The Western Media Shuts its Eyes and Closes Its Ears to Douma Testimony
May 1, 2018 Jonathan Cook Blog
On April 26, Russia brought 17 witnesses from Douma to testify before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague. They included one of the young boys seen in a widely replayed video showing children being doused with water. The residents all stated that there was no chemical weapons attack: their breathing problems were caused by the dust from bombed buildings and a sandstorm. If true, the pretext for the precipitous US attack on Syria was false and the attack itself was illegal.
The West Closes Its Ears to Douma Testimony Jonathan Cook Blog
Father of "chem attack" victim: "They gave dates and cookies to kids at Douma hospital."
(April 28, 2018) -- The response from the US, UK and France to a briefing on Thursday at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague was perverse, to say the least. Russia had brought 17 witnesses from Douma who stated that there had been no chemical weapons attack there earlier this month -- the pretext for an illegal air strike on Syria by the three western states.
The witnesses, a mix of victims and the doctors who treated them, told accounts that confirmed a report provided last week from Douma by British reporter Robert Fisk -- a report, it should be noted, that has been almost entirely blanked by the western media. According to the testimony provided at the OPCW, the victims shown in a video from the site of the alleged attack were actually suffering from the effects of inhaling dust after a bombing raid, not gas.
The first strange thing to note is that the US, UK and France boycotted the meeting, denouncing Russia for producing the witnesses and calling the event an "obscene masquerade" and "theatre". It suggests that this trio, behaving like the proverbial three monkeys, think the testimony will disappear if they simply ignore it. They have no interest in hearing from witnesses unless they confirm the western narrative used to justify the air strikes on Syria.
Testimony from witnesses is surely a crucial part of determining what actually happened. The US, UK and France are surely obligated to listen to the witnesses first, and then seek to discredit the testimony afterwards if they think it implausible or coerced. The evidence cannot be tested and rebutted if it is not even considered.
The second is that the media are echoing this misplaced scorn for evidence. They too seem to have prejudged whether the witnesses are credible before listening to what they have to say (similar to their treatment of Fisk). [See related article below -- EAW] Tellingly, the Guardian described these witnesses as "supposed witnesses", not a formulation that suggests any degree of impartiality in its coverage.
Notice that when the Guardian refers to witnesses who support the UK-UK-French line, often those living under the rule of violent jihadist groups, the paper does not designate them "supposed witnesses" or assume their testimony is coerced.
Why for the Guardian are some witnesses only professing to be witnesses, while others really are witnesses? The answer appears to depend on whether the testimony accords with the official western narrative. There is a word for that, and it is not "journalism".
The third and biggest problem, however, is that neither the trio of western states nor the western media are actually contesting the claim that these "supposed witnesses" were present in Douma, and that some of them were shown in the video. Rather, the line taken by the Guardian and others is that: "The veracity [of] the statements by the Russian-selected witnesses at The Hague will be challenged, since their ability to speak truthfully is limited."
So the question is not whether they were there, but whether they are being coerced into telling a story that undermines the official western narrative, as well as the dubious rationale for attacking Syria.
But that leaves us with another difficulty. No one, for example, appears to be doubting that Hassan Diab, a boy who testified at the hearing, is also the boy shown in the video who was supposedly gassed with a nerve agent three weeks ago.
How then do we explain that he is now looking a picture of health? It is not as though the US, UK and French governments and the western media have had no time to investigate his case. He and his father have been saying for at least a week on Russian TV that there was no chemical attack.
Instead, we are getting yet more revisions to a story that was originally presented as so cut-and-dried that it justified an act of military aggression by the US, UK and France against Syria, without authorisation from the UN Security Council -- in short, a war crime of the highest order.
It is worth noting the BBC's brief account. It has suggested that Diab was there, and that he is the boy shown in the video, but that he was not a victim of a gas attack. It implies that there were two kinds of victims shown in the video taken in Douma: those who were victims of a chemical attack, and those next to them who were victims of dust inhalation.
That requires a great deal of back-peddling on the original narrative.
It is conceivable, I suppose, that there was a chemical attack on that neighbourhood of Douma, in which people like Diab assumed they had been gassed when, in fact, that they had not been, and that others close by were actually gassed.
It is also conceivable that the effects of dust inhalation and gassing were so similar that the White Helmets staff filmed the "wrong victims," highlighting those like Diab who had not been gassed.
And it is also conceivable, I guess, that Diab and his family now feel the need to lie under Russian pressure about there not being a gas attack, even though their account would, according to this revised narrative, actually accord with their experience of what happened.
But even if each of these scenarios is conceivable on its own, how plausible are they when taken together?
Those of us who have preferred to avoid a rush to judgment until there was actual evidence of a chemical weapons attack have been invariably dismissed as "conspiracy theorists." But who is really proposing the more fanciful conspiracy here: those wanting evidence, or those creating an elaborate series of revisions to maintain the credibility of their original story?
If there is one thing certain in all of this, it is that the video produced as cast-iron evidence of a chemical weapons attack has turned out to be nothing of the sort.
Jonathan Cook is a Nazareth-based journalist and winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.
(April 18, 2018) -- Here's how a free press, one owned by a handful of corporations, uses its freedom. It simply tells you what it is good for its business interests, or more generally for the political and business environment it operates in. It's not interested in truth or airing all sides, or even necessarily basic facts.
The only restraint preventing the corporate media from outright lying to promote its material interests is the fear of being found out, of readers starting to suspect that they are not being told the whole truth.
If that sounds like conspiratorial nonsense to you, consider this single example (there are lots more if you trawl through my past blog posts). Let's take the matter of veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk arriving in Douma this week, the first western correspondent to get there.
Fisk is like some relic from a bygone era, when journalists really sought to arrive at the truth, often at great personal danger, not simply win followers on Twitter.
Until his arrival, all the information we were receiving about Douma in the west originated not with on-the-ground reporters, but with jihadist groups or those living under their Islamist reign of terror. That was true of the Youtube videos, the accounts from western reporters based far off in other countries, the human rights organisations, the World Health Organisation, and so on. The fog of war in this case was truly impenetrable.
So Fisk's arrival was a significant event. He was clearly aware of the journalistic burden on his shoulders. Those still in Douma, after the jihadists fled, we can assume, are mostly supporters of the Syrian government. Even if they are not, they may be fearful of retaliation from the Syrian army if they speak out against it.
So Fisk, a very experienced reporter who has won many awards, was careful in the way he handled the story. Unlike many reporters, he is prepared to add context to his reports, such as the manner or tone of the person he talked to -- clues to help him and us decode what they might really be thinking or meaning, rather than just what they are saying.
But the content of what he reported was incendiary. Just a few days after the US, UK and France had bombed Syria, in violation of all principles of international law, on the grounds that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Douma, Fisk interviewed a doctor at the clinic where the victims were treated.
The doctor said no chemical attack occurred. The video footage from last week was genuine, the doctor added, but it showed civilians who had inhaled dust after a Syrian bombing attack, not gas.
Fisk's account is clearly honest about what he was told. And the doctor's account clearly is plausible -- it could fit what the video shows. So, whether right or wrong, it is a vital piece of the jigsaw as we, ordinary citizens, decide whether our governments were justified -- before United Nations inspectors had even arrived -- in acts of aggression against another sovereign nation, and whether, in the case of the UK, Theresa May was entitled to act without reference to parliament.
These are matters Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK's opposition Labour party, has been trying to raise in the face of a solid media consensus in favour of bombing.
Given this context, the UK media ought to have been putting Fisk's report at the centre of their Syria coverage yesterday and today, especially the liberal Guardian, the paper that Labour party members have relied on for decades. So how did the Guardian fare?
The Guardian now has an enormous output of articles, not least its Comment is Free section. So it would be foolhardy of me to say with absolute conviction that the Guardian made no reference anywhere in its pages to Fisk. But if it did so, it was extremely well concealed.
A Google search of "Fisk", "Guardian" and "Douma" throws up nothing. I can locate nothing in searching the Syria news articles and the op-eds published in the physical newspaper either.
So the Guardian appears to have intentionally blocked its readers from learning about the Fisk report, even though it is highly relevant to an informed debate about western actions in Syria, actions that are themselves part of a political debate being led by Corbyn. Denying this information to its readers means the Guardian is actually helping to weaken Corbyn in his battle to hold May to account.
But it does not end there. The Guardian does briefly reference Fisk, it just does so without naming him. At the same time, the Guardian seeks to discredit his reporting using the very same, highly compromised sources that have been relied on till now from Douma. In short, the Guardian appears to be carrying out a damage-limitation operation, refusing to report transparently Fisk's revelations in an attempt to shore up the existing narrative rather than test it against the new narrative offered by Fisk.
Buried away in two lines in an article by Patrick Wintour and Julian Borger, we get this in today's Guardian: A group of reporters, many favoured by Moscow, were taken to the site on Monday. They either reported that no weapon attack had occurred or that the victims had been misled by the White Helmets civilian defence force into mistaking a choking effect caused by dust clouds for a chemical attack.
So Fisk, Britain's most famous and respected Middle East correspondent (can you name another one?), is not only not identified but dismissed generically as one of a group of reporters "favoured by Moscow".
A second report, headlined "Syrian medics 'subjected to extreme intimidation' after Douma attack", by Martin Chulov and Kareem Shahin, far away in Beirut and Istanbul respectively, confidently denigrates Fisk's account, again without identifying him or mentioning that he was there. Again, it merely alludes to the content of Fisk's account and only in so far as it is necessary to undermine it.
Instead, it gives top billing to unchallenged claims by Dr Ghanem Tayara, a Birmingham-based doctor now in Turkey who is the director of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, which favours the overthrow of the Syrian government.
After many paragraphs of Dr Tayara's allegations against Bashar Assad's government, Fisk's account is given this cursory and hostile treatment near the end of the article: Medics and survivors who have remained in Douma, and others who have fled for northern Syria, ridiculed competing claims that the attack either did not take place, or did not use gas . . . .
Some doctors have appeared on Syrian television to deny that anything took place in Douma. A doctor who spoke to the Guardian said: "Our colleagues who appeared on television were coerced, because some hadn't served in the military or completed their degree, and for other reasons, some had family in Damascus.
They decided to stay in exchange for being reconciled with the regime. But the regime used them."
Another medic who treated victims said: "Anyone who has knowledge of what happened cannot testify. What was being said is that the medical centres would be destroyed on top of those working in it."
These countervailing voices are important. They are another piece of the jigsaw, as we try to work out what is really going in places like Douma. But publications like the Guardian are consistently presenting them as the only pieces their readers need to know about. That isn't journalism.
There are good reasons to be suspicious of everything that comes out of the Syria war arena, where all sides are treating the outcome as a zero-sum battle. But western corporate media are clearly not fulfilling their self-declared role either as an impartial messenger of news, or as a watchdog on power.
They have taken a side -- that of the governments of the US, UK and France, their regional partners Saudi Arabia and Israel, and what are by now mostly proxy jihadi fighters in Syria.
The Guardian failed the most elementary test of honest journalism in its treatment of Fisk's report. It may be an egregious example but after many years of the Syria war it is very far from being unique.
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