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2015: News control - powerful weapon of war


Many governments and non-state actors used control and manipulation of media coverage as a weapon of war in 2014. Ranging from over-coverage to complete news blackout, it creates a hostile climate for journalists and has disastrous consequences for media pluralism.

ISLAMIC STATE’S BRUTAL NEWS DICTATORSHIP

Islamic State’s jihadi militants impose a dictatorship on the media in the regions where they hold sway in Iraq and Syria. Journalists have to cover developments from afar and in an indirect manner to protect themselves. The result is partial and inaccurate coverage of the war in the regions engulfed by the jihadi offensive

Propaganda and reprisals

IS pays meticulous attention to its image and wages a media war as well as a military one, reinforcing its influence by creating its own propaganda media and eliminating all others that do not toe the line. It controls five TV stations in the Iraqi city of Mosul, 400 km northwest of Baghdad, and two in the Syrian province of Raqqa. It also has a radio station called “Al-Bayan” in Mosul and a Raqqa-based magazine called “Dabiq” with print and online versions. These media defend its ideology and pump out propaganda designed to promote jihadi recruitment and challenge the western vision of the world.

Islamic State has no scruples about eliminating any journalist regarded as an enemy. Sama Salah Aldeen TV cameraman Raad Mohamed Al-Azaoui was publicly executed in Samara on 10 October for refusing to cooperate with IS. Most of Mosul’s journalists have fled the city for fear of reprisals. In the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, IS has even imposed a list of 11 rules on journalists that include complete loyalty to Caliph Abu Bakral-Baghdadi. The result is information “black holes,” regions where full and freely-reported news coverage is impossible.

IS has also established a ruthless hostage industry to finance its terrorist activities, beheading US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria, the world’s deadliest country for media personnel in 2014. In its attempts to manipulate information, IS even forced British journalist John Cantlie, a hostage since November 2012, to do a sham video news report from Kobane in which he gave the IS take on its battle with the Kurds. The video was posted online on 27 October.

Government offensives

The jihadi offensive in Iraq is such that the government has also tried to tighten its grip on the media. The Iraqi authorities closed several TV stations, including Al-Babelyia TV, Al-Sharqiya TV and Al-Rafidin TV, for allegedly fuelling sectarianism or failing to be “neutral” in their coverage.

In Syria, the government not only controls the state media but also wages an online information war, using its cyber-army to flood social networks with messages in support of the president. Bashar Al-Assad is on the Reporters Without Borders list of Predators of Press Freedom for arresting, torturing and arbitrarily detaining many Syrian and foreign journalists since the start of the uprising in March 2011, and for deliberately targeting unwanted witness of the government crackdown.

Reporting under threat in Ukraine

The war in eastern Ukraine, in which six media workers have already been killed, is a good example of how an information war is fought in times of crisis. News organizations have been raided and ransacked and journalists have been threatened again and again since the start of unrest in the region in March 2014.

Media objects of desire

Representatives of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” occupied the regional TV station Union on 8 May to “control” the work of its staff. Control of TV signal relay stations has been a prime objective for the warring parties, with Ukrainian TV stations being disconnected and replaced by Russian ones as the rebels advanced, and the reverse happening as they retreated. Other examples abound of the media being among the leading targets of arbitrary actions in this war.

Russian propaganda has helped to poison the conflict by encouraging eastern Ukraine’s inhabitants to regard Kiev as the source of a deadly threat. In response, the government in Kiev is finding it hard to resist the temptation to control news and information. The creation of an information ministry to combat Russian propaganda constitutes a major step backwards. The main Russian TV stations are now banned in Ukraine and Russian journalists are often turned back at the border.

Local media singled out

Because of the information war’s intensity and the accompanying flood of propaganda, the population in eastern Ukraine tends to regard local media outlets as the most reliable sources of information. This increases their interest to the anti-Kiev rebels, who seek the public’s support. As these media are immersed in local life, they can play a vital role in informing the local population but they are therefore all the more vulnerable to pressure from armed militias.

Parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have become an information “grey zone” since the start of the fighting in April 2014. Treated as suspects or pressured to support one side or the other, journalists are exposed to constant threats. Many have been forced to censor themselves, go into hiding or flee the region.

PALESTINIAN MEDIA ASSAILED ON ALL SIDES

Last year saw Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against the Gaza Strip, which cost the lives of 15 journalists and media workers. The offensive set off a new information war in both traditional media and social networks.

Online censorship and propaganda

The Israeli authorities stepped up control of programme content on their own TV stations during the offensive. On 24 July, the Israel Broadcasting Authority banned a spot made by the Israeli NGO B’Tselem that cited the names of 150 children killed in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, for its part, was able to count on the websites of its armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, to reinforce its propaganda. These sites gave the number of rockets fired and posted videos of attacks on the Israel Defence Forces. The Brigades also have a Hebrew-language site that helps them to wage a psychological war against the Israeli population.

Some local and foreign media and journalists were accused of bias in their coverage of the Israeli military intervention in the Gaza Strip. American TV network NBC, for example, decided on 17 July to pull out its Gaza correspondent, Ayman Mohyeldin, who has US and Egyptian dual nationality, after a report about four Palestinian children being killed by Israeli missiles that was criticized as too pro-Palestinian.

Targeted by Hamas and PA

When not targeted by the Israeli military, Palestinian journalists are often the victims of the entrenched political rivalry between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

When media cross the red lines, which include religion, the Palestinian president and corruption, an official reaction is not long in coming. It may range from a phone call to the arrest of the offending journalist. Some TV stations even have to show their programmes to the mukhabarat (intelligence services) before they are broadcast. The feeling of being constantly spied on instils fear and leads to self-censorship.

As a result, the Internet has become the place where Palestinians, especially young ones, express themselves. But the Internet is also closely scrutinized by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas for hostile comments. The Israeli occupation is the only subject on which journalists and public are free to express unrestrained criticism.

COVERAGE A PRIORITY IN ALL CONFLICTS

In South Sudan, where “patriotic” journalism is strongly recommended, information minister Michael Makuei told journalists in March that, if they interviewed opposition members, they could be arrested or expelled for “hostile propaganda.” Journalists must adopt ““a neutral position that does not agitate against the government”, he said.

In Thailand, the media and Internet were censored to facilitate a military coup in May. Soldiers stormed into at least ten TV stations on 20 May and ordered them to stop broadcasting to prevent “distorted” reports. In Afghanistan, there has been no let-up in the hatred that the Taliban display towards the media. They still put intense pressure on independent media to carry their propaganda and censor themselves.