Guest Media Alert
By Richard Lance Keeble
One of the essential functions of the corporate media is to marginalise or silence acknowledgement of the history – and continuation – of Western imperial aggression. The coverage of the recent sentencing in Senegal of Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad, for crimes against humanity, provides a useful case study.
The verdict could well have presented the opportunity for the media to examine in detail the complicity of the US, UK, France and their major allies in the Middle East and North Africa in the appalling genocide Habré inflicted on Chad during his rule – from 1982 to 1990. After all, Habré had seized power via a CIA-backed coup. As William Blum commented in Rogue State (2002: 152):
‘With US support, Habré went on to rule for eight years during which his secret police reportedly killed tens of thousands, tortured as many as 200,000 and disappeared an undetermined number.’
Indeed, while coverage of Chad has been largely missing from the British corporate media, so too was the massive, secret war waged over these eight years by the United States, France and Britain from bases in Chad against Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar Gaddafi. (See Targeting Gaddafi: Secret Warfare and the Media, by Richard Lance Keeble, in Mirage in the Desert? Reporting the ‘Arab Spring’, edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble, Abramis, Bury St Edmunds, 2011, pp 281-296.)
By 1990, with the crisis in the Persian Gulf developing, the French government had tired of Habré’s genocidal policies while George Bush senior’s administration decided not to frustrate France in exchange for co-operation in its attack on Iraq. And so Habré was secretly toppled and in his place Idriss Déby was installed as the new President of Chad.
Yet the secret Chad coups can only be understood as part of the United States’ global imperial strategy. For since 1945, the US has intervened in more than 70 countries – in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South America and Asia. Britain, too, has engaged militarily across the globe in virtually every year since 1914. Most of these conflicts are conducted far away from the gaze of the corporate media.
Reporting of the Habré sentencing has been predictably consistent across all the leading newspapers in the UK and US. Thus the focus has been on the jubilant reactions of a few of the victims of Habré’s torture and rape, on the comments from some of the human rights organisations involved for many years in the campaign to bring the Chad dictator to justice – and on the fact that it was the first time an African country had prosecuted the former head of another African country for massive human rights abuses. Only a tiny part of the reporting has mentioned the West’s role in the genocide. None of the reporting has placed the Chad events in the broader context of US/Western imperial aggression.
The story in the Guardian, by Ruth Maclean, was typical. Some 21 paragraphs were devoted to the report. But only in the last one (appearing almost as an after-thought) was there any mention of US complicity:
‘The US State department and the CIA propped up Habré, sending him weapons and money in return for fighting their enemy, Muammar Gaddafi.’
In a follow-up editorial on 1 June 2016, the Guardian again left mentioning the West’s role until the last paragraph:
‘Many questions still remain unanswered, including several concerning the responsibility or complicity of Western countries, such as France and the US, which actively supported Habré during the cold war years, turning a blind eye to his methods.’
The Telegraph adopted a similar approach. Aislinn Laing, based in Johannesburg, reported briefly:
‘Mr Habré, 73, is a former rebel leader who took power by force in Chad in 1982 and was then supported by the US and France to remain at the helm as a bulwark to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.’
Adam Lusher, in the Independent, devoted just eight words to contextualising the trial:
‘Hissène Habré was once backed by America’s Cold War-era CIA.’
In the New York Times, buried in par. 24 of a 27-paragraph report by Dionne Searcey are these words:
‘Mr. Habré took power during a coup that was covertly aided by the United States, and he received weapons and assistance from France, Israel and the United States to keep Libya, to the north of Chad, and Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, then the Libyan leader, at bay.’
Similarly, in Paul Schemm’s 23-paragraph report in the Washington Post, his par. 15 reads:
‘Supported by the United States and France in his wars against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Habré was accused of killing up to 40,000 people and torturing hundreds of thousands.’
Neither the Los Angeles Times nor the Belfast Telegraph could find any space to mention the West’s complicity.
Intriguingly, the final paragraph in the Guardian‘s report also included a statement by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, which ‘acknowledged his country’s complicity’:
‘As a country committed to the respect for human rights and the pursuit of justice, this is also an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connections with past events in Chad.’
But how hypocritical is this rhetoric given the fact that the US today is still supporting human rights offenders across the globe – including the current dictator of Chad, Idriss Déby. Moreover, the Western powers, the US and France in particular, are using Chad as a major base for their covert military operations in Africa.
A number of newspapers have commented on how the case set an important precedent for holding high-profile human rights abusers to account in Africa. Yet there has been little mention of the extraordinary background. For in June 2003, the US actually warned Belgium that it could lose its status as host to Nato’s headquarters if the Habré case went ahead on the basis of a 1993 law, which allowed victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad. Campaigners determined to bring Habré to justice only then shifted their attention to Africa.
William Blum comments in the introduction to Killing Hope (p. 13) on the US’s secret wars:
‘With a few exceptions, the interventions never made the headlines or the evening TV news. With some, bits and pieces of the stories have popped up here and there, but rarely brought together to form a cohesive and enlightening whole; the fragments usually appear long after the fact, quietly buried within other stories, just as quietly forgotten…’
How perfectly this both predicts and explains the corporate media’s coverage of the Chad dictator, Hissène Habré!
• Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln since 2003, has written and edited 36 books. In 2014, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association for Journalism Education.