When is a massacre a massacre, and how can we find truth in the fog of intense war propaganda?
That’s a question that is being raised anew in the aftermath of the dreadful Hula massacre. The sight of dead children and torn bodies on the ground in Syria offers up sickening images that have already led to new calls for international military intervention, expulsions of Syrian diplomats, UN condemnations and self righteous finger pointing at the government in Damascus that denies responsibility with claims that most of the western media has rejected.
It’s hard to argue that an atrocity has occurred, what with 90 civilians slaughtered including 25 children.
The so-called “hardline” Syrian government is lacking in international credibility in the western media perhaps because its communications strategy is crude and ineffective, and, therefore, no match for the sophisticated media and perception management operations of western media outlets and intelligence agencies who are pouncing on the incident to make a case for pressuring Syria.
Yet, there are good reasons and many historic examples to cite that should give pause to responsible journalists, no matter their views on who they believe is right in the conflict in Syria.
First there is the sequence of events with the Kofi Annan UN Plan failing to arrange a ceasefire. As the plan began to collapse, Business Week noted a “blame game” was beginning.
“Both sides will seek to draw on evidence from the ground to make their arguments before Annan formally declares his plan dead. Judgment day may come on July 21/12, when the 90-day observer mission ends, or sooner if any of the unarmed monitors is killed or injured in a conflict in which the opposition is increasingly relying on tactics such as suicide bombings.”
Kofi Anan was soon blaming the Syrians for the massacre even before a full investigation could be held. In effect, he was changing the subject and focusing attention away from the collapse of his plan.
Western governments seemed to make coordinated comments heaping all the blame on Syria.
The story was initially framed by western governments. UK Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said, "We are appalled at what appears to be credible reports that the Syrian regime has been responsible for the deaths of 92 civilians in Houla, including 32 children. The UN Head of Mission has been able to confirm the numbers and also that artillery tank shells have been used. If this is the case then it's an act of pure, naked savagery and we condemn it in the most strongest possible terms."
The American journalist Russ Baker began sounding a note of caution on his
“We keep getting reports of atrocities committed by the Syrian government. Those reports may well be accurate. But the truth is usually a bit more complicated in war zones. If news organizations don’t start adopting a higher standard for their reports, another Libyan-style intervention, complete with massive bombing and untold civilian casualties, may be inevitable.
The news out of Syria gets more and more appalling. But so does the quality of the journalism.”
He then cited conflicting reports by different media organizations, noting:
“All these reports were based almost entirely on the word from activists on one side in the conflict, not from journalists or neutral observers. That is not journalism. Why are there not more journalists actually in these places reporting? In the past, reporters always managed to get into conflict zones. And, notwithstanding Syrian government controls on access to these areas and the obvious physical dangers attendant to work in such places, news organizations should be able to hire Syrians who will be diligent, careful and precise.”
He reported that the BBC was already backing down from the categorical blame it had heaped on Damascus, writing:
“But at whose hands they died remains a matter of contention.”
Many news stories implied that Syria was interfering with the UN’s peacekeepers even as Kofi Anan said, “In my meeting with the president, I expressed appreciation for the cooperation that the Syrian government had extended to the UN, enabling us to deploy the military observers quickly.”
While the Assad government is being denounced for using artillery against civilian areas, Norwegian UN monitors reported that “corpses had been found with their hands tied behind their backs and signs that some had been shot in the head from close range.”
Anti-war groups cite this evidence to suggest that armed militants – perhaps including foreign Jihadis known to be operating in Syria – are committing massacres to encourage foreign involvement, like the role played by NATO in Libya that brought down the Gadaffy regime which has now been replaced by a more Islamic political presence.
This precedent is being cited by those arguing that there is a covert “false flag” operation underway.
This argument specifically rests in part on parallels with Libya where the western military intervention was reinforced by suggestions that a “massacre” was planned in Benghazi against rebels and civilians.
Other alleged massacres were used in earlier conflicts like the so-called “Racak massacre” in Kosovo that foreshadowed the NATO interventions there. Subsequent newspaper reports questioned the facts but they were too late.
In Syria meanwhile, critics pointed to the presence of “fake photos” as well as unverified accusations. A prominent press photographer said that an image of a massacre he shot in Iraq in 2003 was being circulated as if it documents events that occurred recently in Syria.
Writes Tony Cartalucci on Information Clearing House, “In the wake of the Houla massacre in Syria, and evidence exposing the West's initial narrative of Syrian troops ‘shelling to death’ around 100 people to be categorically false, people are struggling to understand just what happened. The Guardian has chosen to post unverified witness accounts produced by the Free Syrian Army, seemingly custom tailored to refute evidence brought by Russia to the UN Security Council. The BBC has admitted that only ‘most’ of the accounts they've received implicated what they ‘believe’ were Syrian troops, or pro-government militias – and by doing so, imply that some did not and have told a different account.”
Throughout history, massacres have been invented, exploited and used to inflame public opinion and discredit one side or the other. This is not to say that war crimes do not occur, and nor should they be excused, but getting the facts right is essential.
When I covered the war in Vietnam, there was one such incident in which “the enemy” was blamed for shelling a school house that was actually done by pro-American Vietnamese forces. For years massacres by American troops like the one at MyLai were denied and covered up.
It took years for the truth to emerge…and when it did, the mainstream media was as embarrassed as the government.
Beware the way atrocities are used in the propaganda media war that always operates alongside military conflicts.
Danny Schechter is a television producer and independent filmmaker who also writes and speaks about media issues, Danny Schechter is the author of Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror (Dissecting Media After 9/11), Falun Gong’s Challenge to China (Akashic Press), The More You Watch, The Less You Know (Seven Stories Press), and News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics (Electron Press). Comments todissector @mediachannel.org.