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Atrocities you probably haven't heard about through the media

Brutality in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere has been largely overlooked by western media outlets, Julien Mercille writes.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

MEDIA COVERAGE OF terrorist attacks like those in Brussels is biased. When atrocities are committed by our “enemies” against us, they get attention. However, when they are committed by ourselves or by our allies, the media too frequently looks the other way.

This is because the mass media reflects the interest of western governments and elites, which control and own news outlets. It means that, as a general rule, the mass media is aligned with the foreign policy objectives of governments.

For example, if a country or group of individuals in the Middle East are western allies, the media will tend to treat them in a more favourable manner. Conversely, enemy governments or groups will receive more negative coverage. What they do wrong will be emphasised.

We’ve heard a lot about the Brussels and Paris bombings: they were committed by enemies of the west like the Islamic State (Isis) or other Al-Qaeda type terrorist groups. Therefore, those terrorist groups received very bad coverage.

But we haven’t heard nearly as much about the following:

1. Saudi Arabia executed 158 people in 2015 and 47 in one day in January 2016. Many executions were by beheading and for non-lethal offenses such as drug-related charges, and “sorcery”. Those executions have been compared to those conducted by Isis. But you won’t hear about them as often in the western media, because Saudi Arabia is our ally.

2. Shannon airport: this is the big elephant in the room in Ireland. About 2.5 million US troops have passed through the airport since 2002. The troops stop there on their way to military operations in the Middle East which have caused much more destruction than in Brussels or Paris. Yet, the media is rarely interested, because the United States is our ally.

Protest at Shannon Airport Anti-war activists Niall Farrell and Margaretta D'Arcy are detained as they attempt to block the Shannon runway. Source: Niall Carson/PA Archive/Press Association Images

3. A few days before the Brussels attacks, 120 people were killed in a market in Yemen, bombed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, which have been targeting the country for a year now to fight the Houthi rebel movement.

The official death toll has passed 6,000 – more than half of which are civilians. The United Nations warned that Saudi Arabia and its allies could be guilty of war crimes for bombing hospitals, schools and markets and even weddings, as documented by Amnesty International.

But western countries have continued to support Saudi Arabia with weapons during the conflict. In 2015 alone, Britain, the US, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain reported licenses and sales of more than $25 billion (€23 million) to Saudi Arabia, including bombs, missiles, rockets, drones and torpedoes. There have not been too many news reports about this because the Saudis are major allies of the west.

Mideast Yemen People gather on the rubble of shops destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen. Source: Hani Mohammed/AP/Press Association Images

4. The US-led coalition has unleashed over 11,000 airstrikes on Iraq and Syria since 2014. It has destroyed a total of 23,000 targets, including nearly 6,000 buildings. The cost of the operations for the US alone has now reached $6.5 billion (€5.7 billion).

The US is leading the charge, but other countries that have participated in the strikes include Belgium, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Jordan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Have you seen detailed and extensive reporting about such airstrikes?

5. Then there is America’s drone warfare programme, which has been referred to as a “global assassination campaign” and that has murdered over 4,000 people.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the strikes have killed about 3,000 in Pakistan, 600 in Yemen, 100 in Somalia and 1,000 in Afghanistan. How many times was this front-page news?

Pakistan Drone Victims People chant slogans during a rally against US drone attacks in Islamabad, Pakistan. Source: Muhammed Muheisen/AP/Press Association Images

In sum, media bias is clear. To be sure, none of the above implies that terrorist acts in Europe should not be reported extensively, nor that intrepid competent journalists do not cover western-backed atrocities at all. The problem is that the balance is just not there.

But it should be, because not covering critically what our allies do often blows back in our faces, like in Brussels. Indeed, Isis emerged out of the US invasion of Iraq. Their fighters are reacting against the destruction of Iraq and western support for dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. And they’re also reacting against the occupation that our ally Israel has been imposing on the Palestinians for decades now.

Of course, none of those justify terrorist acts like happened in Brussels. Killing civilians in such a way is always wrong. But if we want to understand the context and motivations that lead to such actions, we need to cast a more critical eye on our own actions, and those of our allies, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin specialising in US foreign policy and the ‘war on terror’. Twitter: @JulienMercille.

Read: 50% more people were executed last year than in 2014

Read: Born in the middle of a war, this baby starved to death after just five months of life

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About the author:

Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

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