Why Asian Tsunami Is News, But Not Falluja?

(Published in the Daily News (Sri Lanka) 9 November 2006


Two years ago, two horrific calamities took place, destroying thousands of dwellings and people. One was in Asia and the other in the Middle East. When the first year anniversary of the former dawned last year, it was big news for the global media networks with documentaries, features and news reports saturating our airwaves and the newspapers. But, the first anniversary of the other went almost unnoticed. There’s nothing to indicate that it will not be the same this year.

Why the double standards?

The one, about which we have heard a lot in the last two years is the Asian tsunami, and the one we hardly heard anything about was the man-made disaster created by the attack by US-led forces on Falluja in Iraq in November 2004. This week marks the second anniversary of this attack which was codenamed “Thanksgiving Massacre” which turned out to be remarkably prescient.

California’s Sonoma State University’s ‘Project Censored’ lists Falluja as one of the top censored stories of 2006 in the US media, when the American forces are again attacking the city’s population in the outskirts of Baghdad, in a bid to stem any Sunni uprising.

In Falluja two years ago, we saw one of the most horrendous destructions in modern history, not by nature, but planned and executed by men. But, most of the world is yet to know the real story.

Writing in New Zealand’s Pacific Media Watch after the Asian tsunami in December 2004, journalist Mike Whitney observed: “The American media has descended on the Asian tsunami with all the fervour of feral animals in a meat locker. The newspapers and TVs are plastered with bodies drifting out to sea, battered carcasses strewn along the beach and bloated babies lying in rows. Every aspect of the suffering is being scrutinized with microscopic intensity by the predatory lens of the media”.

“This is where the western press really excels: in the celebratory atmosphere of human catastrophe” he noted, asking, “where was this ‘free press’ in Iraq when the death toll was skyrocketing?”

Well they were not there either when the first anniversary of the attack was observed last year nor would they be there this year. The anniversary last year, coincided with the admission by the US forces in Iraq that they used burning phosphorus weapons during their assault on Falluja a year ago. That itself would have been a good ‘news peg’ for the international media to revisit Falluja, but they didn’t.

Perhaps, you may ask, why should they be there?

It is because Falluja is a city of over 300,000 people, and the US sources have claimed that some 6000 insurgents were holed out in the city, and in order to flush them out they destroyed the whole city. Hundreds of civilians were killed, tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes and US forces used white phosphorous – a substance that burn down to the bone – as a weapon.

Falluja’s compensation commissioner has reported that 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 houses have been destroyed, along with 8,400 shops, 60 nurseries and schools, and 65 mosques and shrines.

Didn’t the big waves which hit Aceh or the southern coast of Thailand and Sri Lanka, do the same? Well we know all about it and I don’t need to say more here. But, why should we be kept in the dark about what man-made calamities could do to communities?

Especially now that it has been admitted by the US that they used chemical weapons in the attack, which can melt through skin and clothes, a substance banned for use in civilian areas by international conventions, and ironically the very reason the US claimed they had to overthrow Saddam Hussein so that he will not use chemical weapons against the people of Iraq again.

“Falluja is a place name that has become a symbol of unconscionable brutality” noted Mike Marqusee, co-founder of ‘Iraq Occupation Focus’ writing in London’s ‘Guardian’ on the first anniversary of the Falluja attack last year. Guardian – considered as a “left-leaning” newspaper in Britain – was among a handful of western media organizations to mark this anniversary.

“As the war in Iraq claims more lives, we need to ensure that this atrocity – so recent, so easily erased from public memory – is recognised as an example of the barbarism of nations that call themselves civilised” he added.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in January 2005 that 300,000 people have fled during the attack and 40 percent of the city’s population was living on charity. They estimated that 40 percent of the buildings in the city were completely destroyed, and the rest had significant damage, while three of the city’s water purification plants have been completely destroyed.

In one of the rare reports on the anniversary of the attacks, BBC’s Andrew North reporting from Falluja last November said that getting basic services like water, electricity, telephone and sewage are still a problem and though US$ 100 million have been pledged for the reconstruction of the city, people are only then beginning to get the compensation money they have been promised.

This is the type of story, which has been told over and over again by western journalists visiting tsunami devastated areas of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and India during last year’s first anniversary.

Shouldn’t they also be investigating the same of Falluja’s population? Where are they now? What are they doing? Who are helping them now and how are they trying to rebuild their lives?

For the international media, it is much more easier to point fingers at corrupt Asian officials, inefficient local relief agencies, and praise the “compassionate” western donors and relief workers. That fits in well with their western news values. But, the problem is these news values also infect the Asian media who have hardly heard about Falluja.

Last week the AP news agency reported that 3 bodyguards of Falluja’s mayor, has been arrested by US marines on suspicions of attacking US troops. They were among a group of 8 Iraqi’s rounded up for allegedly throwing hand grenades at US troops. The report said: “With the Sunni insurgency again growing bolder, attacks on US troops in the area have increased steadily over recent weeks”.

With US casualties rising rapidly in Iraq are we seeing another ‘Operation Thanksgiving Massacre’ in the offing? But don’t count on the international media to inform us about it.





Author: lotuscommnet

Dr Kalinga Seneviratne, who was born and educated in Sri Lanka has spent 20 years in Australia and is currently based in Singapore. He is a journalist, a radio broadcaster, television documentary maker, media analyst and an international communications lecturer. Currently Kalinga teaches Asian regional media systems and journalism and news media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. From 2004 to 2012 he was the Head of the Research division at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) in Singapore. He has also taught international communications at the University of Technology Sydney and Macquarie University (Australia). He has authored and edited many books on media and communications issues. His expertise are in development communication, journalism and feature writing, community radio and alternative media, and international communications. He has won an United Nations Media Peace Award (1987) and the Inaugural Singapore Airlines Educational Award (1992) from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia for services to the Australian community radio sector. He was the Australian and South Pacific correspondent for the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency from 1991-1997 and still writes for them IDN IN-Depth News on a freelance basis. He has done reporting assignments for IPS from a number of countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Kalinga was a member of a research team from 1991-1993 at the University of Technology Sydney looking at ‘Cultural Diversity and Racism in the Media’ in Australia. Kalinga is still a practicing journalists who writes for many publications across Asia and also produce radio and television documentaries.

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