All the news that's not fit to print

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Feature by Emily Johns , Milan Rai

One million Iraqis
The most-censored story of the year was the estimate by a reputable British polling agency that over 1,000,000 Iraqis had died violently as a result of the invasion and occupation.

The story started in September 2007, when the mainstream polling agency ORB (widely quoted six months earlier and six months later for their work on Iraqi attitudes to the occupation) published an estimate of the number of Iraqis who had died violently since the 2003 invasion.

As PN reported at the time (PN 2490), this estimate amounted to 1.2m Iraqi deaths. There was almost total silence, shocking our reporter Polina Aksamentova who tried to investigate media treatment of the estimate.

That was last year. This year, in January, ORB published a follow-up survey, after conducting almost 600 additional interviews in rural Iraqi communities to complement the 1,824 interviews in urban areas. 15 out of Iraq’s 18 governorates were covered (including two of the most violent, Kerbala and Anbar). The revised estimated death toll was 1,033,000 violent deaths in the period from March 2003 to August 2007.

The reaction to the strengthened mortality estimate was absolute silence (except for a letter in the Guardian written by PN Reviews co-editor Andrea Needham).

So thoroughly was the 1m revised estimate removed from history that when the Guardian published an investigation into Iraq mortality estimates on 19 March, it mentioned the September 2007 poll, but not the January 2008 figure.

The ORB estimate may be wrong. It may be wildly wrong. It may be an under-estimate (it does not include occupation-related deaths caused by increased disease, stress, traffic accidents and so on). Whether it over- or under-estimates the death toll, the ORB estimate deserves to be part of the national debate about Iraq, and it deserves the same scrutiny as all other attempts to measure the scale of our crimes in Iraq.

We cannot help suspecting that the reason the ORB estimate is taboo is that it lends weight to the similarly high mortality estimates published in the Lancet medical journal in October 2004 and October 2006.

ORB January 2008 estimate:

Iran’s peace offer
Another striking example of media conformism came in May, after the government of Iran made a startling proposal to break the deadlock over its nuclear activities. Tehran has long been committed to the principle of uranium enrichment on its own soil, using its own uranium ore to produce nuclear fuel for its power programme. The US and Britain have rejected this idea, though it is in keeping with the letter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The only way to reconcile the two viewpoints, former US undersecretary of state Thomas Pickering and other former US diplomats suggested (in March) was to make the enrichment facilities “jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments” such as France and Germany, to prevent nuclear proliferation.

The idea would go nowhere, commentators scoffed, if for no other reason than that Tehran would wait until after the inauguration of a new US president in January 2009, and the election of a new Iranian president in June 2009.

Instead, confounding its critics, the Iranian government indicated to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on 13 May that it would be prepared to relinquish national control and countenance an international consortium operating its uranium enrichment plants. This was only part of a wider “new and comprehensive initiative” Iran put to EU negotiators for normalising relations between Iran and the West.

Sir John Thomson, a former senior British diplomat, sent an open letter to the British government urging it to consider the Iranian proposal, writing: “To be blunt, western policy is not working.” Thomson noted: “Our plan also provides that the multilateral partnership would take over all Iranian enrichment-related facilities, not just the centrifuges. In addition there would be international personnel on duty at every stage of the enrichment operation – on each shift in the plant, in personnel management... in the guard rooms, etc.”

If Iran were to take over the plant and expel the international staff, Thomson pointed out, this would be: “tantamount to telling the world Iran was about to make a weapon but did not have one yet – a particularly dangerous predicament if you have powerful enemies.”

The British press almost totally censored this Iranian initiative. There were perhaps three mentions in the Guardian, and virtually none elsewhere. In a string of articles in the summer about Iran-EU nuclear negotiations, for example, the Independent steadfastly refused to mention the fact that Iran had placed its own consortium proposal on the table.

The world may be heading towards an enormously dangerous military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme. Media self-censorship of Iran’s offer to place its programme under international control is an invaluable gift to the warmongers, and a blow to the cause of peace.

Countering such censorship is a large part of the justification for newspapers such as Peace News.

Topics: Iran, Iraq