Since the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) blitzed through northern Iraq all the way down to the outskirts of Baghdad last summer, Iraq has been in the news almost constantly after years of insouciant media coverage even as massive human rights abuses took place, and amid popular demonstrations against the sectarian rule of former prime minister, and current vice president, Nouri Al-Maliki. Whilst media attention can sometimes draw positive action, as in the Palestinian case where Israel’s genocidal tendencies were laid to bare for the world to see during “Operation Cast Lead” in the fall of 2008, it has been nothing short of disastrous in portraying the realities of Iraq today.
In fact, it could be argued that a lack of media attention on Iraq would be preferable to the coverage that Iraq is getting now. For years, groups such as Amnesty International have reported on the Iraqi government’s actions that easily constitute crimes against humanity. Through anti-terrorism laws, the sectarian Shia-led government – sponsored and supported by Iran – has conducted a systematic and sustained campaign against the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. These crimes have included torture, rape, sexual assault, a politicised judiciary that hands out thousands of death sentences, and state-sponsored and state-conducted murder of Sunni civilians, including murdering defenceless prisoners in their cells (Human Rights Watch reported that, as of July 2014, at least 255 Sunni prisoners in six cities were summarily executed by retreating sectarian Iraqi forces).
Did any of this cause any large political waves? Did world leaders demand that the Iraqi government and its associated militias stop murdering Sunni civilians en masse? Did the international community pay attention to the plight of these persecuted people and acknowledge their peaceful, year long, protests that ended in massacres by the Iraqi government at Hawija and elsewhere? Sadly, the world continued to ignore peaceful Iraqi movements, and the United States even provided the Iraqi government with more arms to use against the Iraqi people, including thousands of Hellfire missiles. As a result of the general apathy of the international community, and the laziness of media reporting, particularly mainstream news outlets, countless thousands of Iraqis of all sects and ethnic backgrounds have died.
Contrast this lack of reaction to years of torture, abuse and human rights violations under a “democratic” Iraqi government with the sudden international outpouring of outrage and calls to arms when the Yazidi religious (and not ethnic – they are generally Kurds) minority were reportedly at risk of genocide by ISIS extremists. There is little doubt that Yazidis were in danger, but the figures were staggering to the point of disbelief. It was claimed that some 50,000 Yazidis were stranded on Mount Sinjar. The Iraqi part of the range is about 45 miles long, and its width is significantly less. Add to this the fact that the mountain is treacherous, with some areas reaching heights of almost 1.5 kilometres, and a large proportion of the 50,000 Yazidis were children, elderly and injured people and that significantly reduces the areas of the mountain that are accessible to this enormous number of people.
The only footage that we ever saw of this gargantuan number of people were small gatherings, and no aerial reconnaissance footage was ever released even though the US Air Force with all its advanced military imagery – even able to spot non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction prior to the illegal 2003 US-led invasion – was in the vicinity.
The above is not intended to diminish the plight of one group of people whilst exaggerating the plight of another. As previously stated, there is little doubt that ISIS has no love for Yazidis, whom they believe to be Satanists, and would no doubt relish any opportunity to devastate them. The point of all of this is to show how the media is utilised as a tool by governments in order to “sex up” claims for the urgency of military intervention on humanitarian grounds. Furthermore, it shows how the media will ignore other stories that do not necessarily fit with their narrative of an endangered people that need urgent international assistance.
Al-Jazeera recently reported that Yazidi militias had attacked the Sunni Arab village of Buhanaya, killing many of its inhabitants, burning down homes and terrorising its women and children. A separate report from Al-Jazeera on 27 January 2015 indicated that these same Yazidi militias had also abducted Sunni Arab women, quite possibly in some kind of misguided attempt at retaliation to ISIS selling Yazidi women into sexual slavery. Why was outrage limited only to ISIS? Is it not equally atrocious that this is happening to Sunni Arabs? Although it is debatable due to lack of current census data, for years the United States and Western powers have insisted that the Sunni Arabs were a minority in Iraq. Why then are they not afforded the same humanisation that other minorities are granted? Any and all atrocities should be forcefully opposed, yet the West, as well as Russia and China, focuses on atrocities committed against one ethno-religious group (Kurdish Yazidis) whilst whitewashing crimes against another (Sunni Arabs in this case).
The reasoning behind this is simple, if callous. The P5 of the United Nations Security Council (the US, Britain, France, China and Russia) do not particularly care about any oppressed people around the world, even though their citizens may well do. Hence, and because they understand the human desire to stand against savage massacres and genocidal acts, they produce a narrative of the good but they intervene anywhere around the world that serves their strategic interests. The media then latches onto this humanitarian narrative, and proceeds to place all their focus on ISIS, describing them as extremist Sunnis that persecute minorities of other religions and ethnicities, whilst simultaneously fighting a sectarian war against the official Iraqi authorities who happen to be Shia. The image painted becomes so black and white that people cannot disentangle non-combatants with active groups and militias, and so all Sunnis have been shoehorned into the ISIS camp. This perfectly explains why there was no high level government reaction (or grassroots attention, for that matter) when over 70 Sunni Arabs were massacred by Shia militias after the Diyala province was “liberating” earlier this week, the latest in a long line of sectarian attacks.
It is time the media stopped allowing itself to be used as a tool for powerful governments intent on weaving propaganda to gain support for what would normally be unpopular policies and to do their job of reporting what actually happens. Until then, Iraq is better off having no coverage than the travesty to journalism plaguing our screens today.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.