A strange kind of liberation

Observations on Iraq and the media

On 29 April, the BBC's lunchtime news devoted three minutes and ten seconds to the killing of 16 and wounding of 75 Iraqi civilian protesters in Falluja. In those 190 seconds, the BBC repeated the claim that US troops had acted in self-defence five times. The claim made by Iraqi protesters - that the demonstration had been peaceful and unarmed - was not mentioned. No questions were raised about why so many civilians lay dead and wounded from "the firefight" when not one of the heavily armed troops had been injured. In responding to queries from readers of the MediaLens website, Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, explained: "Details of the shootings at Falluja came in during the later part of the morning, and more information, including accounts of the events by eyewitnesses, continued to come in throughout the day. At one o'clock, the primary fact was a simple one, that the Americans had killed 13 Iraqis and wounded several dozens of others."

And yet at 11:41 that same morning, a BBC online news report had been posted on the MediaLens message board citing a local Sunni cleric in Falluja, Kamal Shaker Mahmoud, who said: "It was a peaceful demonstration. They did not have any weapons. They were asking the Americans to leave the school so they could use it."

In his new book, Web of Deceit, Mark Curtis shows how the mainstream media promote one key concept above all others: "the idea of Britain's basic benevolence". The illusion is maintained, Curtis writes, by consistent bias that "sanitises quite terrible policies and presents them as 'normal'". US-UK responsibility for suffering is always downplayed, never eliciting the attention or horror it deserves.

How many Britons, for example, are aware of the state of Iraq's hospitals a month after "liberation"? A week after the fall of Baghdad on 9 April, the Red Cross reported that 32 out of 35 hospitals in the city had shut down - a catastrophe that was reported and quickly dropped by the media. What happened next?

I managed to find some answers on the ReliefWeb site on 2 May: Baghdad "still does not have any fully functioning hospitals", Morten Rostrup, head of Medecins Sans Frontieres in Iraq, reported. As a result, sufferers of diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and epilepsy had nowhere to refill their medications. Life-threatening diseases such as tuberculosis and kala azar, a fly-borne sickness, were going untreated in Amarah, Basra, Karbala, Nasiriyah and elsewhere. Rostrup gave the kind of damning verdict that is all but banned from the media: "The US-led coalition was so focused on the military campaign that seeing that the health system was functioning after the war was not a priority. That was a big, big mistake. They are absolutely accountable."

Dr Hadi Rahim Dayri in Basra's al-Tahrir Hospital reports between 45 and 50 suspected cases of cholera arriving every day, all with severe diarrhoea, dehydration and projectile vomiting. Only about 30 of them can be admitted overnight due to a shortage of beds; the rest have to be sent home. A number have already died.

The chronic lack of sanitation in Baghdad has led to the worst levels of diarrhoea ever seen, with doctors there also fearing cholera. "There is no sanitation and no clean water," says Dr Husayn Fadil al-Jawadi, a paediatrician. "Even in tap water there is a smell, and when you put it in a glass you can see the material in it."

Um Qasr's sole hospital contains 12 beds catering for around 45,000 people. The five permanent local "doctors" are actually students in their third and fourth years of medical school. "There is no hygiene of any kind, no basic facilities, no fully trained medical staff, no operating theatre, no fridge - there is just nothing there," says Mark Cockburn, a paramedic with Rescue Net.

What does Blair's "moral case for war" mean when patients, undergoing basic surgery without painkillers, "have to grit their teeth, or put a piece of cloth in their mouths to bite on", as Cockburn reports? Where is the outcry in our politics and media about this fate befalling a country we are supposed to have "liberated"?

David Edwards is editor of MediaLens (www.medialens.org)