Reporting the War in Iraq: Underwhelmed with information – overwhelmed with propaganda

At the close of 2003, 506 US soldiers had died in Iraq, the deadliest year for the US Army since 1972 when the US lost 640 dead in Vietnam. In the week following the capture of Saddam Hussein the death rate actually to rose to 19 (the average being nine).

I’d like to be able to tell you how many Iraqis died during the same period but the US and the UK don’t think Iraqi deaths are worth recording, let alone reporting them.

And of course, as with the Vietnam War, it’s the lower ranks who take the brunt of the fatalities (a little over half). Moreover, the National Guard and Reserve soldiers have seen their casualty rates double since the ‘war’ was officially declared as "over" (from 10% to 20%). And it’s almost identical to the casualty rate for Guard and Reserve soldiers during the Vietnam War (Source: GI Special).

"They can’t pay me enough to stay here" says one of nearly two dozen soldiers interviewed by the Associated Press following the US DoD’s announcement of a $10,000 ‘bonus’ for re-enlisting, and it’s typical of the comments made by those interviewed. Out of 80 servicemen in the 101st Airborne stationed in Iraq, just 10 took the offer (Source: GI Special).

One searches high and low in the media for signs of this aspect of the reality of the occupation. Indeed, coverage of the occupation has dwindled to a trickle since Saddam was captured. Much of what has appeared has been ‘human interest’ stories, light years away from the real situation on the ground.

Having learned the lessons of a ‘free press’ in Vietnam, the US and the UK governments have made sure that the kinds of ‘news’ coming out of Iraq, comes through the censorship sieve of ‘propaganda central’, the CPA (Coalition Command Centre) HQ in the fortified area set up in one of Saddam’s former palaces in central Baghdad.

Anyone interested in getting the real picture of what’s going on has to be a bit of media detective and conduct a patient (and for many, expensive) search of the Web, not to mention have some understanding of the best way to conduct a search. Entering "Iraq" into the Google search engine will return 14.5 million hits. By way of contrast, if you type in "Iraq News" Google returns a ‘mere’ 52,500 hits. Narrow it down to "Iraq Occupation News" and you’ll get only 15. "Iraq death rates" gives only 3 hits and moreover, none of the three hits related to the current situation but to death rates during the murderous twelve-year siege of the country, that by the best accounts resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million people (Results based on a search done today, 11/01/04).

Bear in mind that Google is searching something like 3 billion Web pages that in turn, is perhaps only 5-10% of all the Web pages out there and some of the pages in Google’s database will be out of date or even non-existent.

Searching the much vaunted BBC News Website returned the following directly comparable data:

Search for "Iraq": 7023, for "Iraq Occupation News": Zero, "Iraq Death Rates": 1 (a UN report of mortality rates). Taking one story of the 7023 returned from entering the word "Iraq" that is directly relevant to the occupation:

    "US helicopter 'shot down' in Iraq
    A US military helicopter which crash landed in Iraq
    on Thursday was hit by ground fire, according to an initial report.
    96% relevance 10/01/2004 | similar stories"

Clicking on "similar stories" yielded just 28 ‘hits.

Using the following story:

    "Five killed in Iraq jobs rally
    British troops are involved in a deadly confrontation with protesters in the southern Iraqi town of Amarah.
    96% relevance | 10/01/2004 | similar stories"

Clicking on "similar stories" yielded just 15 ‘hits’.

Not an awful lot of relevant news for ten months of coverage of a war that the UK is directly involved in, is it?

The problem of finding relevant information is a result of Google’s antiquated ‘keyword’ search method, even when using its so-called advanced options. This in spite of the fact that methods for doing more ‘intelligent’ searches exist and have for a number of years. Journalists and researchers use expensive ‘pay-for’ sources such as Nexis/Lexis or Dialog as well as in-house databases, not something your average punter has either the means or inclination to do, nor why should they? Shouldn’t comprehensive and ‘objective’ news sources from all sides be available to all of us in the ‘age of information"?

The search of the BBC News Website however, reveals directly just how little real and relevant information there really is on what’s going on due to the occupation.

So for most of us, we’re back to radio, TV and print sources of ‘news’ and here, the real paucity of relevant news and information is staggering. Going back over two weeks (29 December 2003 – 11 January 2004 or 14 days) of the Independent revealed a mixed bag and for a lot of reasons; many of the ‘hits’ for "Iraq" returned stories on North Korea, Kilroy Silk, in fact all kinds of stories not directly related to Iraq.

Searching "www.independent.co.uk" using the same time frame yielded precisely zero returns. Searching "all Independent news sites" with no date limits returned 7023 ‘hits’. Searching "all Independent news sites" with the same 14-day time frame yielded 70 ‘hits’ but again, all kinds of stories not directly related to the occupation were returned.

I might add that I did a number of searches using a variety of keywords and methods of searching using "all words", "any word" and "this phrase".

The bottom line is that out of 70 stories over the two-week period, 27 were about Iraq but of these only 9 were directly concerned with effects or results of the military occupation of the country. So over a two-week period, only one story every other day appeared in the Independent on the occupation itself.

So much for the ‘age of information’ and ‘information overload’. It's more a case of being underwhelmed with information and overwhelmed with propaganda.

For those really interested in finding out what’s going on Iraq, there are some good Web sites worth visiting that deal with news and information not only on the impact the occupation is having on the Iraqis but also the effect it's having on the occupation forces:

Electronic Iraq
Occupation Watch
Bring Them Home Now
Travellling Soldier
Not in Our Name
Veterans for Peace
Citizen Soldier
Army Times
Lunaville

Information Clearing House and of course, the excellent and indispensible "GI Special" available here, via its mailing list and on Not on Our Name/GI-Special. You can also request information from Citizen Soldier by emailing them.

Electronic Iraq by the way, has been made ‘off-limits’ for members of the US armed forces, yet another example of democracy US-style:

    "US military personnel blocked from accessing Electronic Iraq :
    Any soldiers reading may be interested to know that, unless they've also blocked Google, you can still get access to blocked sites by clicking on the cached version of the site, essentially a giant mirror of the Internet."
    http://electroniciraq.net/news/1302.shtml (thanks to Norman Solomon for this 'tidbit').

As with the coverage of the occupation of Palestine that I reported on in How much the value of a (Palestinian) life?, coverage of the occupation of Iraq is limited to either propaganda releases or when significant loss of Western lives occurs. Yesterday's shootings of six Iraqi protestors has had more than 'normal' coverage here in the UK because British troops were involved. As ever, the propaganda tells us that it was in response to a "grenade" being thrown at the occupying forces but reports from the protestors are that they were unarmed. But without comprehensive coverage of events, for most, it will only be the headlines that inform on the most critical issues of our time.

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