In the Independent on June 24, Patrick Cockburn reported a vital development countering official propaganda on Libya:
‘Human rights organisations have cast doubt on claims of mass rape and other abuses perpetrated by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, which have been widely used to justify Nato’s war in Libya.
‘Nato leaders, opposition groups and the media have produced a stream of stories since the start of the insurrection on 15 February, claiming the Gaddafi regime has ordered mass rapes, used foreign mercenaries and employed helicopters against civilian protesters.’
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have checked the claims and found flat zero evidence.
And yet, earlier this month, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, told a press conference: ‘we have information that there was a policy to rape in Libya those who were against the government. Apparently he [Colonel Gaddafi] used it to punish people’.
Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was ‘deeply concerned’ about reports of widespread rape in Libya by Gaddafi’s forces.
By contrast, Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty, who spent three months in Libya after the start of the uprising in February, said: ‘we have not found any evidence or a single victim of rape or a doctor who knew about somebody being raped’.
Liesel Gerntholtz, head of women’s rights at HRW, said of the rape claims: ‘We have not been able to find evidence.’
The Amnesty investigation also found no evidence of mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi. Rovera commented:
‘Those shown to journalists as foreign mercenaries were later quietly released. Most were sub-Saharan migrants working in Libya without documents.’
And what about the massacres? Cockburn writes:
‘During the first days of the uprising in eastern Libya, security forces shot and killed demonstrators and people attending their funerals, but there is no proof of mass killing of civilians on the scale of Syria or Yemen.’
Not quite the impression given by the flood of media propaganda.
Cockburn followed up his June 24 piece with another excellent report on June 26: ‘Don’t believe everything you see and read about Gaddafi.’
At time of writing, there has been a single low-profile response to Cockburn’s reports in Roy Greenslade’s Guardian blog.
Greenslade quoted Cockburn, adding only that these findings of course do not mean that Gaddafi’s forces have not committed crimes.
There have been no other mentions in the UK media that we can find of this credible information challenging key claims justifying the war on Libya.
But shouldn’t a media system that so eagerly advanced these claims against the latest target of Western violence be equally willing to publicise counter-evidence?
Media Performance – The ‘Gut-Churning Atrocities’
For once, let’s sample from the performance of The Sun, which hosted a piece by TV celebrity and chat show host Lorraine Kelly:
‘Of all the gut-churning atrocities to come out of Libya, the use of mass rape as a weapon of war is the most horrific.
‘Over the years despot Gaddafi has been accused of many heinous crimes. But now he has been charged with procuring container loads of Viagra-like pills which are given to his troops so they can rape their victims more “efficiently”.
‘The thought of civilians being terrorised by troops on drugs who are being positively encouraged to rape is utterly monstrous and chills the blood.’
Amnesty’s Rovera noted that rebels meeting with the foreign media in Benghazi showed journalists packets of Viagra, claiming they came from burned-out tanks. Cockburn commented ‘it is unclear why the packets were not charred’.
The Daily Mail and numerous other media repeated the same claims ad nauseam.
A leading article in the Guardian expressed some caution in mentioning the presence of mercenaries on February 21:
‘If the widespread reports of African mercenaries being used to shoot Libyans are accurate, he has few qualms about mowing down his own people.’
The caution had vanished from a leading article on March 10: ‘air activity is not the deciding factor in the firefights between the rebels and regime loyalists and mercenaries’.
The Times went even further, claiming that Gaddafi depended on mercenaries: ‘his regime imposes ever greater atrocities against Libya’s people (not, incidentally, “his” people, for he leads no legitimate government and relies on foreign mercenaries)’. (Leading article, ‘Essence of Indecision,’ The Times, March 4, 2011)
A leading article in the Independent, Cockburn’s own paper, observed on February 21:
‘Colonel Gaddafi is said to have deployed heavy weapons and African mercenaries in an effort to reassert his rule.’
Cockburn wrote on the alleged mercenaries: ‘The Amnesty investigation found there was no evidence for this.’
On the use of ‘heavy weapons’, there was also ‘no evidence that aircraft or heavy anti-aircraft machine guns were used against crowds. Spent cartridges picked up after protesters were shot at came from Kalashnikovs or similar calibre weapons’.
‘The politicians kept talking about mercenaries, which inflamed public opinion and the myth has continued because they were released without publicity.’
No Lessons Learned (Again!)
It ought to be surprising that Amnesty and Human Rights Watch exposed US-UK propaganda in a way that the entire pack of Western media hounds was unable or unwilling to do. But as we have described many times, with rare exceptions, journalists function as stenographers to power. Arguably, as democracy has rapidly eroded in Britain – with all main political parties increasingly serving the same privileged interests – journalists have become even less inclined to challenge the powerful.
The tales of mass rape and vicious mercenaries recall the infamous claim in 1990 that Iraqi soldiers had stormed a Kuwait City hospital, taken hundreds of babies out of incubators, and left them to die on the floor. Journalist John MacArthur, author of The Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War, commented:
‘Of all the accusations made against the dictator [Saddam Hussein], none had more impact on American public opinion than the one about Iraqi soldiers removing 312 babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floors of Kuwait City.’
In their book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton described how the most powerful testimony came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, initially known only as Nayirah:
‘Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City… “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital,” Nayirah said. “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where… babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”‘
In fact, Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Her father was Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Ambassador to the US. Stauber and Rampton noted that Nayirah had been coached by US PR company Hill & Knowlton’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado ‘in what even the Kuwaitis’ own investigators later confirmed was false testimony’. The story of the 312 murdered babies was an outright lie.
Needless to say, the mainstream media have learned nothing from this and numerous similar cases.
However appalling media performance has been in facilitating yet another bloody war on yet another defenceless country – just a few years after the great Bush-Blair deception on Iraq – the failure of the media to report Amnesty and HRW’s claims is almost beyond belief. These are highly credible sources making highly controversial claims (which means they will have been extremely careful to check their facts) about alleged crimes that have been used to help justify war. And the media have responded with a single mention in a blog.
It seems oddly appropriate, as we approach our ten-year anniversary next month, that we should be witnessing one of the most striking examples of media servility to power we have seen.
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.
Ask the following editors and journalists why they have not reported Amnesty and Human Right Watch’s failure to find evidence of rape, use of mercenaries, use of heavy weapons against civilians, and mass killing on the scale of Yemen and Syria, in Libya:
Write to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Email: [email protected]
Write to Simon Kelner, Independent editor-in-chief
Email: [email protected]
Alex Thomson at Channel 4 News