Michael Hann / The Guardian (UK) – 2004-05-03 09:34:53
(April 30, 2004) — American contractors and soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners in a prison outside Baghdad? A huge story, by anyone’s standards, surely, especially when pictures of the abuse were broadcast on the US TV network CBS.
So it was no surprise that newspapers around the world made huge, horrified play of the events at the Abu Ghraib prison. It was more of a surprise, however, that the story did not receive the same level of coverage in the US papers.
The Baltimore Sun, however, was damning in its verdict. “Television footage of the mistreatment of Iraqi war prisoners by their American captors was shockingly disturbing and hauntingly reminiscent of the horror stories from the regime of Saddam Hussein,” it said. Punishment of those responsible, it added, would not on its own be sufficient response. “The Pentagon must be held accountable if the military failed to provide the training, staffing, supervision and leadership required to ensure that prisoners of war are treated humanely.”
Pentagon Pressured CBS Not to Air Photos
Perhaps the difference between the US coverage and that elsewhere should have been expected. CBS admitted it had come under severe pressure from the Pentagon not to broadcast the images, and the issue of what is and what is not fit for US public consumption has been an ongoing theme, applicable to events both domestic and foreign.
Tonight, for example, the ABC network’s Nightline programme is to feature host Ted Koppel reading the names of all members of the American military killed in Iraq, while pictures of them appear on screen. But, as the New York Daily News reported, one local broadcasting group that controls eight ABC-affiliated stations has “angrily pulled” the show, claiming the naming of the dead “is a blatant anti-war ploy”.
The White House reacted angrily last week to the publication of the flag-draped coffins of US soldiers who have died in Iraq. But Daniel Schorr, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, wondered why. “Considering that no individual identification is visible in the pictures, it is hard to understand the justification for clamping the secrecy lid on the solemn procession of flag-draped coffins being carried off the cargo planes,” he wrote. “I cannot avoid the suspicion that President George Bush – who has yet to attend to a funeral service for any of the honoured dead that he has sent to war – has no interest in calling attention to the mounting number of casualties in a battle that was far from over last May 1, when the president declared ‘major combat operations’ in Iraq had ended.”
The appearance yesterday of Mr Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney before the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks provided another example of the debate. “There was no press coverage allowed, no recording, no transcript to be made available later, no testimony given under oath – and no good reason for any of it,” said the Boston Globe.
“Mr Bush, who pulled the nation together in 2001, might have done so again yesterday by displaying a willingness to be open – at least in transcript form – about what may have gone wrong on his watch … [And] going public before the commission with that attitude might have won Mr Bush international respect.”
As Alessandra Stanley put it in the New York Times: “On a day when viewers could watch American marines battling rebels in Falluja and see Jayson Williams squirm in his courtroom seat while awaiting a verdict on manslaughter charges, the blackout at the White House was striking; throughout the day, the torrent of words used on cable news shows to describe the meeting (‘exceptionally rare’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘historic’) clashed almost comically with the meagre visual images … The nonvisual event was so anathema to television that at one point, the CNN anchor Daryn Kagan said it seemed as if ‘the event took place in the 18th century’.”
The whole aim of the event had been to make Mr Bush look “solemn and presidential, capturing the news for a full day of headlines that can’t help but further tie down his campaign stance as the wartime president”, scoffed James Ridgeway on the Village Voice website. He argued that the event had “little to do with informing the public”. It was “just a nice friendly get-together”.
White House Mounts Black Outs and Photo Ops
A contrast to the secrecy and silence that seem to be characterising this stage of Mr Bush’s “war on terror” came from the supreme court on Wednesday. The justices heard the cases of two US citizens jailed after the 9/11 attacks, on the grounds of being enemy combatants. Yaser Esam Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan, suspected of fighting for the Taliban, and Jose Padilla was arrested at Chicago airport on suspicion of planning to detonate a radioactive bomb.
The supreme court allowed the hearing to be broadcast live, on the grounds of exceptional national interest, a decision welcomed by the Los Angeles Times.
“For too long … justices have been skittish about letting Americans listen in on their proceedings while the justices are still deliberating,” said the paper. “But the compelling broadcasts of Wednesday’s hearing in the enemy combatant cases, which turned into a dramatic civics lesson, demonstrate why the public should be able to hear all cases that quickly.” The recordings, said the Times, showed the justices posing “appropriately sceptical questions” about Mr Bush’s insistence in his right to order detentions, and would “encourage Americans to wrestle with these questions along with the justices”.
To listen to recordings of the detainee hearings, visit www.latimes.com/detain. (registration required).