Joe Hendren

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Distorted media coverage of kidnappings in Iraq will only lead to more deaths.

Many aspects of the media coverage of the latest kidnapping in Iraq trouble me. I believe the case of Margaret Hassan especially highlights the biases of western media, not to mention the self-interested reactions of western politicians.

As news of the kidnapping broke, reactions in the media were full of surprise and dismay that a British person who has lived in Iraq for 30 years, is married to an Iraqi and considers herself to be an Iraqi could be the victim of the kidnap gangs. This is only a surprise if one assumes it is unusual for an Iraqi to be kidnapped. In fact, many more Iraqis than westerners have lost family members to the kidnap gangs, money often being the primary motive, as ransoms become a barbarous form of 'gangster capitalism'. Consider the following from a "girl blog from Iraq" Baghdad Burning, posted on the 3rd of October.
I'm very relieved the Italian hostages have been set free... and I hope the other innocent people are also freed. Thousands of Iraqis are being abducted and some are killed, while others are returned... but it is distressing to see so many foreigners being abducted. It's like having a guest attacked in your own home by the neighbor's pit bull- you feel a sense of responsibility even though you know there was no way you could have prevented it.

I wasn't very sympathetic though, when that Islamic group came down from London to negotiate releasing Kenneth Bigley. I do hope he is returned alive, but where are all these Islamic groups while Falluja, Samarra, Sadir City and other places are being bombed? Why are they so concerned with a single British citizen when hundreds of Iraqis are dying by the month? Why is it 'terrorism' when foreigners set off bombs in London or Washington or New York and it's a 'liberation' or 'operation' when foreigners bomb whole cities in Iraq? Are we that much less important?
Tony Blair said his government would do everything it could to secure Ms Hassan's release. "This is someone who has lived in Iraq for 30 years, someone who is immensely respected, someone who is doing her level best to help the country," he said. "It shows you the type of people we are up against, that they are prepared to kidnap somebody like this.". This is all he said on the issue, see Downing Street statement. By turning the issue into a simple US vs THEM dichotomy, Mr Blair does little to explain the possible reasons behind the kidnapping, and thus does not appear to be engaging in the key task of assisting Ms Hassan's release. To some, his comments could appear to be a politically motivated attempt to remind the anti-war faction of his party that they are 'terrorist' targets too.

Felicity Arbuthnot, an Irish freelance journalist and long-time friend of Ms Hassan appears to have given Blair a clear rebuke when she said she hoped that Blair would step back and allow the Irish government to lead efforts to secure her release. In contrast to Blair, Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, said his thoughts were with the Hassans: "I stand ready to contribute in any way we can to help secure her release." (Guardian)

Blair's US vs THEM language go right to the heart of my second key concern regarding the media coverage, in which the kidnappers are described as terrorists, insurgents, or militants, often with a suggestion of a possible connection to Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In fact, such descriptions tell us very little. They also give the erroneous impression that the 'kidnap gangs' are a uniform group with a common goal. Consider the kidnapping of John Martinkus, as reported by his journalist friend Christopher Allbritton on the 18th October (click this link - its an amazing story).
We're not sure what all happened during [John's] captivity, but he was able to persuade his captors that he was an Australian and a friend to the resistance and not to the Americans. It appears, by the kidnappers' statements and questions, that they were nationalists and not jihadis, lucky for John. Also, he was lucky for not being American, because the kidnappers said if he had been, they'd have killed him quickly....

At one point, one man disappeared, saying he would check out John's story. He came back after about 15 minutes, John said, convinced John was who he said he was. We suspect they Googled John, because they referenced previous stories he had covered.
John was lucky -- very lucky. He was picked up by nationalists who, we hear, are getting out of the kidnapping and beheading business. He wasn't an American. He had a pedigree of lefty, anti-war reporter. And he fell in with a (more or less) kind-hearted bunch who were just doing their job as national resistance fighters. (He said they expressed concern that he wasn't married and that his living arrangements in the Hamra weren't safe. Bizarrely, they offered to let him stay with them the next time he came to Iraq -- I'm sure.)

Not sure I would go as far as to call them a "kind hearted bunch", but it does give some hope the violence will diminish when Iraqis are given back their country free of foreign armies. It might be unlikely that the group holding Ms Hassan are such a "kind hearted bunch", one can only hold on to the slim hope her captors also know how to google. Margaret Hassan strongly campaigned against the cruel sanctions regime, enforced by the US following the Gulf War of 1991. "In the build-up to the war last year, she warned MPs of the humanitarian catastrophe another conflict would bring. In January 2003, she travelled to New York and spent a week briefing the members of the UN security council and UN agencies on the dire consequences of military action" (Guardian, ibid).

If we are unable or unwilling to accurately ascertain the identity, motives and demands of those doing the kidnapping, more lives will be lost.

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