Reporting Elections In Iran And Iraq
As discussed in Part 1, media across the UK ‘spectrum’ have expressed outrage at even circumstantial evidence of Iranian political corruption. A Guardian leader observed:
“That the Iranian elections were fixed is impossible to prove, but that Iranians voted as the official figures indicate seems impossible to believe. Who could believe, for example, that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reform candidate in the presidential elections, has lost by a huge margin in his own home town?… Electoral fixes can come in sophisticated versions, or they can come in crude and contrived forms. This one falls into the latter category.” (Leader, ‘The Iranian vote: Reform denied,’ The Guardian, June 19, 2009)
The Daily Telegraph agreed:
“The election results, announced over the weekend, lack all credibility.” (Leader, ‘Democracy the loser in Iran’s “free” election,’ Daily Telegraph, June 15, 2009)
The Times lamented the lack of protest from the West:
“But surely, at least, the West could give louder voice to its outrage, its contempt for this farce. Or will it, like the pusillanimous leaders of China, Russia and its Central Asian allies welcoming President Ahmadinejad in Yekaterinburg, sacrifice a moral stance to political expediency? Mir Hossein Mousavi is neither a liberal nor an opponent of the Islamist state. Swiftly, however, he is becoming a symbol of resistance to repression.”
(Leader, ‘A Hollow Democracy,’ The Times, June 17, 2009)
The call for a “louder voice” of outrage from the West could hardly be more ironic. Consider the media response to the January 2005 elections in Iraq that took place under superpower military occupation in conditions of extreme violence.
The Iraqi interim government had forced the independent al-Jazeera TV station and critical newspapers to shut down. Former US proconsul Paul Bremer had banned all reporting on the rebirth of the Baath Party and all protests calling for an end to the occupation. In the month prior to voting, Baghdad-based journalist Borzou Daragahi reported that Iraqi reporters were under threat from US troops, Iraqi police and insurgents:
“We’re unable to get access to anybody,” one journalist told him. “We’re frightened.” (Daragahi, Arab Reform Bulletin Vol. 2, December 11, 2004)
James Forsyth, online editor for the Business and the Spectator later put the violence in perspective: “Iraq is the most difficult conflict in any of our lifetimes to report… Much normal reporting is simply impossible.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/ 2007/dec/10/iraqandthemedia.iraq)
The risks were such that electoral candidates were unable to canvas voters and even reveal their names. Voters were therefore not in a position to make any kind of informed choice. While US-subsidised media broadcast freely, officials working for interim prime minister and former CIA asset, Ayad Allawi, were found to have been handing journalists envelopes stuffed with $100 notes for turning up at press conferences.
Washington-funded organisations famous for manipulating foreign democracies in favour of US interests were deeply involved in the election. The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) were part of a consortium to which the US government had provided over $80 million for political and electoral activities in Iraq. NDI was headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, while IRI was chaired by Republican Senator John McCain. Professor William I. Robinson of the Global and International Studies Programme at the University of California called NDI and IRI “extensions” of the US State Department:
“I suspect that [NDI and IRI] are trying to select individual leaders and organisations that are going to be very amenable to the US transnational project for Iraq.” (Lisa Ashkenaz Croke and Brian Dominick, ‘Controversial U.S. Groups Operate Behind Scenes on Iraq Vote’; http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/1311, December 13, 2004)
Robinson argued that selected leaders had to be willing to engage in “pacifying the country militarily and legitimating the occupation and the formal electoral system”. The goal being to guarantee that Iraq was controlled by “economic, political and civic groups that are going to be favourable to Iraq’s integration into the global capitalist economy”.
In 2005, it emerged that, since 2004, the US military had been secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish pro-American propaganda. Articles written by US troops under the direction of the military’s Information Operations Task Force had been translated into Arabic and planted in Baghdad newspapers with the assistance of the Washington-based Lincoln Group and its subcontractor BKSH & Associates. The New York Times reported:
“The Pentagon’s first public relations contract with Lincoln was awarded in 2004 for about $5 million with the stated purpose of accurately informing the Iraqi people of American goals and gaining their support. But while meant to provide reliable information, the effort was also intended to use deceptive techniques, like payments to sympathetic ‘temporary spokespersons’ who would not necessarily be identified as working for the coalition, according to a contract document and a military official.
“In addition, the document called for the development of ‘alternate or diverting messages which divert media and public attention’ to ‘deal instantly with the bad news of the day.'” (Jeff Gerth and Scott Shane, ‘U.S. Is Said to Pay to Plant Articles in Iraq Papers,’ New York Times, December 1, 2005; http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/01/politics/ 01propaganda.html?pagewanted=print)
According to military officials, the US task force had bought one Iraqi newspaper outright and taken control of a radio station, using them to disseminate pro-US propaganda to the Iraqi people. Neither of these news outlets was identified to the Iraqi public as being under US control. (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2005/dec2005/prop-d02.shtml)
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies described deeper difficulties with the elections:
“An election cannot be legitimate when it is conducted under foreign military occupation; when the country is nominally ruled by, and the election will be officially run by, a puppet government put and kept in place by the occupying army and the election will be under the ultimate control of the occupying army; when war is raging extensively enough to prevent participation by much of the population; and when the election is designed to choose a new assembly responsible for drafting a constitution and selecting a government that will continue to function under the conditions of military occupation.” (Bennis, ‘Iraq’s Elections,’ Institute for Policy Studies, December 20, 2004; http://www.tni.org/archives/bennis/points27.htm)
Unleashing The Dogs Of Hell
There were other problems. In November 2004, Edward Herman noted that Iraq was “nominally ruled by Ayad Allawi, openly selected by US officials, but taken by the media (and Kofi Annan and the UN) as a genuine leader of Iraq. In the runup to ‘saving’ Fallujah, US military officials say that they are awaiting a go-ahead from the head-of-sovereign-Iraq, Mr. Allawi, for permission!” (Herman, ‘We Had To Destroy Fallujah in Order to Save It,’ ZNet Commentary, November 8, 2004)
On November 8, 2004 – two months before the elections – ITV showed footage of a speech by US Marine general John Sattler to US troops as they prepared to attack Falluja:
“This town’s being held hostage by mugs, thugs, murderers and intimidators. All they need is for us to give them the opportunity to break the back of that intimidation.” (ITV News, 12:30pm, November 8, 2004)
Later that day, Channel 4 News broadcast the thoughts of a US Marine on broad issues of strategy:
“We’ll unleash the dogs of hell, we’ll unleash ’em… They don’t even know what’s coming – hell is coming! If there are civilians in there, they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.” (Sergeant Sam Mortimer, US Marines, Channel 4 News, November 8, 2004)
In January 2005, Iraqi doctor, Ali Fadhil, described the results:
“By 10am we were inside the city. It was completely devastated, destruction everywhere. It looked like a city of ghosts. Falluja used to be a modern city; now there was nothing. We spent the day going through the rubble that had been the centre of the city; I didn’t see a single building that was functioning.” (Fadhil, ‘City of ghosts,’ The Guardian, January 11, 2005)
A senior US Army commander involved in planning the offensive subsequently visited the city. Stunned by the level of destruction, he said:
“My God, what are the folks who live here going to say when they see this?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/04 /weekinreview/04burns.html?fta=y&pagewanted=all)
The answer was provided by physician Mahammad J. Haded, director of an Iraqi refugee centre, who was in Falluja during the onslaught:
“The city is today totally ruined. Falluja is our Dresden in Iraq… The population is full of rage.” (http://www.countercurrents.org/iraq-awad100305.htm)
The press reaction was interesting. In March 2005, a Guardian editorial entitled, ‘Stealing Democracy,’ observed of elections in Zimbabwe:
“Intimidation, gerrymandering and the use of famine relief as a weapon are just some of the many abuses that have been documented so far” in “what looks like being an utterly flawed election”. (Leader, ‘Stealing democracy,’ The Guardian, March 29, 2005)
And yet, despite having themselves reported the destruction of Falluja, the same editors declared the Iraq process “the country’s first free election in decades”, a “landmark election” that would be “in a way, a grand moment”. (Leader, ‘Vote against violence,’ The Guardian, January 7, 2005; Leader, ‘On the threshold,’ The Guardian, January 29, 2005)
The Independent’s editors asked if Zimbabwe’s elections could be considered free and fair: “The answer is emphatically no.” (Leader, ‘Zimbabwe has been wrecked by Mr Mugabe – and this election could make thinks worse,’ The Independent, March 31, 2005)
Obviously, ongoing and previous violence were central concerns in considering the legitimacy of the process:
“Much has been made of the lack of violence compared with four years ago. But Mr Mugabe has found other means of coercion… And the legacy of the government’s previous campaign of violence lives on. Opposition activists are drained after years of torture and assaults.”
As for the Iraqi elections: “Whether it turns out that 50, 60 or more than 70 per cent of all registered Iraqis voted, a sufficient number risked the walk to the polling station to make this first attempt at a free election for half a century a credible exercise in democracy.” (Leader, ‘These elections inspire hope for democracy, but cannot vindicate a misguided war,’ The Independent, January 31, 2005)
Imagine if the Iranian government had attacked and demolished a major Iranian city, a centre of anti-government resistance, killing thousands of people a few weeks ahead of elections, sending a clear message to dissidents everywhere. Would our media perhaps have perceived this as problematic for the claim that subsequent elections were free and fair?
Our search of the LexisNexis media database showed that there had not been a single substantive analysis of the extent of press freedom in occupied Iraq anywhere in the UK press in the six months prior to the January 2005 elections. A Guardian report on January 4 noted:
“A low turnout might undermine the legitimacy of the first free elections attempted since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958.” (Sam Jones, ‘Car bomb in Iraq kills three Britons,’ The Guardian, January 4, 2005)
In another news report, the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill described how Iraq was preparing “for the country’s first democratic election next month”. (MacAskill, ‘Blair “feels the danger” on visit to Baghdad,’ The Guardian, December 22, 2004)
Helen Boaden, the BBC’s director of news, wrote to one Media Lens reader:
“The Iraqi elections are the first democratic elections in Iraq for 50 years – acknowledged as a democratic opportunity. We know that the Americans and the British want the elections to be free and fair – but of course we don’t yet know if that will be the case – especially bearing in mind security. But our aim is to provide impartial, fair and accurate coverage, reflecting significant strands of argument to enable our audiences to make up their own minds.” (Boden, forwarded to Media Lens, January 21, 2005)
Roger Mosey, head of BBC Television, broke his usual silence to write:
“Dear [Name Withheld]
I may be missing something here, but can you explain why you think the British and the Americans don’t want to have democratic elections in Iraq when they’ve set out a process and a timetable by which that’s achieved? I can understand a frenzy if George W Bush had said ‘no elections’ – but hasn’t he said the opposite?
Roger” (Mosey, forwarded to Media Lens, January 22, 2005)
The same complacent acceptance of the political process in Iraq poured forth from keyboards across the media. The Sunday Times wrote:
“The terrorists will do all they can to destroy democratic elections.” (Leader, ‘Send more troops,’ Sunday Times, October 10, 2004)
The Financial Times observed: “Iraq’s first democratic election is unfolding under the shadow of a deadly insurgency.” (Steve Negus and John Reed, ‘Allawi runs on claim of “strong leadership”,’ Financial Times, December 16, 2004)
The shadow of a deadly superpower occupation unleashing “the dogs of hell” was apparently not an issue.
The editors of the Express explained proudly: “It is Britain and America that want to give the besieged people of Iraq their true freedom, to hold free elections and elect a democratic government.” (Leader, ‘Nothing short of insulting,’ The Express, October 6, 2004)
The Mirror declared that Iraq was approaching “its first democratic elections”. (‘Police chief and son assassinated,’ January 11, 2005, The Mirror) And so on…
This is all very curious, is it not? The same British media that declared Iraq’s January 2005 elections admirably free, fair and democratic are now appalled by the obvious flaws in Iran’s elections. How are we to make sense of the difference?
George Monbiot got it right: mainstream journalists, quite simply, are “hired hands defending a corporate or institutional position”.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
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