On Making the Distinction Between Propaganda and Journalism

           In 2003, when the Qatar-based network al-Jazeera broadcast Iraqi footage of dead United States soldiers and five other POWs, Western governments and press corporations were in outrage. As per the 3rd Geneva Conventions, one of the protections ensured to POWs is “protection from public curiosity.” How could such images be shown to the entire Arab world, only for American citizens to realize that their troops were exploited and intimidated by the Iraqi government? As of now, al-Jazeera has not been held accountable, because the Conventions only govern the conduct of parties involved in a war.

            Ironically, most television addicts in America were oblivious to the 2003 incident until the images were officially declared “too gruesome” for public viewing by ABC and CNN, (much like the 2012 photographs of bin Laden’s body.) (I.C.H) When Michael Durant was taken captive by Somali militiamen in 1993, he was filmed as a POW for propaganda purposes. When CNN aired Durant’s video in addition to footage of a Somali crowd chanting around the body of an Army Ranger, there was little backlash from the government level of the United States. How could the Pentagon make such a fuss over Al-Jazeera’s broadcast, yet not think twice about broadcasting the Somali footage, even after official military screening? In 1993, American public opinion still had a strong grasp on the Capitol. The Somalian footage was Geneva-reviewed for evidence that the footage reported “events as they unfolded.” Knowledge of Durant’s condition and numerous casualties almost certainly contributed to Clinton’s decision to cease military action in the operation. In the case of al-Jazeera, the images of U.S. POWs were engrained into the eyes of millions who were watching the channel. U.S. attention was almost exclusively focused on the Iraq War, a part of the global War on Terror after 9/11. In this case of “global” war, any country is considered an involved party; terrorism can take place anywhere with human beings in proximity.

Al-Jazeera’s decision in 2003 was a journalistic mistake. The footage was deliberately taken by Iraqi authorities for the purpose of exploiting the minds of U.S. citizens. As a truly government-enacted war, the War on Terror could not be seen by the U.S. public as pointless (like the situation in Somali in 1993). It makes sense that U.S. media outlets and government officials were outraged at al-Jazeera’s broadcast. After merely one year in Iraq, knowledge that casualties and POWs were already being taken in the country was detrimental to maintaining U.S. public support. Although the footage presented the fact that American troops were being killed and taken as prisoner, it only showed events through an Iraqi lens.

In 2014, such controversies are taken much differently by the public. Almost 22% of the world now owns a smartphone. Groundbreaking digital film is taken almost everyday, revealing formerly untold stories that most media outlets were unable to discover. Al-Jazeera’s failure to do any actual reporting on the situation certainly holds them accountable to the Geneva Conventions by 2003 standards. Smartphone-owners are exposed to horrific news on the daily, yet media photography is broad, trying to invoke less personal outrage. This is much different than the purposeful process of sticking a camera in the faces of distraught POWs and filming their dead compatriots with the same device.

A result of the “photo-taking impairment effect”, most photographs today are taken candidly. If someone taking a “selfie” captures an illegal act behind him, it’s an accident. If fifty people are taking the same picture, it’s worthy journalistic fodder. After that, it’s all propaganda.


Yes this is Saddam Hussein, but it is an example of a double-standard when it comes to protecting the dignity of prisoners.

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Filed under Class Work, Historical Context, Journalism, Observation, Opinion

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