Do not read this

IssueDecember 2010 - January 2011
News by Gabriel Carlyle

Evidence that the death toll in Iraq may have been grossly underestimated and documents revealing that Israel approved, in principle, “a policy of deliberate reduction” for basic goods in the Gaza Strip, have both been rated “X” in recent mainstream media coverage.

In the wake of Wikileaks’ 22 October publication of nearly 400,000 secret US military logs, the mainstream media briefly returned to the issue of the post-invasion civilian death toll in Iraq. In particular, much coverage was given to Iraq Body Count’s (IBC) assessment that these documents “contain an estimated 15,000 previously unknown civilian deaths”.

The standard figure

Following the leak of the Wikileaks “war logs” IBC, which tracks recorded deaths in Iraq using cross-checked media reports “supplemented by… hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures”, calculated “that over 150,000 violent deaths have been recorded since March 2003, with more than 122,000 (80%) of them civilian.”

BBC World Affairs Correspondent Paul Reynolds suggested that the 120,000-figure “might well become the standard accepted figure for civilian deaths in the Iraq invasion”.

However, as many deaths are never reported, this tally almost certainly underestimates the total number of deaths – perhaps significantly.

Indeed, a 2006 statistical survey undertaken by a team of respected researchers and published in the leading medical journal the Lancet, concluded that as of July 2006 there had been 601,000 violent Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war.

“An attack on truth”

Nonetheless, the Lancet survey was practically invisible in the mainstream press’ coverage of the war logs. The UK-based media watch project Media Lens conducted a LexisNexis search of all UK publications for the period 23 October-4 November.

Of the 320 articles that mentioned Wikileaks, 31 mentioned Iraq Body Count but only one piece (in the Guardian) mentioned the Lancet survey, and then only to dismiss its findings. A wider search using the Factiva database (which also covers US news sources) found 1,374 wire stories and newspaper articles mentioning Wikileaks during the same period.

Of these, 107 mentioned Iraq Body Count but only 5 referred to the Lancet survey: the above-mentioned Guardian piece, an editorial in the Washington Post (attacking the Lancet paper as an “attack on truth”), reprinted twice, and a 126-word letter in the Washington Post by two of the Lancet paper’s authors, defending themselves against the Post’s slurs and noting that the war logs are “an unknown portion of all documentation held by the US government, include no reports from 2003 and lack tens of thousands of after-attack Pentagon bombing assessments.”

Deliberate reduction

Similarly unmentionable were the official documents obtained by Israeli human rights group Gisha under the Freedom of Information Act, regarding the procedures for “monitoring and assessing inventories of vital basic products in the Gaza Strip” under the Israeli blockade.

These reveal that, prior to the alleged “easing” of the blockade following the 31 May attack on the Gaza-bound peace flotilla, Israel set a “lower warning line” to give advance warning of shortages of particular items but also approved ignoring this warning if the good in question was “a case of a policy of deliberate restriction”.

The documents also reveal that, contrary to Israeli claims that it only restricts goods for concrete security reasons, the decision to permit or prohibit an item was also based on whether or not it was “perceived as a luxury”.

No coverage, no easing

Israel’s blockade has been repeatedly criticised by aid agencies and human rights organisations as a form of collective punishment that has caused a “humanitarian implosion” in the Strip.

Nonetheless, a LexisNexis search by Media Lens found no mention of the newly released documents in any UK newspaper (though they were reported in Israel’s oldest daily newspaper Haaretz) and only two in all of the English-language publications covered by the database (the Palestine News Network and the Palestine Chronicle).

Moreover, according to the UN’s head of operation in Gaza, John Ging, the alleged “easing” of the blockade “has been nothing more than a political easing of the pressure on Israel and Egypt” with “no material change for the people on the ground.”

Unpopular ideas

In his suppressed preface to Animal Farm George Orwell wrote that: “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news - things which on their own merits would get the big headlines - being kept right out of the British press, not because the government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.”

Sixty-five years on, it seems, Orwell’s “silencing of unpopular ideas” is alive and well in the mainstream media.

Topics: Media, Iraq