[sixties-l] War Crimes And Media Omissions (fwd)

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    Date: Sat, 08 Dec 2001 13:05:43 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: War Crimes And Media Omissions

    War Crimes And Media Omissions


      By Danny Schechter

    My late and great friend Abbie Hoffman used to open his lectures
    with a bet, what he called the Journalist Challenge. He offered
    $100 to any reporter present who could file a story on his talk
    with less than three errors. He was a chronic gambler all his
    life, but he told me that this was one bet he never lost.

    Mistakes by reporters are common as we go about the rush of making
    deadlines with what is often acknowledged as "the first draft of
    history." But sometimes it is more than the facts that get messed
    up: Sometimes a whole story gets sanitized or half-told. When that
    story involves hundreds of dead people, as the one I am about to
    tell you about does, it becomes essential to try to understand why
    some in the media avoid or fail to fully investigate odious war

    How can so much of the world press, now covering the Afghan War,
    miss so much of the forest for the trees? I am talking about the
    apparent massacre of 600 prisoners in late November. I will
    revisit the details in a moment, but permit me a flashback ^ to
    another war, the one in Vietnam, and an infamous hamlet called My
    Lai, set off in the rice fields of the countryside.

    "Q: Babies? A: Babies"
    The world can't forget what happened there, how American soldiers,
    pressed by their commanders to escalate their "enemy kill rate,"
    shot down civilians in a ditch, even as other soldiers in passing
    helicopter landed and, at gunpoint, forced the unit, under the
    command of Lieutenant William Calley (later pardoned by the even
    more criminal Richard Nixon), to stop the massacre. There was a
    famous antiwar poster about the event that was briefly plastered
    in the subways of New York. It featured a color photo of the
    bodies of the victims, men, women and children. Designed by Lee
    Baxandall, the poster was memorable for its simplicity. Above and
    below the grisly picture was a short question and answer: "Q:
    Babies? A: Babies."

    That massacre did not go unreported thanks to the late Ron
    Ridenhour who, with the help of a young Seymour Hersh, had to set
    up their own news agency, the Dispatch News Service, to
    disseminate the story of an atrocity that the Pentagon at first
    denied happened. Most U.S. media ignored it until they no longer
    could. To this day, U.S. military commanders hate most journalists
    because of exposs like this, which embarrass them even though the
    military did prosecute the crimes later. The truth is that
    war-making doesn't always look very good in the light of
    independent scrutiny. Significantly, a year ago, CBS's "60
    Minutes" went back to My Lai with some of the soldiers who
    witnessed what happened, who now say their own government deserves
    to be tried for war crimes.

    Where are War Crimes Reporters Today?
    Where were the U.S. mainstream media outlets when crimes of
    similar moral gravitas were being committed right in front of them
    today? I am talking about that so-called prison revolt in the old
    fort called Qalai Janghi in Mazar-i-Sharif, which was only fully
    extinguished by the end of last week. To be sure, these men were
    not civilians, but armed combatants. But once in custody, they
    must be treated according to the Geneva convention. A fuller probe
    is warranted.

    Thanks to the British press, the story has received more than the
    usual episodic treatment, with a story here or there but no
    cumulative impact. While Time and CNN covered it, the UK media
    offered in-depth analysis not only of the horror but its meaning
    in terms of possible war crimes. The BBC, Times of London,
    Independent and Guardian were all over the grisly story in graphic
    detail, while most American outlets played it only as more bang

    Justin Huggler wrote in London's Independent last Friday about its
    grisly aftermath. "They were still carrying the bodies out
    yesterday. So many of them were strewn around the old fortress. We
    saw one go past whose foot had been half-torn off and was hanging
    from his leg by a shred of flesh. The expression on the face of
    the dead man was so clear that it was hard to believe he was dead
    until you saw the gaping red hole in the side of his forehead. The
    stench of rotting human flesh had become overpowering; at times,
    it was hard to breathe. But questions remained as they cleared
    away the bodies of slaughtered foreign Taliban fighters believed
    to be loyal to Osama bin Laden."

    The Media And The Massacre
    Let's turn to those questions in a minute since this column is
    more about media than massacres. And it is also about how some
    journalists performed like modern-day Ridenhours and Hershes,
    while most did not. For one thing, few journalists explained the
    run-up to the prison outrage, as in how the Taliban prisoners got
    there in the first place. On November 25, The New York Times
    carried a front page photo showing members of the Northern
    Alliance and the Taliban shaking hands in Konduz and appearing to
    peacefully resolve a showdown that U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld
    had predicted would be a bloody fight to the finish, an
    eventuality he seemed to relish in the soundbites I saw. At that
    time, the Northern Alliance, advised and outfitted by the U.S. and
    Britain, had the town surrounded and was moving in for the kill ^
    until, that is, talks broke out and a peace of sorts was brokered.

    As I discovered from the Sunday New York Times, the two sides had
    worked out a deal. The Taliban forces believed they would be
    treated fairly if they gave up. A photo underscored the point. The
    caption: "Northern Alliance troops near Amirabad watched as a
    convoy of surrendering Taliban soldiers from Konduz passed through
    the front lines." These men were on their way to the Northern
    Alliance fort at Mazar-i Sharif as part of what the Times called,
    "a script for surrender." The Times correspondent also reported
    that General Rashid Dostum had promised to turn them over to the
    UN and international courts.

    This was reported without clarification. What "international
    courts" were not specified. I shook my head. The Times knew there
    were no international courts in place. They also knew the UN had
    no provisions to accept prisoners. Why didn't the newspaper of
    record mention this? Was this some scam? Had the Taliban's feared
    foreign troops been suckered? The Times then added, rather
    obliquely, "It was unclear if his (Dostum's) view would hold." The
    next sentence seems to reflect the "catch 'em and kill 'em"
    orientation of the Alliance and the Pentagon, which was cheering
    them on: "Other Northern Alliance Leaders say they want to try the
    men in Afghan criminal courts and possibly put them to death."
    Again, the Times failed to point out that there were no such
    courts functioning either.

    That was Saturday. The foreign troops surrendered presumably with
    the expectation that they would be turned over to the UN. Maybe
    they didn't know better. Maybe they believed Dostum, who has
    fought on every side over the long years of combat in that
    country, with the Russians against the Mujadids and then with the
    Mujadids against the Russians, with the Taliban and now against
    it. He is known as a killer par excellence. His forces slaughtered
    50,000 people between l992 and '96 in Kabul, leading to many
    Afghans welcoming the Taliban as saviors. Now he was wheeling and
    dealing with the Taliban, cajoling them to stop fighting. Those
    fanatical fighters believed they had a deal. The next day, when
    they discovered they didn't, the world would find out that it had
    a problem. A deadly one.

    A Revolting Revolt
    What happened next? Here is the reconstruction by the
    Independent's Huggler, published five days later:

    "Bound to one another, the prisoners were taken in pickup trucks
    to Qalai Janghi, the 19th-century mud-walled fortress that Dostum
    had used as his headquarters after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif to
    his Northern Alliance forces three weeks previously.

    "It was on Saturday that what started as the relatively peaceful
    surrender of the northern Afghan Taliban stronghold of Konduz
    suddenly started to go out of control inside the fort. Before the
    eyes of Western reporters, two foreign Taliban prisoners, in the
    process of being registered by the Red Cross, detonated hand
    grenades, killing themselves and two senior aides to General
    Dostum and slightly injuring the ITN news reporter Andrea

    "It was not the first time that we had heard of bin Laden's
    'foreigners' committing suicide rather than be taken alive. The
    Northern Alliance claimed that a group of around 60 of them jumped
    into a river and drowned themselves. Another group were found
    kneeling in positions of prayer, each with a single bullet wound
    from behind. A Northern Alliance commander alleged that one of
    them had killed all of the others in a suicide pact before turning
    the gun on himself.

    "But there were always fears that the stories might have been
    invented to cover up Northern Alliance massacres of the foreign
    fighters. Nor was it the first time that surrendering Taliban had
    not been properly disarmed. Over the past few weeks, journalists
    in Afghanistan have watched repeatedly as Taliban who had
    surrendered were allowed to head into Northern Alliance-held
    towns, waving their Kalashnikovs and rocket-launchers triumphantly
    in the air. This time, however, defiance grew into mayhem,
    culminating in the scenes of trucks piled high with human bodies
    that we saw heading out of Qalai Janghi yesterday."

    The Plot Thickens
    OK. So far we have two Taliban prisoners, allowed to take arms
    into a prison ^ how crazy is that? ^ and then attack their
    jailers. Time magazine reported that they were outraged when they
    saw Western reporters. Perhaps they thought the UN would be there.
    But that was just one, contained incident.

    Huggler continues: "The next day, Sunday, the prisoners ^ many of
    them with their arms tied behind their backs ^ were being herded
    into a room for interrogation before two CIA agents [Mike Spann
    and one identified only as Dave]. Did they fear retribution for
    the previous day's murder of the two Northern Alliance commanders?
    Or was it, as another account suggests, the mere sight of two
    Americans ^ from the foreign fighters' point of view, sworn
    enemies of bin Laden ^ that provoked the bloodbath that followed?

    "The incompetence of the Northern Alliance soldiers ^ who, guided
    by the U.S. and British special forces, failed to search the
    prisoners properly and thus allowed them to smuggle in knives and
    grenades hidden in their clothes ^ must be seen as a key factor in
    the disaster. The men were also housed next to the fortress's
    well-stocked armory."

    Enter the CIA agent, now being celebrated as America's first dead
    hero in many media outlets. Why is he there? Not to hand the
    prisoners over to a nonexistent UN presence, to be sure. He is
    there as an interrogator, and you can perhaps imagine what
    interrogation means in these circumstances.

    Now we have an account from the Taliban side. One of those feared
    "foreign" troops turned out not to be so foreign. He is
    20-year-old American citizen John Walker, a.k.a. Abdul Hamid, now
    in a military hospital as a POW in U.S. hands. He told Newsweek's
    Colin Soloway, "Early in the morning, they began taking us out,
    slowly, one by one into the compound. Some of the Majahdeen
    (Taliban) were scared. They thought we were all going to be
    killed. I saw two Americans there. They were taking pictures with
    a digital camera and a video camera. As soon as the last of us was
    taken out, someone either pulled a knife or threw a grenade at the
    guards and got their guns and started shooting." (My hunch is that
    the fight in the prison will be nothing compared to the fight by
    agents, studios and TV companies for the rights to his story.)

    Who Fired First?
    BBC's "Newsnight" interviewed Oliver August, correspondent for The
    Times, London, in Mazar-i-Sharif, who said that Spann and his CIA
    colleague, Dave, were thought (by reporters on the scene) to have
    set off the violence by aggressively interrogating foreign Taliban
    prisoners and asking, "Why did you come to Afghanistan?" This
    really pissed off the Taliban captives, who probably wanted to ask
    them the same thing. August said their questions were answered by
    one prisoner jumping forward and announcing, "We're here to kill
    you." The Guardian's Mazar-i-Sharif correspondent blamed the CIA
    for failing "on entering the fort to observe the first rule of
    espionage: keep a low profile." Rashmee X. Ahmed of the Times of
    India reported that "August said Spann subsequently pulled his gun
    and his CIA colleague shot three prisoners dead in cold blood
    before losing control of the situation." This report was filed by
    a member of a Murdoch-owned outlet hardly sympathetic to Islamic
    militancy. Other would-be observers like Amnesty International and
    the Red Cross, which has a duty to insure that prisoners of war
    are treated according to law, asked to observe. They were denied

    According to Ahmed, "Spann was then 'kicked, beaten and bitten to
    death,' the journalists said, in an account of the ferocity of the
    violence that lasted four days, leaving more than 500 people dead
    and the fort littered with 'bodies, shrapnel and shell casings.'"

    The fort was bombed, U.S. air strikes called in by the Northern
    Alliance's U.S. advisors. One of them killed Northern Alliance
    troops. All of this was detailed on British TV and in the media
    there. But not in the USA. On December 3, the New York Post
    reported that "Northern Alliance forces slaughtered more than 600
    prisoners." Somehow the U.S. role was omitted in a blatant rewrite
    of the incident. The possibility that these men had revolted
    because they feared execution without trial ^ a not unreasonable
    fear given the Northern Alliance's track record in the past and as
    recently as their bloody "liberation" of Mazar-i-Sharif with
    hundreds killed ^ wasn't cited anywhere. I am not rationalizing
    their fanaticism, just noting that their motives and the larger
    context needed more explication. The Western media had already
    demonized them, but the circumstances of this incident were
    reported but unexplained.

    What We Saw
    On Tuesday night we saw the bodies on ABC's World News Tonight and
    other outlets. We saw front pages stories in the New York Post and
    Daily News honoring Spann, but no details of why this revolt
    started. As news of this incident ^ without any reference to the
    fact that massacring prisoners is a violation of international
    law ^ started getting airplay on CNN, it triggered my memory of an
    atrocity closer to home, the massacre at Attica Prison in upstate
    New York in 1971, which I covered back in my radio days. It was
    also initially blamed on the bloodthirsty prisoners who slashed
    the necks of the guards. That claim was later disproved and it was
    shown to be an execution by the New York State Police. I wondered
    if Qalai Janghi would become an Afghan Attica. (Incidentally, last
    year, almost 30 years later, the state was forced by the courts to
    pay compensation to the survivors.)

    But issues of responsibility and allegations of war crimes had
    still not become a major U.S. media focus as of Friday. The New
    York Times downplayed the suggestion that this was a war crime by
    reporting, "No major human rights group has its own monitors in
    Afghanistan, and their officials agree that in a war with few
    credible witnesses, and with some of the Taliban soldiers clearly
    fanatical, the exact circumstances of such killings are murky."

    Later, Amnesty in London would call for a full probe but Human
    Rights Watch in New York was more wishy-washy: "Any summary
    execution of prisoners is a clear violation of the Geneva
    Convention, but there are a lot of gray areas," said Sidney Jones,
    the Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "For example, there has
    been a lot of concern raised that dozens of the dead prisoners in
    the fort had their hands bound. But that doesn't mean they were
    summarily executed, and we have nobody on the ground to
    investigate." I saw reports of men with bullet holes through their
    heads, execution-style, and later, heard an account of at least
    one Northern Alliance soldier prying gold teeth out of a corpse's

    The failure to condemn this outrageous conduct infuriated The
    Independent's veteran Middle East watcher Robert Fisk, who was
    equally scornful of the media and the military. His words deserve
    more than brief quotation:

    Are We War Criminals?
    "We are becoming war criminals in Afghanistan. The U.S. Air Force
    bombs Mazar-i-Sharif for the Northern Alliance, and our heroic
    Afghan allies ^ who slaughtered 50,000 people in Kabul between
    1992 and 1996 ^ move into the city and execute up to 300 Taliban
    fighters. The report is a footnote on the television satellite
    channels, a 'nib' in journalistic parlance. Perfectly normal, it
    seems. The Afghans have a 'tradition' of revenge. So, with the
    strategic assistance of the USAF [U.S. Air Force], a war crime is

    "Now we have the Mazar-i-Sharif prison 'revolt,' in which Taliban
    inmates opened fire on their Alliance jailers. U.S. Special
    Forces ^ and, it has emerged, British troops ^ helped the Alliance
    to overcome the uprising and, sure enough, CNN tells us some
    prisoners were 'executed' trying to escape. It is an atrocity.

    "The Americans have even less excuse for this massacre. For the
    U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, stated quite
    specifically during the siege of the city that U.S. air raids on
    the Taliban defenders would stop 'if the Northern Alliance
    requested it.' Leaving aside the revelation that the thugs and
    murderers of the Northern Alliance were now acting as air
    controllers to the USAF in its battle with the thugs and murderers
    of the Taliban, Mr. Rumsfeld's incriminating remark places
    Washington in the witness box of any war-crimes trial over Konduz.
    The U.S. were acting in full military cooperation with the
    Northern Alliance militia.

    "Most television journalists, to their shame, have shown little or
    no interest in these disgraceful crimes. Cozying up to the
    Northern Alliance, chatting to the American troops, most have done
    little more than mention the war crimes against prisoners in the
    midst of their reports. What on earth has gone wrong with our
    moral compass since 11 September?"

    The Need For Continuing Coverage
    What indeed? This atrocity may come to stand for this war that the
    U.S. seems to be "winning" (if wars are ever fully won) in the
    same way that My Lai came to symbolize the war we lost. At My Lai,
    there was a journalist on the ground with the courage to blow the
    whistle. Only the British press has done so this time. As Amnesty
    International and the UN's Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson
    demand an investigation, let's hope this issue will receive better
    coverage here in the States.

    There are laws governing the treatment of prisoners. Imagine the
    outcry in the U.S. if U.S. prisoners in a Taliban jail had
    revolted and been bombed or fired upon. As Human Rights Day
    approaches on December 10, Washington must be held accountable for
    its abuses just as we demand that the Taliban and the terrorists
    be punished for theirs.

    Let me be clear: In upholding the primacy of international law, I
    am not excusing Taliban crimes. Scenes of splattered bodies of men
    in captivity make better recruiting videos for bin Laden than all
    his in-cave pronouncements combined. They erode the idea that
    somehow America's technologically advanced campaign for "justice"
    is morally superior to the Taliban or Al Qaeda's cruder terror

    Trying To Kill The Survivors
    What is amazing is that despite all the bombardments and the
    killings, 60 prisoners survived in the fort's subcellar. When they
    were first discovered, Newsweek reports, "Alliance soldiers poured
    diesel fuel into the basement and lit it, on the assumption that
    any remaining Taliban would be killed by the fire and the fumes.
    When this incineration strategy failed, they were washed out when
    their basement bunker was flooded with freezing water. (Now
    Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says that the U.S. may use gas to
    "smoke out" bin Laden if U.S. troops find him hiding in any of the
    caves they are blasting, amidst fears of significant collateral
    damage from folks living in the vicinity.)

    Coverage of these attacks and crime is trickling out, largely
    because an American was among the captives. The lack of careful,
    thorough coverage by the U.S. media is a crime in its own right
    against the public's right to know. Today's "Turbanators," as one
    satirist recently characterized President Bush in a mock movie ad
    modeled on Schwartzenegger's "Terminator," might play more by the
    same international rules of war if they knew that the media would
    hold their feet to the fire if they didn't. The lack of government
    information about the war is bad enough. The U.S. media's failure
    to fully investigate this alleged war crime makes them complicit
    in a cover-up.

    ^ Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org and
    author of News Dissector, which reports on how a citizens' war
    crimes commission was reported derisively during the Vietnam War.
    (Akashic Books and electronbooks.com).

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