Five years on, viewer fatigue vs. war fatigue

On the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, journalists have little to celebrate. Western reporters are mostly combating 'viewer fatigue' these days, with the Iraq story dwindling to just 1 percent of U.S. cable news. Iraqi journalists do not have the option of tuning out; the best they can do is flee to Syria or Jordan, or struggle on in Iraq.
Iraq 5 years.jpg
© Patrick Baz 2008

[Editor's Note: MENASSAT considers March 20, 2003 to be the start of the Iraq war. When George W. Bush addressed the nation at 10:15 p.m. EST on March 19, it was in fact 6:15 a.m. AST on March 20 in Iraq.]

BEIRUT, March 20, 2008 (MENASSAT) – On Wednesday, President George W. Bush said that invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power five years ago was worth it. 

He said there is more freedom there now. He said the recent U.S. troops surge has brought down the violence in Iraq, and that has meant more security for Iraqi civilians.

"By spreading the hope of liberty in the Middle East, we [Americans] will help free societies take root – and when they do, freedom will yield the peace we all desire," Bush said to a packed audience of military brass at the Pentagon as thousands of anti-war activists demonstrated around the U.S. capital.

As the American president laid out the virtues of arming former Sunni insurgents through the so-called Awakening Councils, 6,000 miles away in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, Hadi Jelu Merhi, Vice President of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory had a much different take on the occasion.

"We are all convinced that the U.S. presence in Iraq is only negative. The current bloody struggle for power is a result of the U.S. presence, and this confrontation creates additional dangers for Iraqi journalists," he told MENASSAT. 

Indeed, as the war in Iraq entered it's sixth year, the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, which is affiliated with the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF), estimates that 274 journalists and media workers have been killed since March 2003. [RSF is reporting 210 killed since March 2003.]

Earlier this month, during the funeral of Shehab El Tamimi, the slain president of the Iraqi Syndicate of Journalists, the governor of Najaf said he would dedicate a plot of the Dar Al-Salam cemetery for the "shouhaddaa," or martyrs, of Iraqi journalism.

On March 5, dozens of Iraqi journalists took to the streets to protest al-Ta'ie's statements, demanding 'protection, not graves' from the Iraqi government.

Dr. Hashim Hassan, head of the Journalism Department at the Media College of Baghdad University told the London-based human rights and press freedom organization Article 19 that, "The governor's statement highlights the Iraqi authorities' failure to provide adequate protection for journalists. Without real action on protection the killing of journalists will continue." 

Western media outlets have certainly failed to acknowledge the dangers taken by the Iraqi reporters who bring the television images and the lion's share of information to the Western audience.

On Monday, Rageh Omaar of Al-Jazeera English, formerly the BBC's man in Baghdad, wrote in the Guardian that the ability of journalists to provide an accurate picture of the war's impact on Iraqi society has been seriously compromised. 

In the past five years, Omaar said, "One of the least reported or acknowledged aspects of the dangers of reporting Iraq is that it is now only the richest news organizations that can remain there. The reason is simple – insurance."

Of course, Omaar was referring to Western journalists working in Iraq, and not Iraqis. The latter are not insured at all.

JFO's Merhi told MENASSAT that, "What worries us the most is the kidnapping of journalists. There are currently 14 journalists who were kidnapped in Iraq. The identities of the kidnappers are still unknown."

Indeed, the 5-year anniversary of the war has brought no real media attention from the west as to the plight of the Iraqi reporter, or for that matter Iraqi citizens.

Western outlets have instead reported on president Bush's justifications for war and on the fact that the Iraq war has ceased to be of interest to American and British viewers.

"Iraq war disappears as TV story," reported the Associated Press

"Five years on, Iraq slips off the Radar," said the Washington Post

"Five years of war in Iraq: where's the media coverage?" asked the Huffington Post

A study by the Washington D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism surveyed news coverage from 40 outlets last year, and based on their statistics, said the percentage of Americans viewing the Iraq war has diminished significantly over the last year. 

In 2008, that trend has continued, with the war accounting for a mere 3 percent of television, newspaper and Internet stories combined versus 23 percent in the same period in 2007.

For cable news networks the contrast is even greater, with 24 percent of the time spent on Iraq last year dwindling to just 1 percent this year.

Out of 1,100 stories surveyed, 33 were about Iraqi civilians, and at least one study confirms that foreign journalists who have worked in Iraq say their poorest areas of coverage revolve around the war's impact on Iraqi civilians. No similar surveys have taken place with Iraqi journalists.

As well, no similar polls have been taken with respect to the amount of coverage the Iraq war is receiving in the Arabic press, perhaps because it is clearly one of the major news items on the minds of the Arab world.

For their part, the Arabic press slammed U.S. policy in Iraq this week.

On the eve of the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, one newspaper in Egypt, Al Akhbar, said that the United States' most recent human rights report had cited Arabic governments for their human rights abuses while "turning a blind eye to its brutal war in Iraq, when it [the United States] has every reason to be ashamed of its past and present crimes there."

In Iraq on Tuesday, the state-owned daily Teshreen carried an editorial by commentator Omar Jaftali in which he says that, "Iraq has been paying the price of an American crime and an insane war for five years."

"The result is that Iraq has endured the burden of the social, historical, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe. It is difficult to erase its repercussions on Iraq and the region, which the Bush Administration places in the context of its ruinous concerns," Jaftali said.

On the 5-year anniversary of the invasion, however, most of the Arab press was concerned with the Iraqi presidential council's clearing the obstacle to provincial elections and the large scale boycott by Iraq's main Sunni bloc, the Sunni Accordance Front, in what was touted by the Americans to be a conference of reconciliation for sectarian leaders.

And if the polls indicate that Americans are experiencing so-called "viewing fatigue," questions inevitably come up about what is on the minds of Iraqis as the war drags on. 

"It's no big secret that this is a war that everyone has grown tired of," CNN correspondent Arwa Damon, whose documentary "On Deadly Ground: The Women of Iraq" is airing several times this month, told AP.

"Iraqis are aware of it. They think it's a story that people are tired of hearing about. That's what makes our job more crucial," she said.

The Iraqis don't have the option of tuning out, except to flee to neighboring Syria or Jordan.

The same goes for Iraqi journalists. A new report by Reporters without Borders shows that hundreds of them have left the country, often after receiving death threats.

But many more struggle on in Iraq despite the dangers, the low pay and the near total sectarianism in the media itself.

At least, says JFO's Merhi, "we are now much richer in terms of freedom of expression" and "Iraqi journalists are now among the most professional in the Arab world."

The problem, he adds, "is that it doesn't have much impact on the political scene or on the dialy struggle of the Iraqis."

Also read:


Hundreds of journalists forced into exile in five years since start of US-led invasion of Iraq

From the GUARDIAN:

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Five years in Iraq


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