It is difficult not to resort to worn phrases like ‘double standards’ when comparing the British media reaction to the contents of the Afghan war logs with its reaction to (any) Israeli military action. The basic equation is: Israeli operation which results in civilian deaths equals ‘war crimes’ and ‘disproportionate use of force’; Nato operation which results in civilian deaths equals nothing of the sort.
The over-arching theme in media coverage of the Gaza flotilla raid (May 2010), the Dubai assassination (January 2010) and the ongoing discussion of the Gaza conflict (2008/9) has been the question of legality, or, more specifically, the suspicion of criminality of the part of the State of Israel. Was Israel’s boarding of the Mavi Marmara in international waters a war crime? Was its use of force against passengers disproportionate? Did the IDF commit war crimes in Gaza? Should Israeli officers be arrested for war crimes should they dare to visit the U.K.?
Followers of Middle East affairs will be desensitized to the media fixation with such questions. The crux of the matter is the underlying assumption that where alleged non-combatants have died at the hands of Israel, a crime must have been committed. So, with the release of 90,000 previously concealed records documenting the war in Afghanistan, including numerous incidents of the killing of Afghan civilians by Nato soldiers, we might have expected a similar narrative.
Not so. Of 52 articles published on the websites of BBC News, The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times on 25 and 26 July (the first two days of reportage), not one cited the international legal concept of ‘proportionality’. Hence, no accusations of ‘disproportionate’ force against Nato troops.
Likewise, the term ‘war crimes’ – omnipresent in any discussion of Israel’s conduct in Gaza – was notably near-absent. Only eight articles mentioned the term, all but one of these referring directly to the claim by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that troops may have killed civilians unlawfully.
Incredibly, The Guardian’s dedicated webpage containing 23 articles only made two references to possible war crimes and neither appeared in the section called ‘The death toll’ which focused on civilian deaths.
Of six BBC News articles, only one mentioned the issue of ‘war crimes,’ again, when relating the claims by Assange. In its ‘selection’ of the log contents, ‘Civilians in the firing line’ came seventh out of a list of nine topics. ‘War crimes’ and ‘proportionality’ were not mentioned.
These findings point to a genuine double standard whereby the specter of international law violations is raised by the media on an extremely selective basis. Why has the media not reflexively fixated on the question of whether Nato soldiers are war criminals in the way that they have done, and continue to do, regarding Israeli soldiers? Why are the Afghan civilians not held up as victims of the violations of the laws of war by U.K. troops?
The inconsistency here should not be dismissed or ignored. International law ought to be politically blind, not used to single out and exceptionalize the conduct of an unpopular country, only to be downplayed when such talk might be inconvenient.
Carmel Gould is the Content Manager at justjournalism.com.
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