Update – The Mass Death of Civilians in Afghanistan

On January 3, Media Lens issued a Media Alert regarding the failure of the UK print and broadcast media to report the mass death of Afghan refugees.

We have received a remarkable response from a large number of people who have emailed both the BBC and ITN asking them why they consider the suffering of Afghan civilians unworthy of attention.

On January 5, both the BBC and ITN reported the first U.S. combat death in Afghanistan – the soldier was named and a heart-rending picture of the man and his young family was shown. Although the loss of a soldier’s life is always tragic – we share the feeling of grief at the news of yet another life lost – normally in time of war it is deemed even more tragic when civilians are killed. These, after all, are unarmed men, women and children, innocent bystanders killed in someone else’s war.

There is another moral truism, less commonly held, which suggests that, as democratic citizens, we should feel very great concern for victims, particularly civilian victims, of our country’s armed forces. Why? Because as democratic citizens we are directly responsible for electing the government commanding these forces – we are indirectly responsible for causing the deaths of people killed in our name. Also, whilst we might decry slaughter conducted by foreign governments, there is often little we can do to influence or restrain their actions. By contrast, there is much we can do – again, to repeat, as democratic citizens – to influence the actions of democratic governments we elected into power and which are killing in our names.

It is remarkable, then, that both the BBC and ITN should see fit to report the death of a U.S. soldier while consistently ignoring the deaths, not only of combatants, not only of civilian victims of a foreign government, but of civilian victims of +our+ government. It seems clear to us that in a moral society, these victims would be deemed the +most+ worthy of media attention and focus.

On January 3, we reported conditions in the Maslakh refugee camp to the west of Herat in Afghanistan where 300 people are dying every day. Maslakh, containing 350,000 people, has immediate significance as the largest refugee camp in the world. On September 19, 2001, the Guardian reported that 40 people were dying in Maslakh every day, “many because they arrive too weak to survive after trying to hold out in their villages.” (Steven Morris and Felicity Lawrence, ‘Afghanistan facing humanitarian disaster – famine, hunger and disease could kill millions, aid agencies warn’, Guardian, September 19, 2001)

The article quoted Dominic Nutt, emergency officer for Christian Aid, who warned of the devastating consequences of the U.S. threat of bombing and of actual bombing, in arresting the flow of aid, and so promoting starvation:

“It’s as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people. We can drag them back from it or push them in. We could be looking at millions of deaths.” (ibid)

Although Media Lens is unaware of the death toll immediately prior to September 11, in February 2001 the Guardian reported a death rate of 20 people per week. It should be a matter of extreme concern that the death rate has risen from 40 per day in September to 300 per day now.

It seems clear that, since the September 19 report, our government’s actions have indeed pushed many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, into a mass grave. And yet, or more accurately +because+, this is the case, the media has abandoned Afghans to the hell of Maslakh (itself only a small portion of the wider tragedy silently unfolding in Afghanistan).

Remarkably, since the September 19 report, the Guardian has mentioned Maslakh just two times. The Independent mentioned Maslakh on October 6 and has also since mentioned it twice. We found no mention of Maslakh on the ITN website and 7 mentions on BBC Online. By contrast, there are 54 mentions on the BBC site of refugees stranded at Blace during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, although the numbers of refugees and levels of suffering at Blace are dwarfed by Maslakh.

One of the Independent’s mentions of Maslakh was by Natasha Walter who wrote in the Independent on 22 November:

“They are far away from us, it’s true, but their grief still rises from television screens and news reports. And this time around, we are implicated. These people are suffering from terror visited on them from the West. Yes, I know they have also suffered over the years from the evils of their fundamentalist rulers but we now share the blame for their plight. If it were not for the missiles the West has sent into Kandahar and Kunduz, these children whose faces we now see in our newspapers [sic] would not have had to take to the roads, desperately trudging the hills and deserts and sitting in tents on a bare plain.” (Natasha Walter, These Refugees are our Responsibility’, the Independent, 22.11.01)

This is the truth and, we believe, it is why the horror now unfolding in Afghanistan has been glimpsed only fleetingly by the British public. Apart from these glimpses, our responsibility for the mass death of Afghans has been hidden beneath a veil of silence. In his study of British foreign policy, historian Mark Curtis describes media performance thus:

“Of the five daily broadsheet newspapers in Britain – the Daily Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Independent and Guardian… the first three – which account for around 70 per cent of broadsheet readership – systematically fail to elucidate the specific link between British policy and human rights abuses. The Independent also regularly portrays the reality of British foreign policy in an inaccurately benevolent light. These newspapers are firmly entrenched within a propaganda system and their reporting implicitly serves to promote the concept of Britain’s basic benevolence… Of the five newspapers, only the Guardian – with around 17 per cent of broadsheet readership – tends to report on British foreign policy in a more independent manner.” (Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy Since 1945, Zed Books, 1995, pp.116-117)

Far more important TV news sources, such as the BBC and ITN, are even more tightly controlled.

Thank you for writing to the BBC and ITN. We hope you will continue to do so and that you will encourage others to do the same. The willingness of the media, particularly the broadcast media, to simply ignore suffering for which we bear very real responsibility is outrageous.


Write to Richard Carey at BBC Information ([email protected]) and ask why the BBC is ignoring the mass death of refugees and victims of U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.

Write to ITN ([email protected]) and ask why it is ignoring the mass death of refugees and victims of U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.