June 7, 2012

The Houla Massacre: If it’s gruesome enough, let’s use it: the politics of journalism

    Thursday, June 07, 2012   No comments

The politics of journalism
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
Photo used by BBC, the photo was later taken down.
Following a horrific massacre that took place in Houla, Australia, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands, and the United States decided to expel diplomats from Syria. The action was swift despite the fact that there was no time to investigate the crime and assign blame. These decisions were made in part based on journalistic reports. One of these reports was published on the website of the prestigious news organization BBC for millions of people to see. Since a picture can be worth a thousand words, the BBC elected to use this photo to illustrate the crime. No words can provide a better context.

There was only one problem: the picture was not taken in Houla. It was taken in Iraq in 2003, and depicts bodies pulled out of a mass grave discovered in the desert in the outskirts of al-Musayyib, 40 km south of Baghdad. The photographer was not a Syrian activist, but rather Marco Di Lauro. This dereliction of journalistic duty is telling of both Western media bias and the Western media’s disregard of the dignity of peoples from non-Western countries.

Arguably, the BBC neglected to double check the authenticity of the picture in part because the picture served a political end. The West is determined to depose the Syrian regime, and this story can help achieve that goal. Had the story been about civilians killed in a U.S. drone attack or a massacre in Bahrain (western ally), the BBC editors would not be as careless posting such a damning picture.

Journalists’ carelessness is not only damaging to the credibility of the free press, but it also contributes to more suffering on the part of victims of atrocities, be it by the hands of brutal regimes or terrorist organizations. For example, the BBC was uncharacteristically slow picking up on Aljazeera’s breaking news yesterday, when it reported that nearly 140 people were killed by the pro-Assad militias. Not wanting to make the same mistake, most Western media outlets did not run the story. A day later, the Syrian regime’s media reported that nine people were killed by terrorists on the same farm where the massacre was reported to have happened. Either way, at least nine civilians were killed: they deserved coverage. But the politicization of the Syrian crisis is creating categories of victims: those who fall by the hands of the regime are “victims” in the eyes of Western media and politicians but those who fall by the hands of the opposition are ignored. They Syrian regime uses the same standard: those killed by the terror networks are martyrs and those killed by its forces go unreported.

When reporting by “independent” media outlets such as the BBC becomes tainted with politics, a desperate need for unbiased coverage and news analysis develops. Victimhood is not partisan, and human dignity cannot be qualified. This will be the challenge of independent scholars, NGOs, and responsible civil society institutions and this will determine the outcome of the Arab Awakening.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.


About Prof. SOUAIAIA

Islamic Societies Review Editors

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