Trying to Make Sense
Posted on 1-March-2012
Since March last year, there have been anti-government agitations in Syria. They started in the town of Deraa, close to the Jordanian border. Deraa has now for some time been quiet. There have been stirrings in Hama and Idlib, close to the border with Turkey, but the main centre of the agitations as well as of the attempt of the Syrian government during most of the last one year has been Homs. The rebels who started by asking for democratic rights such as basic freedoms and free and fair elections in a multi-party democratic system have over time escalated their demand to ask for the removal of President Bashar El Assad from power. They have for some time been refusing any negotiation with the Syrian government. The Rebels' demand for the departure of Bashar El Assad has been echoed by American, British, French and other Western leaders along with Arab regimes most closely aligned with the western powers. The rebels themselves, according to most media reports, are a mixed, at times disunited, crowd of Syrian exiles, Syrian army defectors, right wing Sunni Muslim militant groups and a small number of detached Syrian liberals. The Syrian government claiming that in Homs and elsewhere it is having to deal with armed terrorist gangs is doing what governments do to quell armed uprisings: use force against them. There are in all this a few incontrovertible facts: the opponents of the Syrian government are armed; they have received arms from outside--mostly from across the border with Turkey; the western powers with the USA in the lead and the Arab countries of the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia in the lead would like to see Bashar El Assad go and would not be loth to help that process and that the Syrian government has been ruthless in the use of force to suppress the uprising, killing in the process a large number of civilians. Beyond these hard facts, everything about the Syrian situation is lost in a mist of propaganda, lies, half truths, enunciation of principles such as the right to protect innocent civilians, need for a negotiated settlement and analyses by pundits of all hues. Media organisations have acted as mouthpieces of specific national or sectarian interests.
In December last year, soon after the election to the Russian Duma, the US Secretary of State, no less, issued a statement raising doubts about the legitimacy of the elections drawing a sharp rejoinder from the Russian foreign minister and prime minister. There was a curious paradox in the western reporting about the results of the elections. Most western media outfits reported at the same that the elections were partly rigged and that the results showed Vladimir Putin's diminished popularity since his party's performance was worse than at the previous Duma elections. If I was a Russian sympathetic to Putin I would have said that Putin would be stupid not to rig the elections to give himself a bigger majority in the Duma. There have been large demonstrations against the election results in Moscow mostly but also elsewhere in Russia, all faithfully highlighted by American and British television channels and other media organs. But the reporters while highlighting the size and nature of the protests have mostly also added in parentheses that Vladimir Putin continued to be the most popular politician in Russia and that there was no doubt that he would be elected President of Russia in March this year. In the midst of all this reporting about the Russian elections, there are probably only two hard facts: some of the people behind the demonstrations in Russia are linked to and have received assistance from democracy and freedom promoting organisations in the USA and that the western powers are less comfortable dealing with Vladimir Putin than they were with, say, Boris Yeltsin or Mikhail Gorbachev. Beyond these facts everything else is lost in a cloud of misreporting, half truths and distortions: the true extent of Putin's popularity; the real strength of opposition to him or the extent to which Putin has been responsible for improvement in the lives of common people in Russia.
For about a fortnight, Kabul has been in flames. In the middle of the last month, some Afghan workers at the Baghram Air Base outside Kabul spotted a few American troops throwing copies of the Koran into a burn pit. They rescued a few half burnt copies and carried them outside. As the story spread, there were protests. Two Afghans were killed when a demonstrating crowd reached the gates of the base. In another incident two Americans were killed on the streets of Kabul by an Afghan man in uniform. The head of the NATO forces in Afghanistan and his Commander-in Chief have offered apologies and an inquiry for fixing responsibility has been promised. Also it seems the Americans have introduced sensitivity training courses for their troops serving in Afghanistan. None of this has done much to douse Afghan anger. Pundits have been busy offering their opinions and making their prognostications but few have tried to link these incidents to a few others not too long ago. Last year a twelve-soldier team hunted Afghans for sport, murdered them and posed for demeaning photos with their corpses. In another incident four marines videotaped themselves urinating and laughing over the dead bodies of a few Afghans they had killed--it is not even clear if their victims were Taliban militants or civilians. In another incident, a sniper unit was found sporting a Nazi SS banner while another outpost named "Aryan" was photographed. Much has been written about the reliability of the Afghan troops being trained by NATO and about other aspects of America's Afghan war, but no attempt has been made to face the real reason behind the Koran burning incident or all the other offensive actions of American troops in Afghanistan which is the ugly side of public life in the USA, namely racism. Not only the Afghans and other non-Europeans who deal with the USA but also millions of American blacks are keenly aware of white American racism. The Afghan anger is against that racism of which the Koran burning incident is the latest example. But far be it for the most influential media outlets to say this for it would hurt their sense of self to admit the continued existence of American racism and its vitality, the election of a chocolate complexioned man as President notwithstanding.
In mid-February this year an Italian tanker, Enrica Lexie, sailing close to the coast of Kerala, on a voyage from Singapore to Egypt, encountered, in full daylight, an Indian fishing boat, decided the fishermen were pirates--presumably they thought they were Somali pirates so far from their usual hunting ground--and the Italian marines fired at the unarmed boat, killing two fishermen. The tanker then sped full steam ahead away from the Indian coast. It was intercepted by the Indian Coast guard and escorted into an Indian port. The two marines who fired those shots have been arrested and are now facing court action. The ship has also been arrested under court orders. These bare facts point at only one course of action which is that the police and the courts should be left to establish facts and adjudicate between various claims and counter claims--including the Italian government's claim that the incident took place in international waters-- and on different points of law. Once again, news media have done their best to create confusion. First of all the reporting by sections of the Italian media was sensational and jingoistic and calculated to rouse nationalist passions. Pundits in India have jumped into the fray suggesting that the entire matter would have been handled differently--meaning leniently towards the Italians--if the Defence minister who comes from Kerala did not have his political flank to protect. Others have been giving dark hints about an out of court settlement--forgetting the absurdity of an out of court settlement in a criminal case involving manslaughter, unless under traditional law in some tribal communities--especially since the Italians have been engaged in high pressure diplomacy, with their Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and their Foreign Minister coming in quick succession. Those who have talked of an out of court settlement have not stopped to think that if a matter involving Indian interests had gone to an Italian court of law, the Italian government would have said in response to an Indian diplomatic demarche that since the matter was before a court of law, the government was unable to intervene. And so low is the credibility of the present government of India, that fears have been expressed openly about the government quietly letting the Italian marines and the ship off cheaply and with impunity once the election process in five Indian states is over. In such an eventuality there will come up many hacks to write or speak in support of the government.
Defenders of news media like to say that they perform an important service by informing the public and revealing the truth. Unfortunately this is true only part of the time. For the rest of the time modern news media misinform and distort the truth in order to serve national, regional or other special interests. The result is that anyone who lets his guard down while reading his newspaper or watching his news bulletin is in grave and permanent danger of having his judgment marred. It will take any reader or television watcher a great deal of effort to grasp the reality of the four situations cited above as they unfold themselves, looking for crucial facts in the welter of opinion and analysis. Woe betide him who does not make that effort.