Anyone struggling to understand the violent upheaval in Yemen this year might be tempted to consult the country’s ‘most important source of news’ – the BBC. An online piece titled ‘Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?’ explains:
‘Yemen is in the grip of its most severe crisis in years, as competing forces fight for control of the country.’
The article continues:
‘The main fight is between forces loyal to the beleaguered President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Mr Hadi to flee the capital Sanaa in February.’
Both President Hadi and the Houthis are opposed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). ‘The picture is further complicated’, says the BBC, ‘ by the emergence in late 2014 of a Yemen affiliate of the jihadist group Islamic State.’
Yemen has now ‘descended into conflicts’ between all these different groups, pushing the country ‘to the edge of civil war’.
‘After rebel forces closed in on the president’s southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Mr Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets. The coalition comprises five Gulf Arab states and Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan.’
Adopting the required ideological viewpoint, the BBC piece observes that what ‘worries’ the West about events in Yemen is ‘the threat of attacks emanating from the country as it becomes more unstable.’
And the cited source for such alleged concerns? ‘Western intelligence agencies’ who ‘consider AQAP the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda because of its technical expertise and global reach.’ This fits the usual pattern of ‘our’ government being concerned about ‘keeping people safe’ from the ‘shadows and threats’ that surround us on all sides.
One line hints at the West’s real concern:
‘Yemen is strategically important because it sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass.’
There are clear parallels with Iraq. As Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, observed:
‘I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.’ (Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence, Penguin, 2007, p.463)
The independent journalist Paul Street notes that:
‘Saudi Arabia unshakably views Iran as a grave threat and sees Tehran’s hand behind almost every regional development it doesn’t like.’
In supporting the Saudi regime’s bid to show who is the regional boss in the Arabian peninsula, Street continues, the Obama administration:
‘is placating the Saudi royal family, who sits atop a giant pile of oil and money that Washington does not take lightly.’
Noam Chomsky says bluntly that the US-supported Saudi assault on Yemen is:
‘the most extraordinary global terrorism campaign in history’.
The propaganda version of events, summarised and promoted by the BBC’s Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, is that Saudi Arabia is waging a war against ‘a pro-Iranian rebel movement taking over their southern neighbour’, Yemen. But a major missing factor in BBC reporting, or at best passed over very quickly, is the role of the West in Yemen’s violence. Gardner only goes as far as saying that the Saudi-led coalition is ‘US-backed’. But surely there is more to be said than that? Why the lack of explanation or detail?
This pattern of omissions is repeated across corporate media coverage, as we will see below.
‘Judgement Day’ Carnage
The title of a recent article by US media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting sums up corporate media performance on the conflict in Yemen:
‘Missing From Reports of Yemeni Carnage: Washington’s Responsibility’
Consider the recent example of an air attack by the Saudi-led coalition on August 30 which killed over thirty people at a water-bottling factory. FAIR noted that the New York Times and Washington Post omitted crucial information in their news reports of the latest atrocity; namely, that:
‘The US government is actively backing the air war in Yemen that killed those civilians’.
Earlier this year, both of these major American newspapers had mentioned that the weaponry involved largely comes from the US. But this crucial fact typically:
‘disappears when the leading papers are discussing the carnage that results from the air attacks that the US is supporting and supplying.’
According to the UN, almost 4,500 people – including 1,950 civilians – have been killed since 26 March, when the coalition began its bombing campaign.
As a further example, the NYT reported last month that Saudi-led bombing on a residential district in Yemen’s southwestern city of Taiz killed more than 65 civilians, including 17 people from one family. ‘Washington’s role in facilitating’ these deaths, and the killing of the many other civilians in air attacks, ‘went unmentioned.’
The same omissions characterise British media coverage of Yemen. In fact, the deaths of over thirty people in the August 30 attack was barely reported at all in the UK national press. The slaughter merited a short paragraph of 67 words in The Times and a single line in the Sun. That was the sum total of search results we found (Lexis newspaper database search conducted September 8, 2015). A short BBC news piece reported 31 deaths, while leaving out any mention of US or UK culpability.
Last week, a Guardian article by Richard Norton-Taylor noted the use of British-made Tornado GR4 and Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft by the Saudi air force against Houthi rebel forces in Yemen – a rare mention in the UK press. Norton-Taylor added: ‘but it is not known whether they were armed with cluster bombs.’ He included the standard Ministry of Defence disclaimer:
‘The use of these weapons is a matter for the Saudis, but we are assured that they will be used in compliance in international law.’
But the reality on the ground belies such glib official assurances. Last month, Amnesty International published a shocking report highlighting ‘a bloody trail of civilian death and destruction paved with evidence of war crimes’ in Yemen. Amnesty had investigated eight attacks which killed at least 141 civilians and injured 101 others, mostly women and children. The evidence revealed:
‘a pattern of strikes targeting heavily populated areas including civilian homes, a school, a market and a mosque. In the majority of cases no military target could be located nearby.’
One local resident described the aftermath of an attack in which ‘corpses and heads’ were scattered everywhere, ‘engulfed by fire and ashes’, comparing the horrific scene to ‘judgement day’. Another local told Amnesty that he was haunted by the memories of walking through the ‘pools of blood and severed limbs’ of more than 20 victims.
Amnesty observed that:
‘the United States and United Kingdom have been providing intelligence and logistical support to the coalition’.
The human rights group warned:
‘Coalition forces have blatantly failed to take necessary precautions to minimize civilian casualties, an obligation under international humanitarian law. Indiscriminate attacks that result in death or injury to civilians amount to war crimes.’
Amnesty called on all members of the Saudi-led coalition, ‘including the United States and United Kingdom’, to ‘fully comply’ with international humanitarian law.
Iona Craig, winner of the prestigious 2014 Martha Gellhorn Prize For Journalism, backed up Amnesty’s findings:
‘From visiting some 20 sites of airstrikes and interviews with more than a dozen witnesses, survivors and relatives of those killed in eight of these strikes in southern Yemen, this reporter discovered evidence of a pattern of Saudi-coalition airstrikes that show indiscriminate bombing of civilians and rescuers, adding further weight to claims made by human rights organizations that some Saudi-led strikes may amount to war crimes and raising vital questions over the U.S. and Britain’s role in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.’
BBC News and other national news media showed zero interest in pursuing these ‘vital questions’, far less raising them in the first place. Indeed, the BBC published a short article that effectively whitewashed US and UK responsibility for the carnage.
Our newspaper search (September 8, 2015) has revealed that only two newspapers even mentioned the Amnesty report. This is a shocking indictment of the Western propaganda system and how it protects brutal state power.
The first of these two reports, in the Telegraph, devoted all of 170 words at the end of a news report about Yemen. The paper chose its words carefully:
‘Amnesty International said that all parties to the conflict may have committed war crimes.’
There was no mention of Western culpability, far less any specific reference to the US and UK roles in war crimes.
The Times gave even shorter shrift to the Amnesty report, devoting just 24 words at the end of a tiny update on Yemen:
‘It came hours after Amnesty International implored the UN to investigate potential war crimes by the Saudis and Houthi rebels involved in the conflict.’ (‘Yemeni aid supply at risk after Saudi attack’, August 19, 2015)
For the rest of the British press, it was a non-story.
Meanwhile, last weekend, it was reported that the United Arab Emirates had launched ‘air strikes on several targets in Yemen’ as ‘retaliation’ for the deaths of 45 Emirati soldiers by Houthi rebels last Friday. A passing mention in the Telegraph hinted, in one brief line, at the Amnesty report published last month:
‘The Saudi-led coalition says it does not target civilian facilities. However, human-rights groups say they have documented a pattern of air strikes hitting densely populated civilian areas without an obvious military target nearby.’
An embedded link in that line was provided to the Telegraph’s earlier brief report (cited above, with its measly 170 words). But, once again, no more details were given; far less any mention of culpability by the US or the UK. We found no further reference to Amnesty’s documented evidence anywhere in the UK press.
‘Turning The Living Into The Dead’
War, of course, has always been excellent business for arms companies. Saudi Arabia has long been a major customer for British weapons, as documented by the Campaign Against Arms Trade. Since 2010, the UK government has licensed more than £3.8 billion worth of military wares to the Gulf regime. The fact that Saudi Arabia is ‘the world’s largest buyer of UK weapons’, says Andrew Smith of CAAT, ‘is a sign of the real hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy’.
‘The Saudi bombing has created a humanitarian catastrophe and now we know the UK weapons have contributed to it.’
Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a new report on the appalling record of Saudi Arabia. As well as subjecting Yemeni civilians to indiscriminate air attacks, including the use of cluster munitions banned by 117 states:
‘The coalition-imposed blockade also has had a severe impact on Yemen’s civilians. According to the UN, 21 million Yemenis – a staggering 80 percent of the population – needed assistance and half the population faced food insecurity by September. More than 15.2 million people lacked access to basic healthcare, and over 20 million lacked access to safe water. With commercial imports accounting for 90 percent of Yemen’s food and fuel supplies, the coalition-imposed blockade may amount to starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, a war crime.’
As Daniel Larison, senior editor of The American Conservative, writes:
‘After more than five months of depriving the civilian population of basic necessities and preventing their access to humanitarian aid, I don’t think this needs to be qualified by saying that this “may” be a war crime. It seems clear at this point that the blockade is a deliberate and sustained effort to inflict punishment on the civilian population in violation of international law. I have said this before, but it bears repeating that U.S. participation in this cruel and unnecessary campaign is indefensible and disgraceful.’
Tom Engelhardt, founder and editor of TomDispatch.com, notes that ‘though no viewer would know it from’ television coverage, ‘all across the region — from Yemen to Syria to Iraq — U.S. arms are fueling conflicts and turning the living into the dead.’
In an article titled ‘Total War in Yemen Totally Ignored by Western Media’, Tony Cartalucci observes:
‘After NATO’s attempt to invoke the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) as justification for the destruction of Libya, it became clear that NATO was merely hiding behind the principles of humanitarian concern, not upholding them.’
‘However, R2P is conveniently absent amid what little talk of Yemen that does take place in the Western media. US-backed blockades and months of aerial bombardments have tipped Yemen toward a humanitarian catastrophe.’
Iona Craig explains why the US is especially keen to keep Saudi Arabia amenable at this particular moment:
‘America’s continued support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen comes as Saudi-U.S. relations have been strained by President Obama’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with the Kingdom’s regional nemesis, Iran.’
Craig quotes Adam Baron, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, who suggests that the US has been more eager than usual to appease Saudi Arabia, ‘because they want them and the other Gulf States to at least not actively oppose the Iran deal.’
Despite the nuclear deal, the West still regards a stable and strong Iran as a threat to its hegemony in the region. Why? Noam Chomsky says:
‘The answer is plain: the rogue states that rampage in the region and do not want to tolerate any impediment to their reliance on aggression and violence. In the lead in this regard are the U.S. and Israel, with Saudi Arabia trying its best to join the club with its invasion of Bahrain (to support the crushing of a reform movement there) and now its murderous assault on Yemen, accelerating a growing humanitarian catastrophe in that country.’
The overarching framework, Chomsky points out, is the so-called Clinton Doctrine, named after former US president Bill Clinton. The doctrine asserts that United States is entitled to the ‘unilateral use of military power’ to ensure ‘uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources’. This entitlement is dressed up as alleged ‘security’ or ‘humanitarian’ concerns.
Building and maintaining a successful career in the corporate media requires that journalists do not report this reality. Instead, media professionals keep their heads turned away from Western complicity in war crimes and suffering in the Middle East, including Yemen’s ongoing nightmare.