not pretty, but who said war was?
Media coverage of this war is undoubtedly more critical than it was in 1991 because we are made acutely aware of the progress of war. This, coupled with advanced technology, brings the bombing right into our screens. But it also desensitises us as viewers. We are quickly becoming accustomed to the lit skies over Baghdad. Embedded journalists encourage us, perhaps even without wishing to, to identify with "our" armed forces. They give a face to our boys at the same time as they hide Iraqi ones.
Embedding may result in our journalists testifying to nothing but the American truth. It makes the discerning ask whether this is not, in effect, a form of media censorship.
Free speech is a fundamental right provided for in our Constitution. The ability to have a voice and to be able to hear and see all viewpoints is what we understand a democracy to be. Oddly enough, Americans are increasingly looking to Europeans and Middle Eastern journalists for an unadulterated perspective on what the war means. It seems that they are better able to integrate into their reporting what really makes news interesting and independent from official statements.
Ghida al-Juburi is a corporate attorney in Washington, D.C., who has been working with the US State Department's Future of Iraq project.
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