The pro­pa­ganda we con­sume

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP - BY PA­TRICK COCK­BURN

I WAS in Iran in early 2011 when there were re­ports from op­po­si­tion sources in ex­ile say­ing that protests were sweep­ing the coun­try. There was some sub­stance in this. There had been a demon­stra­tion of 30,000 pro­test­ers in north Te­heran – re­call­ing the mass protests against the al­legedly fixed pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2009. There was com­men­tary from pun­dits sug­gest­ing that the Arab Spring up­ris­ings might be spread­ing to Iran.

By the time I got to Te­heran a few days later, noth­ing much ap­peared to be go­ing on, though there were plenty of riot po­lice.

Op­po­si­tion spokes­men were claim­ing that protests were tak­ing place weekly. This ac­count ap­peared to be con­firmed by videos.

I met some Ira­nian cor­re­spon­dents work­ing for the for­eign me­dia and asked why I was fail­ing to find any demon­stra­tions. The re­porters said that the protests had ended ear­lier in the month.

One jour­nal­ist said: “The prob­lem is that the pic­ture of what is hap­pen­ing in Iran these days comes largely from ex­iled Ira­ni­ans and is of­ten a prod­uct of wish­ful think­ing or pro­pa­ganda.”

I asked about the videos and he said that these were mostly con­cocted by the op­po­si­tion us­ing film of real demon­stra­tions that had taken place in the past.

I asked if this was not the fault of the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment which, by sus­pend­ing the cre­den­tials of lo­cal re­porters who were cred­i­ble eye­wit­nesses, had cre­ated a vac­uum of in­for­ma­tion which was swiftly filled by op­po­si­tion pro­pa­gan­dists. The stringers agreed that to some ex­tent this was so, but added that, even if they were free to re­port, their Western ed­i­tors “would not be­lieve us be­cause the ex­iles and their news out­lets have con­vinced them that there are big protests here. If we deny this, our bosses will sim­ply be­lieve that we have been in­tim­i­dated or bought up by the gov­ern­ment”.

It is a salu­tary story be­cause later the same year in Libya and Syria, op­po­si­tion ac­tivists were able to gain con­trol of the me­dia nar­ra­tive and ex­clude all other in­ter­pre­ta­tions of what was hap­pen­ing. In Libya, Gaddafi was de­monised as the sole cause of all his coun­try’s ills while his op­po­nents were lauded as valiant free­dom fight­ers.

In present day Syria and Iraq, one can see much the same process at work. In both coun­tries, two large Sunni Arab ur­ban cen­tres – East Aleppo in Syria and Mo­sul in Iraq – are be­ing be­sieged by pro-gov­ern­ment forces strongly sup­ported by for­eign air­power. In East Aleppo, some 250,000 civil­ians and 8,000 in­sur­gents, are un­der at­tack by the Syr­ian Army al­lied to Shia paramil­i­taries from Iran, Iraq and Le­banon and sup­ported by the Rus­sian and Syr­ian air forces. The bomb­ing of East Aleppo has rightly caused world­wide re­vul­sion and con­dem­na­tion.

But look at how dif­fer­ently the in­ter­na­tional me­dia is treat­ing a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in Mo­sul, 300 miles east of Aleppo, where one mil­lion peo­ple and an es­ti­mated 5,000 IS fight­ers are be­ing en­cir­cled by the Iraqi army fight­ing along­side Kur­dish Pesh­merga and Shia and Sunni paramil­i­taries and with mas­sive sup­port from a US-led air cam­paign. In the case of Mo­sul, un­like Aleppo, the de­fend­ers are to blame for en­dan­ger­ing civil­ians by us­ing them as hu­man shields and pre­vent­ing them leav­ing. In East Aleppo, for­tu­nately, there are no hu­man shields but sim­ply in­no­cent vic­tims of Rus­sian sav­agery.

De­struc­tion in Aleppo by Rus­sian air strikes is com­pared to the de­struc­tion of Grozny in Chech­nya 16 years ago, but, cu­ri­ously, no anal­ogy is made with Ra­madi, a city of 350,000 on the Euphrates in Iraq, that was 80% de­stroyed by US-led air strikes in 2015. Par­al­lels go fur­ther: civil­ians trapped in East Aleppo are un­der­stand­ably ter­ri­fied of what the Syr­ian Mukhabara se­cret po­lice would do to them if they leave and try to pass through Syr­ian gov­ern­ment check­points.

But I talked ear­lier this year to some truck driv­ers from Ra­madi whom I found sleep­ing un­der a bridge in Kirkuk who ex­plained that they could not even go back to the ru­ins of their homes be­cause check­points on the road to the city were manned by a par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent Shia mili­tia. They would cer­tainly have to pay a large bribe and stood a good chance of be­ing de­tained, tor­tured or mur­dered.

The ad­vance on Mo­sul is be­ing led by the elite Spe­cial Forces of the Iraqi counter-ter­ror­ism units and Shia mili­tias are not sup­posed to en­ter the city, al­most all of whose cur­rent in­hab­i­tants are Sunni Arabs.

It may be that IS will not fight for Mo­sul, but the prob­a­bil­ity is that they will, in which case the out­look will not be good for the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. IS did not fight to the last man in Fal­lu­jah west of Bagh­dad so much of the city is in­tact, but they did fight for Kha­lidiya, a nearby town of 30,000, where to­day only four build­ings are still stand­ing ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­cans.

The ex­treme bias shown in for­eign me­dia cov­er­age has been the pat­tern of re­port­ing of the wars in Syria and Iraq over the last five years. Noth­ing much has changed since 2003 when the Iraqi op­po­si­tion to Sad­dam Hus­sein had per­suaded for­eign gov­ern­ments and me­dia alike that the in­vad­ing Amer­i­can and Bri­tish armies would be greeted with rap­ture by the Iraqi peo­ple. A year later the in­vaders were fight­ing for their lives. Mis­led by op­po­si­tion pro­pa­gan­dists and their own wish­ful think­ing, for­eign gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and jour­nal­ists had wholly mis­read the lo­cal po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Much the same thing is hap­pen­ing to­day. – The In­de­pen­dent

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