We badly need the kind of critical reporting that WikiLeaks supplied on the crimes of the “war on terror” writes John Rees

Funeral of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh after her assassination in Palestine, May 2022.

Reports of the Gaza war fill hours of broadcast news and miles of newsprint. Yet, counterintuitively, it remains the most underreported major conflict of the modern era.

How so? The answer to this conundrum lies in the sources of the news-overload we are getting. It does not come, primarily, from independent journalists, or indeed mainstream journalists, on the ground in Gaza.

The Israelis have imposed a Gaza-wide exclusion zone on journalists and so it remains, almost historically uniquely, a war zone with very few mainstream journalists present to record the fighting. According to Reporters Without Borders:

Foreign journalists are being denied access to the Gaza Strip. In two months of war, no reporters have been allowed to enter through Rafah, clearly undermining the media’s ability to cover the conflict.

There are not even embedded journalists with Israeli troops. In the Iraq War, these embedded reporters were derided as only giving the point of view of the troops with whom they were located by the belligerent governments. But embedded journalists would still be a step forward in Gaza, where even this tamed form of eyewitness reporting is absent. At the moment the most frequent reports we get of frontline fighting are videos released by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or by Hamas.Many Palestinian and other Middle Eastern journalists are trying to provide on-the-ground reporting, but it is a deadly profession. More than one hundred journalists have been killed since the war on Gaza began, and four hundred have been imprisoned. Some fifty media buildings have been partially destroyed or completely leveled by the Israeli forces.

The International Federation of Journalists say that perhaps one in ten of all journalists in Gaza have already been killed. Compare this with the sixty-three journalists killed in the entire twenty years of the Vietnam War.

Dearth of Analysis

But it’s not just on-the-ground reporting that is hard to come by. Investigative or analytical journalism is, with less excuse, also sparse. In the past, we might have expected major in-depth analysis of both the moving forces behind the war and the major incidents in the conflict to be provided by investigative reporters in the press and on current affairs TV programs.

This is the kind of work once done by the Sunday Times Insight team, by the late and already much missed John Pilger on both TV and in the press, by ITV’s World in Action or, less frequently, by the BBC’s Panorama. Famously, mainstream journalists were accused of losing the Vietnam War.One broadcast by veteran CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was even singled out as decisive. In the wake of the Tet Offensive of 1968, Cronkite visited Vietnam, leaving a visit to Hue in a Marine helicopter with twelve body bags by his side. Cronkite’s subsequent verdict, that the war was a bloody stalemate, drew this comment from a dispirited President Lyndon Johnson: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Now whether or not the accusation against journalism in general or Cronkite in particular was ever true, it was at least credible enough to be made and taken seriously. There is no danger that a similar accusation could even be formulated against mainstream journalists covering the war on Gaza.

In this war, such in-depth or critical journalism is hard to find. The Washington Post took an age to examine claims about fighting around the Al Shifa hospital in Gaza. We still lack an hour-by-hour account of what actually happened during the October 7 Hamas attack. Basic questions of who killed who, of how many died and who they were, of the role of Israeli forces, remain unanswered, mired in claim and counterclaim.

Nor has there been much sustained analysis of Israeli war aims, of tensions between the United States and Israel, the conflict in the Red Sea, or the strategy of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Counting the Cost

In the midst of this journalistic drought, we feel all the more keenly the loss of Julian Assange’s voice and the material that WikiLeaks provided. Locked away for his fifth Christmas in the UK’s high-security Belmarsh prison, he is still awaiting a final court hearing in his long struggle against extradition to the United States where he could face sentences of up to 175 years under the 1917 US Espionage Act.

WikiLeaks was not established until 2006, so it could not report directly on the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But the subsequent occupations of those countries were a different matter. Here the leaks that Assange published in some of the world’s leading print newspapers revealed in unprecedented detail the appalling, bloody reality of the way Western forces conducted themselves.

Those revelations did not create mass antiwar consciousness or directly influence the creation of the antiwar movement — both had existed since 2003. But they did vindicate antiwar politics and demolished the remaining reputations of those who had prosecuted the wars and occupations.

Let us just take one example of what we know of the Iraq War that would not be available if WikiLeaks had not released the Iraq War Logs, the largest leak in US military history. It is an absolutely basic fact, critical to how we judge military conflict: the number of dead.Infamously, the US refused to count the Iraqi dead. It was left to organizations like Iraq Body Count to carefully attempt to estimate how many had lost their lives. The material WikiLeaks released added another fifteen thousand to the Iraq Body Count total, raising it to one hundred fifty thousand dead.

In the war on Gaza, Israel makes no attempt to record how many Palestinians it has killed and simultaneously dismisses as unreliable the figures given by the health authority in Gaza. Under Israeli pressure, much of the world’s mainstream media has taken to prefacing its reference to the figures released by the health authority with the words “the Hamas-run health authority.”

We would all be better informed about the most basic fact of war if WikiLeaks were able to publish the kind of material that they did after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Second Superpower

And how much more valuable such information would be now, being published in real-time as the war on Gaza unfolds. Wars are expressions of power, and words alone cannot halt them. But they can inform and inspire those who are working to create a countervailing popular power to the warmongers.

In 2003, the New York Times told its readers that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” It concluded:

An exceptional phenomenon has appeared on the streets of world cities. It may not be as profound as the people’s revolutions across Eastern Europe in 1989 or in Europe’s class struggles of 1848, but politicians and leaders are unlikely to ignore it.

The epic mass movement that shook the Western establishment in 2003 is abroad in the streets once more. It badly needs high-quality journalism.

In his indictment of WikiLeaks, former director of the CIA Mike Pompeo described it as “a hostile, nonstate, intelligence agency.” He meant to damn Assange by comparing him to a spy. But, correctly understood, Pompeo was paying Assange a compliment.

Spies take secret information from one state and give it, secretly, to another state with the aim of giving that second state a political, diplomatic, or military advantage over the first. But WikiLeaks did nothing in secret and its audience was not another state’s mandarins but a global citizenry. It aimed to empower the mass of the population, not trade secrets for the benefit of the already rich and powerful. How badly we lack our own intelligence agency now, as genocide is enacted in Gaza and the Middle East is endangered by the spread of war.

Assange is well aware of the dangers that face a free press because of his own imprisonment. The writer Charles Glass visited Assange recently in Belmarsh and asked him about journalism and the war in Gaza. He reported that Assange:

regrets that WikiLeaks is no longer able to expose war crimes and corruption as in the past. His imprisonment and US government surveillance and restrictions on WikiLeaks’ funding wards off potential whistleblowers. He fears that other media outlets are not filling the vacuum.

But it is not just because it deprives us of a source of hidden information that Assange’s incarceration is important. It is also because it deprives us of a source of views that stand outside the mainstream.Take Assange’s interview with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Assange asks some uncomfortable questions of Nasrallah, but he also genuinely wants to let an important political figure explain their views, account for their background, and correct misapprehensions without bullying, opprobrium, sneering, or condescension. And that, in the mainstream media at least, is as rare as hen’s teeth.

There are only really two sorts of news: government and corporate handouts and the news that the rich and powerful don’t want you to hear. Without that second kind of news, we are being managed, not informed. As Assange approaches his final attempt next month in a UK court room to halt his extradition to the United States, the coverage of the war on Gaza shows how much we still need whistleblowers and those who are willing to report what they say.

Source: Jacobin
12 Jan 2024 by John Rees

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