The things we won’t know about ISIL

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The media has three choices when covering ISIL – pledge allegiance,
risk death or watch from distance
By Sharif Nashashibi
For all the round-the-clock coverage of the fight against the Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant, the media has been markedly absent from
the actual conflict zones. Given the serious risks involved, this is
understandable. If ISIL’s atrocities against civilians and executions
of journalists are not enough to dissuade correspondents, the release
this week of its rules by which the media must abide makes any
credible reporting not only dangerous but impossible.
Journalists have to swear allegiance to ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr
al-Baghdadi, and their work must be under the exclusive supervision of
its media offices. Reporters are forbidden from working “in any way”
with blacklisted TV channels, among them regional heavyweights such as
Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Most worryingly, “the rules are not final
and are subject to change at any time,” so journalists could never be
sure if they were breaking them.
However, the danger comes not only from ISIL, but from the various
forces that are bombing its positions. The Iraqi and Syrian armies
have shown a blatant disregard for civilian life, while there have
been eyewitness accounts of atrocities by Iranian-led Shia militias
that have captured territory from ISIL.
Journalists would also be at risk from US-led coalition warplanes,
which have caused civilian deaths and bombed civilian targets. Anyone
who thinks these will be isolated incidents should think again. The
White House acknowledged at the end of September that strict standards
President Barack Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths
from US drone strikes do not apply to US military operations in Syria
and Iraq.
Civilian suffering
This is alarming enough without factoring in that according to US
officials this month, almost 90 percent of airstrikes have been
carried out by US warplanes. As such, civilian suffering at the hands
of coalition aircraft is not only inevitable, but viewed by Washington
as acceptable.
Inside Story – Getting rid of ISIL or Assad?
Given all these dangers, journalists can be forgiven for viewing
assignments in the conflict zones as suicide missions. The nearest
they dare go is within visible distance of smoke clouds on the
horizon, or close enough to hear gunfire or explosions in the
background – not close enough to see what, or who, is being struck.
More often than not, however, correspondents are reporting from
neighbouring countries on events they are nowhere near.
The result is that audiences are getting a woefully incomplete
picture. The media is having to rely on statements by the warring
parties – with all the propaganda that entails – and on second-hand
sources whose accuracy and credibility cannot be checked. Without the
ability to verify claims and counter-claims, media outlets are little
more than mouthpieces, whether they want to be or not.
Instead of actual reporting from the scene, there is a plethora of
press conferences, tweets, TV pundits and grainy aerial video footage.
There are agendas behind all these avenues of disseminating
information. The media knows this, but is unable to do much about it
due to the aforementioned risks.
Certain outlets may also be willing play along, either because they
are owned by governments that are involved in the fight against ISIL,
or out of a sense of patriotism and support for “our troops”.
We are witnessing another packaged, choreographed war, one where the
most common image is that of Obama talking assuredly in front of a
microphone. Interviews and pictures of a beaming Emirati female
fighter pilot are everywhere, and her participation as a woman is
celebrated, but where are the photos of Syrian civilians – including
women and children – killed by coalition bombing? We know nothing of
them, their backgrounds, achievements, hopes and fears. They are mere
statistics – worse, a PR inconvenience.
Embedding journalists
Lack of media access has always been a problem in war, but this
particular one has taken it to a new level, particularly compared to
the region’s other conflicts. Embedding journalists with troops has
become a hallmark of reporting since the 1991 Gulf war, despite
obvious problems in terms of access and impartiality. Embedding
inherently favours the militarily stronger side – it is safer for
journalists to be with troops doing the bombing than those being
bombed.
However, even in conflicts with glaring imbalances of power, the media
have managed to have a presence behind “enemy” lines. For example, Al
Jazeera made its name in Iraq and Afghanistan, often being the only
international news outlet with correspondents in flashpoints deemed
too dangerous or undesirable by others.
Despite stringent government restrictions since the Arab Spring began,
the media have managed – with varying degrees of success – to get the
people’s story across. However, the media’s absence on the ground in
Iraq and Syria today is particularly stark.
Social media and citizen journalism have filled the void, adding to a
trend over the years whereby traditional media are losing influence
and relevance. However, while more and more people are using social
media as news sources and outlets, these sites are as much a platform
for misinformation as information. Too often, rumours, falsehoods and
conspiracy theories are spread and unquestioned.
While citizen journalism has proved invaluable when media access is
restricted, too much of a reliance on the former is problematic in
terms of objectivity and professionalism. After all, anyone can be a
citizen journalist if they are in the right place at the right time
with a mobile phone, and they are no less prone to agendas than any
other news source. Coverage of the campaign against ISIL may be
abundant, but that does not mean audiences are well informed.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs

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