News Not Fit To Print

The U.S. media have done wonders in recent months in putting a good face on the “war on terror,” pretending that the Karzai government in Afghanistan represents Afghans in another “almost democracy,” downplaying the death and devastation wrought by the U.S. killing machine, and ignoring the evidence that the war has destabilized the Middle East and Central Asia and has set the stage for more violence, with Bush and Sharon in the lead chariot.

The media did a fine job of playing down the evidence of the slaughter and mistreatment of thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda cadres shortly after they surrendered to General Rashid Dostum and the Northern Alliance at Kunduz in November 2001. Many hundreds of these prisoners were soon killed by the Northern Alliance, with the help of U.S. airpower, at a Qala-i-Jhangi prison uprising, and unknown further numbers were shot or starved to death there and at various other prisons.

These events caused UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson and Amnesty International to call for an investigation of apparent major violations of international law. The most notable effect of these protestations was Mary Robinson’s departure from her post (Oliver Burkeman, “America Forced Me Out,” The Guardian [London], July 31, 2002), one of many cases where crossing the United States meant ouster from an “international” organization.

(In another important one, Jose Bustani was forced out of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, because “I was expected to take orders from the US delegation,” and Bustani refused to comply). Neither Robinson’s exit, nor the early evidence of serious war crimes involving Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners, elicited noticeable media comment or criticism.

But the media’s suppressions in the interest of the state agenda reached new heights in dealing with the documentary film produced by Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran on “Massacre at Mazar,” released in Germany on June 12, 2002. Doran’s film deals with the disposition of those surrendered Taliban fighters in Northern Afghanistan, some slaughtered at the Qala-i-Janghi fortress, many more killed later. Doran has witnesses who claim that U.S. forces were active participants in the Qala-i-Janghi slaughter.

Large numbers of the prisoners were loaded into virtually airless containers and transported to the Qala-I-Zieni fortress and to Sherberghan prison. Of the 8,000 taken at Kunduz, some 5,000 are missing, a great many apparently dying in the shipping containers, others shot on arrival.

Doran, a veteran BBC filmmaker, got film footage of enemy remains and grave sites at Sherberghan and Mazar-I-Sharif, along with eyewitness accounts from an Afghan general, who admitted to helping load the containers (200-300 prisoners in each); an Afghan soldier who admitted shooting bullets into the loaded containers; one who saw an American soldier torture and kill a prisoner; two civilian drivers who say they drove trucks to Dasht Leili “where the prisoners still alive were shot,” and who claim that 30-40 Americans were present; and other witnesses.

This film was screened for members of the German parliament on June 12 and to the members of the European parliament and press on June 13. A number of European politicians and human rights activists, shocked by the film, immediately called for an investigation. A Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) investigative team sent to the area found two mass graves, and it performed autopsies on 3 of 15 bodies exhumed from a test site (all three were ethnic Pashtuns who died of suffocation; the PHR report can be read at http://www.phrusa.org/research/afghanistan/report_graves.html).

The PHR issued a press release on June 13 and also sent letters to Afghan president Karzai and U.S. and British officials urging a full forensic investigation and protection of the mass grave sites. It received no reply, and the Pentagon denied any U.S. involvement in these matters.

And how did the Free Press deal with this film and these allegations? Remember that we are talking about as many as 5,000 prisoners unaccounted for, a film by a very creditable filmmaker who had eye-witness accounts of major violations of human rights and killings, and PHR confirming documentation of mass grave sites.

I believe that if such a film and reports were offered for events in Kosovo, the mainstream media would have moved into action with enthusiastic frenzy. But the victims here were very unworthy, and disclosure of this sort would not help the “war on terrorism.” Accordingly, the media outdid themselves: according to Lexis-Nexis, no newspaper or TV station in the United States broke ranks to even mention this film (only Salon did on the web, with an article by Michelle Goldberg, “Were U.S. troops in Afghanistan complicit in a massacre?,” June 14, 2002).

This record was not quite matched in the media’s dealing with a recently suppressed UN report on the US killings at Kakarak on July 1, but the low-key treatment and evasions in this case were impressive. A UN team in Afghanistan visited this wedding party massacre site on the day after July 1, and wrote a report on this visit that was highly critical of U.S. actions.

The team contended that the U.S. claim of responding to fire was a lie, that there was an official undercount–more like 80 were killed and some 200 injured in the attack–and that U.S. ground troops had bound the women’s hands (apparently a standard practice of U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan), refused medical treatment to the injured for several hours, and engaged in an active coverup to “sanitize” the site by removing shrapnel and other material.

A member of the team leaked the report to the London Times, possibly suspecting, accurately, that it would be suppressed, and it was summarized briefly there in an article under the title “US accused of airstrike cover-up” (July 29).

In the followup to this, UN officials first promised that the report would be issued within 24 hours, noting that it had been written by “experienced and reputable UN people, who have been in the region a while and know it well.”

It then announced that it would not be made public because it was “not fully documented and [included] judgments that were not fully substantiated,” besides which it was not this group’s business to evalute U.S. or Afghan military actions, they were there for humanitarian service. Another UN spokesman said it wouldn’t be issued “because the findings are not comprehensive and they are not conclusive.”

Afghan president Hamid Karzai, “escorted by his U.S. special forces bodyguards” (AP Online, Aug. 2), denounced the report, which the UN had already decided to keep out of the public domain. Instead, the report was to be sent to the U.S. and Afghan official investigators in case it might be useful in their more comprehensive, conclusive and objective report.

[Note that on August 1 the UN issued a report on Jenin, after having been barred from entry and having to rely entirely on secondary sources, but the mainstream media have found this report meaningful and reasonably comprehensive, conclusive and objective.]

AP, UPI and other foreign news services, and the British press, covered this story fairly well. But the only U.S. media to even mention this report and/or its suppression were the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Washington Times.

In the New York Times, Carlotta Gall summarized briefly the claims of the report, but gave a bit more space to Pentagon denials (“In Rare Move, U.N. Reviews A U.S. Attack On Afghans,” July 30); and the paper then dropped the story and failed to mention the coverup sequel. The Tribune’s piece on July 31 framed the issue not around the substance of the report, or the suppression, but the U.S.’s and UN’s denial of any suppression.

Similarly, the Post’s tiny item under “World In Brief” on August 3rd featured Karzai’s dismissal of reports of a UN coverup under U.S. pressure. The best article, though brief, was in the The Washington Times, which gave more attention to the UN’s twisting and squirming in leading up to the announced refusal to allow the report to reach the public (Betsy Pisik, “Leak on bombing miscue downplayed,” July 30).

This story, like Doran’s film, was inconvenient, the UN suppression case not only putting the U.S. performance in Afghanis an in a bad light, but showing the UN officials’ (and Karzai’s) cowardice and lack of independence. So in dealing with this very newsworthy, but politically awkward story, the Reverend Moon’s Washington Times is able to outperform the New York Times and the rest of the Free Press._

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