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Devastating silence

Why is the Asian Tsunami big news, but not the destruction of Fallujah?

by Kalinga Seneviratne
Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 11

start_quote (1K)But why should we be kept in the dark about what human-made calamities can do to communities?
end_quote (1K)

Kalinga Seneviratne (pic above shows civil society's anti-war protest in Penang)

A year ago, two horrific calamities took place, destroying thousands of dwellings and people. One was in Asia and the other in West Asia. The first year anniversary of the former in December 2005 was big news with documentaries, features and news reports saturating our airwaves and the newspapers. But the first anniversary of the other went almost unnoticed in November 2005.

Why the double standards?

The one about which we heard a lot was the Asian tsunami, and the one about which we hardly heard anything was the anniversary of the attack by US-led forces on Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004.

In Fallujah, just over a year ago, we saw one of the most horrendous destructions in modern history - not by nature, but planned and executed by men. But most of the world has yet to know the real story.

Writing in New Zealand’s Pacific Media Watch after the Asian tsunami in 2004, journalist Mike Whitney observed: “The American media has descended on the Asian tsunami with all the fervour of feral animals in a meat locker. The newspapers and TVs are plastered with bodies drifting out to sea, battered carcasses strewn along the beach and bloated babies lying in rows. Every aspect of the suffering is being scrutinised with microscopic intensity by the predatory lens of the media”.

“This is where the western press really excels: in the celebratory atmosphere of human catastrophe” he noted, asking, “where was this ‘free press’ in Iraq when the death toll was skyrocketing?” Well, they were not there either when the first anniversary of the attack was observed last month, coincidently with the admission by US forces in Iraq that they used burning phosphorus weapons during their assault on Fallujah a year ago.

Perhaps, you may ask, why should they be there?

It is because Fallujah was a city of over 300,000 people, and US sources have claimed that some 6,000 insurgents were holed out in the city and, in order to flush them out, the US forces destroyed the whole city.

Fallujah’s compensation commissioner has reported that 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 houses have been destroyed, along with 8,400 shops, 60 nurseries and schools, and 65 mosques and shrines. Didn’t the big waves which hit Aceh or the southern coast of Thailand and Sri Lanka, do the same? Well, we know all about it and I don’t need to say more here.

Unconscionable brutality

But why should we be kept in the dark about what human-made calamities can do to communities? Especially now that it has been admitted by the US that they used chemical weapons in the attack, which can melt through skin and clothes, a substance banned for use in civilian areas by international conventions.

“Fallujah is a place name that has become a symbol of unconscionable brutality” noted Mike Marqusee, co-founder of ‘Iraq Occupation Focus’ writing in London’s ‘Guardian’ on the first anniversary of the Fallujah attack.

“As the war in Iraq claims more lives, we need to ensure that this atrocity – so recent, so easily erased from public memory – is recognised as an example of the barbarism of nations that call themselves civilised,” he added. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in January that 300,000 people fled during the attack and 40 per cent of the city’s population was living on charity. They estimated that 40 per cent of the buildings in the city were completely destroyed, and the rest had significant damage, while three of the city’s water purification plants were completely destroyed.

In one of the rare reports on the anniversary of the attacks, the BBC’s Andrew North, reporting from Fallujah in November 2005, said that getting basic services such as water, electricity, telephone and sewage is still a problem and, though US$ 100 million had been pledged for the reconstruction of the city, people are only now beginning to get the compensation money they had been promised.

This was the type of story that would be told over and over again by Western journalists visiting tsunami-devastated areas of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and India on the first anniversary of the tsunami.

Shouldn’t they also be investigating the same of Fallujah population? - where they are now, what they are doing, who is helping them now and how they are trying to rebuild their lives...

For the international media, it is much easier to point fingers at corrupt Asian officials, inefficient local relief agencies, and praise the “compassionate” Western donors and relief workers. That fits in well with their Western news values. But should the Asian media also follow suit?

A Chinese journalist who used to work for China’s Xinhua news agency once told me that the role of the journalist at Xinhua was to assist the government to convey its policies to the people. But those who practise the Western media tradition believe that the role of the media is to be the watchdog of government - to protect the citizenry against abuse of state power.

By cheer-leading the American-led forces in Iraq, even when they are breaching international conventions, is the Western media any better than Xinhua – an agency they have always ridiculed as a mouthpiece of the Chinese communist regime?

Kalinga Seneviratne, a journalist, television documentary maker and media analyst, is a senior research associate with a leading Asian regional media research centre in Singapore.

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