In their classic works The Political Economy of Human Rights and Manufacturing Consent Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky compared news media coverage of state-violence conducted by so called “enemy” countries of the West (such as the former Soviet Union, Poland, North Vietnam, Cambodia and the former Republic of Yugoslavia) with coverage of comparable state-violence by the US or “friendly” client-states (such as Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, Turkey and Indonesia). Herman and Chomsky concluded that the news media “consistently portray[s] people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy”. These findings, they argued, result from dichotomised media selection choices: casualties of state-violence are only worthy to be covered by the news media if victimisation meets “the test of utility to elite interests”. As a result, Western states and their “clients” are shielded from public scrutiny, whereas so called “enemy” states are shamed until they are forced to integrate into the dominant order.
A paired example in which the news media reproduced similar reporting pattern constitutes Saudi-Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in 2015 and Russia’s intervention in the Crimea in 2014.
In February 2015, the Shiite Houthi rebels overthrew the government in Yemen led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. For more than ten years, the Houthis had fought for government power. On 26 March, a coalition led by Saudi-Arabia, and supported by the US and UK governments, started a military intervention in Yemen during the course of which an economic blockade was imposed on the country. The Saudi-coalition claimed that the goals of the intervention were to safe the Yemeni population and counter Iranian influence. Thus, the Guardian published a statement by the Saudi Press Agency according to which the Coalition’s aim was
‘to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen’.
Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, was further cited by the Guardian saying
Saudi Arabia launched the attack ‘in response to [a] request from the legitimate Yemen government’ and insisted it would be a limited operation ‘designed to protect the people of Yemen and its legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis’.
Yet, Hadi’s status as the president of Yemen was questionable and he was arguably not in the position to request a Saudi military operation. For instance, Madeleine Rees wrote in a piece for OpenDemocracy:
Basically the situation is this: a quasi legitimate president living in Saudi Arabia asks that state to go bomb and strafe his own country and his own people, and invokes collective security as justification. Yes, the Houthis have been targeting and killing civilians and controlling land with impunity. However, responding to violence with increased use of explosive weapons will only endanger more civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure – even when not directly targeted.
Joe Dyke added the following context in an article for IRIN: “But having overstayed his term in office, resigned once and even fled the country, Hadi’s legitimacy as ruler is shaky, legal experts say, placing the Saudi military action in murky legal territory.”
Didn’t then the Saudi-coalition rather than the Houthi militias engage in what international law defines as aggression because it had invaded a sovereign country in violation of the UN-Charter? A statement by international Yemen scholars published by Counterpunch actually makes the case that the Saudi campaign was conducted in violation of international law:
The military attack by Saudi Arabia, backed by the GCC states (but not Oman), Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the UK and above all the USA, is into its third week of bombing and blockading Yemen. This military campaign is illegal under international law: none of these states has a case for self-defence, and the UNSC has passed no resolution invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
And yet, the Anglo-American news media has largely failed to investigate the legality of the intervention. That demonstrates a Factiva data base search. If you search for newspaper articles between 26 March and 26 April 2015 which include the words “Yemen and international law” only 5 items appeared in the US and UK newspapers the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian/Observer, The Times/Sunday Times, the Independent/Independent on Saturday, and the Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph. Thus, the agenda-setting Anglo-American national press virtually neglected to scrutinize whether the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen might have been conducted in contravention of the UN-Charter. In fact, in the rare instances when international law was mentioned, the press appeared to lend support to the Saudi-led coalition. Thus, the Daily Telegraph reported on 28 March: “Mr Hammond [the British Foreign Secretary] said that the intervention was ‘perfectly legal within the norms of international law’ because Mr Hadi had requested it as the ‘legitimate president of Yemen’.” (Peter Foster, Louisa Loveluck, and Almigdad Mojalli, “Britain Backs Saudi-led Air Strikes on Shia Rebels”)
In other instances, the Western newspapers tended to transport the official rationale thus further legitimizing the actions of the Saudi-coalition. For example, the New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick reported on 29 March:
Many of the Arab nations, including Egypt, Jordan and most of the Persian Gulf monarchies, have thrown their support behind a Saudi Arabia-led campaign of airstrikes to counter advances by the Iranian-backed Houthi movement in Yemen; Washington is providing only intelligence and logistical support, but Saudi Arabia is leading the bombing while Egypt, with the largest Arab army, has pledged to send ground troops ‘if necessary.’
It was of virtually no concern for the newspapers under review that, as the statement by Yemen scholars further pointed out, the intervention endangered a sovereign and vulnerable society:
The targets of the campaign include schools, homes, refugee camps, water systems, grain stores, and food industries. This has the potential for appalling harm to ordinary Yemenis as almost no food or medicine can enter. Yemen is the poorest country of the Arab World in per capita income, yet rich in cultural plurality and democratic tradition. Rather than contributing to the destruction of the country, the USA and UK should support a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate, unconditional ceasefire and use their diplomatic influence to strengthen the sovereignty and self-government of Yemen. As specialists we are more than aware of internal divisions within Yemeni society, but we consider that it is for the Yemenis themselves to be allowed to negotiate a political settlement.
In fact, the World Health Organization reported that by 17 April, 944 Yemenis had been killed and 3,400 injured. According to the UN, 80 per cent of the population – 20 million people – are estimated to be going hungry. While the newspapers had reported some of these ‘casualties’ they had failed to challenge the intervention that had caused them.
The newspapers had also avoided to highlight that Saudi-Arabia hardly constitutes a benevolent and stabilising force. According to Amnesty International, Saudi-Arabia has an “appalling” human rights record. In a report titled “Ten ways that Saudi Arabia violates human rights” Amnesty documents how, in Saudi Arabia, torture is used as a punishment, executions are on the increase, no free speech and no protests exists, women are widely discriminated against, torture in police custody is common, you can be detained and arrested with no good reason, religious discrimination is rife, migrant workers have been deported en masse, and human rights organisations are banned.
Despite of this record, the rationale of Saudi-Arabia’s intervention and its effects have largely not been scrutinized by the Anglo-American press. Consequently, Yemeni civilians were treated as unworthy victims. This was useful propaganda service because it is of importance for Western geostrategic and naval interests to keep Yemen in their sphere of influence.
This is in striking discordance with how the Anglo-American newspapers reported on the Russian intervention in the Crimea. In February 2014, the Ukrainian (and Russian backed) President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted during the so called “Euromaidan” protests. An interim government was installed. The Russian majority population of the Crimea stood up against the interim government by occupying governmental buildings and starting a militant rebellion. The Ukrainian interim government had consequently accused Russia of invading Crimea. It had further argued that Russia had sent 2,000 soldiers in support of the rebels. For instance, Ukrainian interim President Oleksandr Turchynow had stated that “the Russian Federation started a naked aggression against our country”.
In the Crimea case, the news media scrutinized the legality of the Russian intervention. This demonstrates a Factiva data base search. If we search for newspaper articles between 26 February and 26 March 2014 which include the words “Crimea and international law” 172 items appeared in the US and UK newspapers the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian/Observer, The Times/Sunday Times, the Independent/Independent on Saturday, and the Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph. Applying a different reporting standard than in their coverage of Yemen, the Anglo-American national press highlighted that the Russian intervention in Crimea (and potential Russian incursions into Ukrainian heartland) would be in contravention of international law. For instance, the Guardian reported on 1 March: “After fresh US intelligence assessments of Russia’s presence in the southern region, Obama said any Russian intervention would constitute a clear violation of international law.” (Luke Harding, Paul Lewis and Ian Traynor, “Crisis in Ukraine: If Your Troops Invade There Will Be Costs, Obama Warns Putin”) The Washington Post’s editorial of the same day argued in a similar fashion:
“PRESIDENT OBAMA made an unscheduled appearance before the press at the White House Friday to warn Russia against a military intervention in Ukraine, which he said would be a ‘clear violation’ of Russia’s commitments to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as of international law. But the president made no mention of consequences other than international ‘condemnation’ and unspecified ‘costs’ – and Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to be deterred by that.” (Editorial Board, “Condemnation is not Enough”)
Note how the Post’s editorial also includes indignant statements about Obama’s silence on potential counter measures (e.g. “the president made no mention of consequences”). Indeed, such measures were soon to be deployed against Russia. In fact, it could be argued that the press played an important role in facilitating a Western elite discourse demanding punitive measures against Russia. Accordingly, on 7 March, the Guardian reported:
The United States and the European Union last night unveiled sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea, imposing visa restrictions on individuals and sharpening rhetoric in what has rapidly degenerated into the worst east-west crisis since the end of the cold war.
In their first concrete response to Russia’s move to wrest the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, Washington and Brussels also warned of further sanctions, such as asset seizures, if Moscow does not relent in the stand-off.
‘I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law,’ Barack Obama told reporters in Washington. ‘That includes standing up for the principle of state sovereignty.’ (Dan Roberts and Ian Traynor, “West Imposes Sanctions on Russia as Crimea Cuts Loose From Ukraine”)
Similarly, the Independent reported on 7 March: “Under pressure from events and a passionate appeal from Ukrainian politicians, EU leaders warned last night of ‘far-reaching’ consequences if Russia fails to ease the crisis in Crimea.” (John Lichfield, “EU Leaders Agree on Package to Punish Russia”). The Times (London) wrote on 11 March: “Officials from the EU will meet in London today to start drawing up a list of leading Russians to be hit with financial sanctions unless President Putin starts talks with the Ukraine Government.” (Francis Elliott and Antony Loyd, “Officials Gather in London to Draw Up Sanction Hit List”) The Times also quoted British Prime Minister David Cameron saying: “In Europe we have spent the last 70 years working to keep the peace and we know from history that turning a blind eye when nations are trampled over stores up greater problems for the longer term. We must stand up to aggression, uphold international law, and support the Ukrainian Government and the Ukrainian people who want the freedom to choose their own future.” (ibid)
Press coverage displayed an ideological double standard: indignant statements about Russia’s behaviour in the Crimea were highlighted while the newspapers did not transport similar statements in their coverage of the Saudi-led attack against Yemen. In the latter case, counter measures were neither discussed nor demanded and there was no concern about international law. Evidently, this dichotomised discourse was facilitated by a power collective comprising of Western government officials whose propaganda was transmitted in the news without substantive challenge. This is particularly striking as the US and UK governments have been involved in numerous interventions that were arguably conducted in violation of international law such as Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001 or Iraq 2003. Despite this record, the Western press tends to regard US and UK officials as credible commentators on issues relating to international law and state sovereignty.
Furthermore, important contexts were marginalised. While it could be argued that Russia’s “invasion” of Crimea was de facto in violation of the UN Charter, it has to be seen in the context of a Western engineered “regime-change” in Ukraine as well as the greater expansion of NATO into Eurasia. As Seumas Milne highlighted in a comment for the Guardian:
The US and European powers openly sponsored the [“Euromaidan”] protests to oust the corrupt but elected Viktor Yanukovych government, which were triggered by controversy over an all-or-nothing EU agreement which would have excluded economic association with Russia. […]
And contrary to undertakings given at the time [of the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s], the US and its allies have since relentlessly expanded Nato up to Russia’s borders, incorporating nine former Warsaw Pact states and three former Soviet republics into what is effectively an anti-Russian military alliance in Europe. The European association agreement which provoked the Ukrainian crisis also included clauses to integrate Ukraine into the EU defence structure. […]
Given that background, it is hardly surprising that Russia has acted to stop the more strategically sensitive and neuralgic Ukraine falling decisively into the western camp, especially given that Russia’s only major warm-water naval base is in Crimea.
Despite these facts, the Anglo-American press tended to depict Russia as the aggressor state. It is also of importance that the Russian intervention in Crimea had led to few civilian casualties in comparison to the Saudi-led intervention of Yemen. However, because Crimean civilians were regarded as worthy victims, Russian actions were put under the spotlight and scrutinized. Again, this was useful propaganda service: it has been of great importance for Western elites to integrate the former Soviet states into the “Washington Consensus” thereby curbing Russian influence in Eurasia. As this case comparison suggests, the “liberal” Anglo-American press has supported these elite efforts through the “selective emphasis of fact” which constitutes “a very effective program of ‘atrocity management’.” (Chomsky and Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I)
Florian Zollmann is a Lecturer in Media at Liverpool Hope University. His latest publication is “Bad News From Fallujah,” Media, War and Conflict (Sage), Online First.