War journalism and news distortion

The role of the media in war and conflict has for a long time been an important part of media research, partly as a result of humanitarian consequences but also because of its inherent political and economic importance on a global level. The impact of radio World War I, television journalism mediating the Vietnam War and the role of social media during the recent uprisings in the Arab world, are all examples of how the media in different ways and to varying degrees, have played a vital part in discourses surrounding wars and conflicts. But how do the news reporting from conflicts correspond with reality, and with the way people perceive the world order?


The period after the Cold War ended, usually referred to as the time when Western liberal democratic ideals would go global and world peace would characterize the end of a tumultuous century. But what was overlooked in this optimism was the highly complex internal conditions in states and regions that failed to float with the tide of neo- liberalization and become part of the impending globalization processes. Instead, they were characterized by fierce internal strife, civil war and military conflicts based on ethnic or religious differences. During the the last decade of our former century, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, there were 57 major armed conflicts in the world, and only three of them were between states (Iraq/Kuwait, India/Pakistan and Eritrea/Ethiopia). The rest consisted of internal conflicts within countries (SIPRI 2002). And these conflicts are complicated to understand, both for us and for journalists. There are for example those with clear geo-strategic and economic interests (such as the Iraq war as a battle between oil interests), there are conflicts based on national and ethnic interests (such as the war on the Balkans in the late 1990s), and there are invisible conflicts (eg Sudan and Darfur) that are not visible on the international news agenda, which rather often is dominated by conflicts in which the U.S. is involved in the role of liberator and peacemaker. And it’s these invisible conflicts that I would like to discuss.


Distortions in the news coverage of conflict favouring Western interests are palpable, and there are several books on the subject. One of the most interesting I have encountered is Virgil Hawkins ‘ Stealth Conflicts ‘ (2008), a book which, incidentally, seems to have been overlooked in the academic field. Hawkins develops a clear and harsh criticism against the established media’s foreign coverage in general, and news coverage of conflicts in particular. He emphasizes how we often attribute the global information society (the amazing flow and amount of free information) in a purely positive sense, but in fact, the information often lacks diversity, variety or critical depth. Rather the information is redundant, especially journalistic news reporting. The latter is something that Jonathan Stray also noted in an intriguing article for the Nieman Journalism Lab where he studied 800 Web articles about the same event. It turned out that ALL but 121 were identical, 13 contained at least one personal/unique quote and only 7 were based on original journalistic work. The conclusion is that all the other articles are results of pure depreciation/rewrites of other journalists, without even having to leave the editorial office.


Hawkins book also points out the relationship between what we think/know about the world’s conflicts and what/how the media actually reports. Among other things he shows a chart that lists the major conflicts (in death tolls) in recent years. The ranking of the conflict really exhibits the difference from priorities in news value that most western media companies represent. For example: what do you think is the conflict from its inception in 1998 has had over five million dead, has had involvement of military forces from nine countries and played out in an area the size of Western Europe, but few in the West even noticed?


The answer is Congo-Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and in view of the huge number of dead, the conflict is one of the two largest since World War II.

(And the second of the two major conflicts since 1945? Many would answer Vietnam, perhaps considering the huge amount of pop-cultural references to the mythical Vietnam War, but no, it is actually the Korean War)


Countries and conflicts following the Congo Kinshasa in Hawkins study include Sudan, Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. And at the very last scene, which also emphasizes Hawkins argument, comes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is the conflict that for long have had a privileged place in newspapers, tv-reports and opinion pages. I would argue that it is, with brief interruptions, by far the most commented war reporting in western media. And the symbolic power of journalism around conflicts is hard to argue against, especially when reading a 2003 study conducted among university students in Australia, where an overwhelming majority of respondents thought that Israel- Palestine was the world’s deadliest conflict.


According to Hawkins, the media has failed in its dual role: they act neither as a reliable mirror of reality or as a watchdog over stakeholders and powers. 88 percent of the world’s conflict-related deaths after World War II have occurred in Africa (6 percent in Asia, 4 percent in the Middle East) but the priorities of news media institutions seem almost the exact opposite.


There is thus a great need to discuss the news coverage that comes out of conflicts, but above all what is not visible in the mainstream war journalism.

Syria, Egypt and democracy in the MENA-region

As I sit down and try to conduct a literature overview on the performed research on the MENA-region and the political upheavals during the last two years, the word of a biological attack in Syria, killing perhaps over a thousand civilians, reaches me. The horrific images being broadcasted on for example Al-Jazeera crawls under your skin and a sense of hopelesness returns. This goes not only for the Syrian population, but combined with the situation in Libanon, Jordan and above all Egypt, the visionary and optimistic ideals and discourses of the Arab Spring is seriously starting to backdrop. In Syria the situation for activists, both online and offline, is still hard to comprehend in terms of the Assad-regime’s continuing abuse of power. On top of this comes the current biological attack (even if the facts are hard to confirm from the closed country).


On a macro-political level it is even more complicated. We know that China and Russia (as well as the US of course) are playing a vital part in the UN precaution towards the conflict. And I don’t see why Assad would be interested in UN inspections at this point, rather his regime will make even more efforts in trying to create divides between the opposition and the public. And the question reformulates itself from when this will end, to if it ever will?

Even if my research interest in the region relates to political activism and the use of media technology, I still have a keen interest in the wider socio-political conflicts. The mentioned current situation relates to a context that is needed to comprehend before making judgments on the western engagement and interventions, namely the proximity between western states and cooperations with regimes in the Middle East. The close connections between governments and states, through diplomatic, financial, political and military bonds, goes far back and certainly collide with moral public opinion, especially in times of crisis and human/civilian suffering. It would be fair to say that national interest often takes out humanitarian interest. For example, the US yearly support the Egyptian military with an annual 1,3 billion dollars and from countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait there are offers of even more financial support in line with their own agenda in removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power. The US interest in the region is not only influenced by factors such as the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but also the right for its navy to pass through the Suez canal (which is strategically important for operations connected to the war on terrorism). Through this background it is easy to understand the political implications of abandoning and cut off Egypt.

US Egypt Protest Texas

The military in Egypt recently arrested, and through televised images, humiliated the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamad Badie. During the last week over a thousand people have been killed according to recent estimates, all after military attacks on islamist camps in Cairo and the following demonstrations. The country is in a deep polarized state in which former Mubarak allies have been reinstated on high political posts and the secular forces are cheering for the generals. So is it possible to redeem the democratic visions, not only in Egypt but in the region in total?

When I teach on the subject I sometimes bring up the example of Iraq and the US intervention a decade ago, all under a promising flag of bringing democracy to a state that hadn’t seen it. Clashes in the chaotic and extensive aftermath of the Saddam regime proved to be much harder to overcome than the Bush administration had set out to do. Ethnic, religious and civil groups of society, boundaries rooted through the entire past century, soon overthrew western attempts to place a model of democracy on top of a highly complicated state of social and political structures. The result instead was a devastating and everlasting conflict of Vietnam War proportions. The number of fractions and oppositional groups openly stating that democracy is not an option, are increasing and since they grow in support the situation becomes more complex than ever before. This development is valid for several countries in the MENA-region.

The same visionary, optimistic discourses that came with the liberation of Iraq also surrounded the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, however in a completely different context. The plan for internalizing democracy in Egypt seemed promising. But now we realize that the plan was badly executed and carried out way to fast. The Muslim Brotherhood had tremendous claims for power as well as an election apparatus at hand. But fundamental ingredients in a democratic system was lacking, referring to a free press and media, legislation promoting human rights as well as a rule of law in general. The lack of a free press became clearly illustrated to me when I discussed the Egyptian revolution with influential blogger and writer Sahar El-Nadi about a year ago (available to watch here), and she made several points on how citizens opposed the state censored media system, contributing to the extensive use of social media during the uprisings.

Another important aspect of the outcome is that several political actors on the highest level of power was connected to fractions which didn’t recognize their antagonist oppositional groups and their right to exist. Also, the military held a far to strong position and intrigued in order to retain its power.

But in order for Egypt (as well as other countries in the region) to manage a restructuring with democratic incentives, the relations to the west is crucial and this is important to acknowledge. It is just a matter of what type of relations. Military support, diplomacy behind closed doors etc is one thing, but Egypt and other countries need foreign investments from the west and especially a continuing tourism to lay a foundation for a new society.

In my opinion it is not possible to conduct election processes in Egypt now. First the country must obtain aid (political and financial) to build social institutions, agree on constitutional frameworks supporting human rights and embrace ideal of a free press. The pace (including the natural problems following) of “democratization” after the Mubarak-regime must not be repeated.

Time is not always of the essence.