Headquartered in London, The Economist weekly, in its October 14 issue, wrote about “brutal” attacks by Hamas “terrorists” and Israel’s “agony”. The consequent massive Israeli bombardments on Gaza, including those on civilian settlements, have been the subject of intense debates for and against the Israeli action. But the point that this scribe would like to draw here is how the British magazine and its first cousins in the print and broadcast covered the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2001 within months after the September 11 Al Qaeda attacks in the New York Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing about 3000 innocent people and challenging the superpower on its own soil.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had nothing to do the Al Qaeda and its chief Osama bin Laden. The shocking ruse for invading oil-rich Iraq was unverified allegations that the Iraqi leader possessed banned weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations inspection teams did not confirm any existence of such weapons but the George W. Bush administration insisted it did to justify the strike. Nor did the UN. Within days, rubbles piled up, so did hundreds of thousands of lives in the initial weeks of the war.
Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell submitted reports claiming that the Iraqi regime had in its storage banned poison gas and other weapons. Powell later regretted his report later on, by which time his reputation was damaged and between 1 million and 1.5 million lives were lost, mostly civilians’. That the US and its allies account the number of deaths at about 200,000 is another tale. Western institutions put the figure much higher, and it is a practice exercised by most sides in armed conflicts to exaggerate or drastically reduce losses as per strategic expediency.
Predictably, no banned weapons were found. In vain efforts at diverting the issue, Washington began to talk of having accomplished regime change that displaced a despot and ushered in new hopes for the “long suffering” Iraqis. Intriguingly, American companies overnight obtained large energy contracts fetching huge profits. The weapons industries were satisfied over the windfall emanating from supply orders they received.
Bush claimed the presence of the non-existing banned weapons, even as the UN inspection teams could not confirm the claim all along. American opinion polls invariably indicated people were against invasion in Iraq without UN endorsement. British Prime Minister Tony Blair allowed himself to bend backwards to kowtowing to the US president’s approach without reservations. Blair hemmed and hawed in responding to queries that the banned weapons were not there. He tried justifying the decision to attack the West Asian state saying that a dictator had been ousted from power. In other words, he chorused big brother Bush.
Propaganda is generally taken as information of a biased nature aimed at influencing specific target(s). But black propaganda conspires to create an impression by its originators that gross disinformation is actually created by the ones they secretly mark for discrediting. Contaminated contents have consequences for the targeted and other expendables. And the worst of propaganda tactics reflects the perpetrators’ per caption of a grave situation, echoing desperation. Propaganda is periodically in crisis.
Lies break bonds between the press and organisations, including the state. Biden in October 2023 lied that he saw pictures of Hamas beheading Israeli babies. On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin equated Israel’s Gaza blockade to Nazi siege. NATO, too, split over the Israel-Hamas war because of Erdogan who sympathised with Palestinian civilians. Erdogan was angered by US sending navy ship to Israel. Kuwait released a tough with statement Israeli troops’ killing of Palestinian babies. Regarding disinformation on the Israel-Hamas war, Mar Own Jones, of the Reuters news agency, reported: “Much anti-Palestinian disinformation is coming from India. Indian right-wing accounts are among leading amplifiers of anti-Palestinian fake news. Some of these fake stories include Hamas kidnapping a Jewish baby and beheading a boy.”
Cyber troll to cull critical voices is a persistent curse, especially when organised groups and institutions do so on the strength of sheer numbers and collective financial support.
Propaganda campaigns can be categorised as indifferent, defensive and aggressive. The recently developed Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a weapon that unscrupulous forces can abuse for the flow of falsehood, be it in images, voices or both and more. The state of the stakes invokes the category to be adopted. At times, more than one category might be considered for dealing with or addressing multiple targets in multiple ways.
Even without the use of AI, superpowers get jittery about media coverage not sharing their perception of a development. Normally, the West would give the impression that the late arrival in big time international news media landscape, financed by the Qatari government, is just about tolerable. The pretended indifference was unmasked recently when the US Secretary of State Tony Blinken told a group of American Jewish community leaders in October that he asked the Qatari prime minister to tone down Al Jazeera's rhetoric about the Gaza war. America’s top diplomat shed pretence of supporting without let up his country’s support for independent press globally.
Blinken is reported to have advised American Jewish leaders in October that he had asked the Qatari government to “turn down the volume on Al Jazeera’s coverage [of the ongoing war] because it is full of anti-Israel incitement”. The US policy of free press apparently gets compromised when an uncomfortable focus turns on it or its close allies. Al Jazeera news bulletins, standups and interviews have displeased Washington and perhaps its close allies, which led Blinken to check the Qatari broadcast channel.
When faced with situations not quite to their liking, even “advanced” democracies do not hesitate to strip themselves of the ideals they on other occasions uphold in public loftily. The free market of ideas filtering its course and the “consumers” drawing own conclusions are thrown to the winds to make way for blatant expediency. Almost all countries, including EU members, have state-supervised broadcast news media, which are financed by state-backed mechanisms.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)