Wednesday, August 09, 2006

When the body count doesn't count

When the body count doesn't count


Critics say the death toll from the United States bombing of Afghanistan has been covered up - and the media are most to blame, reports SCOTT MacLEOD.

The call of nature drew Khalil Rahman from his home just after the B-52 bombers started their pass over his village.

In the early morning darkness of the remote area, 50km southwest of Jalalabad, Mr Rahman could not see the bellies of the mighty United States aircraft split open and release 25 bombs into the cold air.

But he did hear one of the 450kg bombs slam into his home, killing 12 relatives. He also heard the other bombs as they cut a swathe through the other houses, killing more than 100 of the village's 300 residents.

It was December 1 last year when the US-led war on terrorism came to Kama Ado.

Fifteen hours later, when accusations of the latest civilian deaths filtered back to the West, Marine Corps spokesman Major Brad Lowell said simply: "It just did not happen."

But journalists who visited the village and found huge bomb craters, smashed houses, scattered children's shoes, dead cows and sheep and graves swear it did.

Which raises the questions - how many civilians really have died in the US bombing of Afghanistan and why have we heard so little about them?

A study by New Hampshire professor Marc Herold says 3767 civilians died in the first nine weeks of bombing. The toll, he says, is now well over 4000.

If his figures are correct, the civilian death toll in Afghanistan has passed the 2996 killed in the September 11 attacks that started the war in the first place.

US defence officials dispute the study's findings, but Professor Herold says his figures are conservative and has accused the military and US media of under-reporting the civilian death toll.

His report, A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting, is essentially a count of deaths reported in news stories.

The first civilian casualties are given as 20 - killed on the night of October 7-8 when at least two cruise missiles hit Kabul suburbs. The sources are seven newspapers, including the India Express, Irish Times and Guardian.

The worst bombing raid is given in a list titled Seven Days of Ignominy. The farming village of Karam, west of Jalalabad, was bombed until 45 of 60 mud huts were destroyed and at least 160 civilians killed.

Are Professor Herold's estimates accurate? It is hard to tell. The Herald checked sources he gave for the Kama Ado massacre, in which he estimated 100 people died.

Some minor discrepancies exist between Professor Herold's account and some newspaper reports. But the most convincing story - by Independent reporter Richard Lloyd Parry, who visited the scene - put the death toll at 115. In the Kama Ado case, Professor Herold's claim that his estimates are "conservative" may be correct.

Professor Herold admits to having an agenda. He opposes the bombing, accuses the Government of cover-up tactics, and claims the military uses "differential values" for human life - it would rather kill many Afghans than lose one American.

But some of his strongest criticism is levelled at the mainstream media in the US, which he says bowed to official pressure to under-report the casualties, and at media in other countries that run copies of the US stories without questioning them.

"In the aftermath of September 11th in this country, people were angry, scared and confused," he told the Herald by e-mail.

"To sound any note of questioning or discord was regrettably branded as unpatriotic. The mainstream media gave up its role of being a critical, investigative and independent source of information."

Not surprisingly, Professor Herold's Afghanistan death toll has been challenged by the Pentagon. A major at the US defence headquarters, who would identify himself only as "a spokesman", said the American military went to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian deaths.

He said it was hard to work out how many people were dying and pointed out that the number of people killed in the New York attack was initially thought to be 10,000 before dropping below 3000.

"Many reports out of the region have been highly suspect, with some merely repeating the Taleban's lies," he said. "Historically, we do not track our enemy or civilian deaths. It is breathtaking that anyone at this point could claim to have done so with any accuracy."

Professor Herold's claim that the American media have deliberately underplayed civilian casualties in the war is supported by several other sources, including the Poynter Institute, a US journalism school and think-tank.

It recounts on its website one of the most celebrated journalism cover-ups of the war to date - a memo to staff at Florida's Panama City News Herald last October.

"DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U. S. war on Afghanistan," it read.

"Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails."

The memo also warns staff against highlighting the civilian death toll.

"DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the US war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the US hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children."

While the News Herald is an extreme example, other more prominent American media have expressed the same reservations about fully reporting the war carnage.

A top news host on Fox News, a channel attacked by many liberals for its willingness to back the Bush Administration, has questioned whether the media should give much weight to the death toll in Afghanistan.

"Civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really," said Brit Hume. "Should they be as big news as they've been?"

And the head of CNN, Walter Isaacson, has said that it would be "perverse" to give too much coverage to civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

A Washington Post story cited by Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch programme mentioned censorship and double-standards in some reporting. The story said the US often used Arab station Al-Jazeera to communicate with the Muslim world - but Osama bin Laden's video statements were "all but blacked out on American television".

In Slate magazine, Timothy Noah said one result was that George W. Bush had escaped much criticism over his call for a "crusade" against bin Laden (which accidentally conjured up historical images of Christians slaughtering Muslims) because few Americans realised bin Laden was exploiting it in his video broadcasts.

Professor Herold praised media from some "neutral" countries for exposing much of the truth of the bombing but said other neutral media should play a bigger role.

He said the Sydney Morning Herald, which was one source for his civilian death count, did an "admirable" job, but said New Zealand could have made more of an effort to send reporters.

The head of journalism at New Plymouth's Western Institute of Technology, Jim Tucker, said US media tended to "toe the party line" when reporting wars. It was hard for them to report properly because military spin-doctors were experts at orchestrating coverage to the point that "you don't know what the hell is going on".

Mr Tucker, a former editor of the Auckland Star, said it often took years for the truth to emerge from a war.

Canterbury University's head of mass communications and journalism, Jim Tully, said it was natural for US media to report the war from their own nation's point of view.

"I think one of the problems in New Zealand is that we rely on a narrow range of sources for our news," he said. "We don't invest in sending journalists there, but it's very expensive and the New Zealand involvement is small with our SAS troops."

Mr Tully said New Zealand journalists would be much more involved if the war was happening closer to home. Both he and Mr Tucker questioned whether Professor Herold could guarantee his figures were more accurate than anybody else's.

But despite claims by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he could imagine no other conflict in history when there had been less "collateral damage", there remains little doubt that many innocent people are dying in Afghanistan, just as thousands died in New York in September.

Professor Herold's report includes a section titled Voices From Afghanistan, which conveys some of the everyday human toll.

It quotes a Kandahar hospital worker, who says: "Bombs were hitting people's houses and they injured or killed lots of innocent people. I saw about 50 people who died. Everyone is looking to the sky and waiting and thinking when will the American aircraft come and start killing them."

Despite US radio broadcasts, many Afghans seem to have little idea why they are being bombed. An ironmonger from the small town of Hojibahodin says: "Bin Laden killed many donkeys and many people and animals, and they killed [Northern Alliance leader] Masood. That's why they're attacking."

For some the legacy of the bombing is simply fear. One Kabul resident says: "I have a baby child, one-and-a-half years old. Even she is afraid of the plane sounds and bombing, and runs towards me and hugs me when the planes come over."

No comments: