by Thomas O’Dwyer
On 9 October 1990, President George H.W. Bush held a news conference about Iraqi-occupied Kuwait as the US was building an international coalition to liberate the emirate. He said: “I am very much concerned, not just about the physical dismantling but about some of the tales of brutality. It’s just unbelievable, some of the things. I mean, people on a dialysis machine cut off; babies heaved out of incubators and the incubators sent to Baghdad … It’s sickening.”
What’s sickening is that this was fake news, broadcast by the president at a time when there was plenty of real information coming out of Kuwait. Iraq had invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, and the following day Kuwaitis living in the US hired a public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, in a $12–million deal, the biggest contract in the history of public relations at the time. The firm settled on a strategy of publicising atrocities being committed by Iraqi troops in Kuwait. Here was born the great incubator lie — a story claiming that Iraqi soldiers ransacked Al-Adan hospital, ripped sick and premature babies from incubators and left them on the tiled floor to die before shipping the incubators off to Baghdad. The story was an “eyewitness account” made public by a tearful 15-year old girl named only as Niyirah, who said she had worked as a volunteer in the hospital maternity ward. The tale was graphically told to Congress in November 1990 before it passed a crucial vote to send US troops to liberate Kuwait.
The move towards the First Gulf War was motivated by a blatant lie. Hill & Knowlton had coached the girl to tell her story without revealing that Niyirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US, Saud Nasir al-Sabah and that she had not been in Kuwait during the invasion. Nurses who lived in accommodation opposite Al-Adan hospital told reporters they had never seen the girl before her public appearance. It took months for the truth to emerge, and Bush mentioned the incubator incident in five of his speeches. Seven senators also referred to it in speeches backing the pro-war resolution. The problem with fake news is not just its fakeness, but that it distorts and discredits real and essential information, especially regarding atrocities. It also undermines the credibility of actions based upon it.
In the First Gulf War, there were many good and valid reasons for liberating Kuwait from a brutal Iraqi invasion that produced too many real atrocities, including the torture and murder of more than 1,000 Kuwaitis and another 600 missing. However, 13 years later, a US-led coalition unjustly invaded Iraq and killed tens of thousands of people based on two new cultivated lies. They held that Saddam Hussein had a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and that he had facilitated Al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
Whether a lie is deeply superficial, like the Kuwait incubator story, or superficially deep, like the weapons of mass destruction, fake news is a force multiplier of the consequences that flow from it. At its worst, phoney news can transform what the public believes to be a just war into a criminal adventure, causing needless death and destruction that lasts decades. There is collateral damage not just to the credibility of the politicians and generals whose mendacity scars them for their lifetimes and after. Also destroyed is public trust in mass media outlets that swallow the lies and vomit the fake news back onto our screens and newspapers.
One of the most enduring myths that emerged after the 1945 defeat of Hitler’s Germany was the claim that the Nazis had manufactured lampshades from the skin of their murdered victims. Like the case of the incubator babies, it seemed the documented crimes of the Nazis were not disgusting and terrible enough. They had to be embellished. This invention gained enough credibility to provide Nazi apologists and Holocaust deniers with ammunition to argue that all stories of Nazi atrocities, even the mass-murder camps, were exaggerations “like the story of the lampshades”.
The most credible lampshade anecdote was that Ilse Koch, the wife of Buchenwald’s camp commandant, possessed a lampshade made of tattooed human skin. After her conviction for war crimes, General Lucius Clay, the military governor of the American Zone in Germany, reduced her sentence to four years. He argued “there was absolutely no evidence in the trial transcript, other than she was a rather loathsome creature, that would support the death sentence. There was no convincing evidence that she had any articles made of human skin”. An official biography many years later quoted Clay as saying:
“Some reporter had named her the Bitch of Buchenwald and had written that she had lampshades made of human skin in her house. And that was introduced in evidence, where the court absolutely proved that the lampshade material was goatskin.”
And yet the graphic idea of lampshades made from human skin remains a symbol of the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. References have appeared in art, political speeches, popular culture and antisemitic propaganda. Sylvia Plath described her skin as “Bright as a Nazi lampshade” in her poem Lady Lazarus, where she used allusions to Nazi Germany.
If fake news can have fatal consequences, what of the current authoritarian habit of labelling genuine and fact-checked reporting as fake news? US Senator Hiram Johnson said in 1918, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” It was a truism that has been around in many forms since Aeschylus wrote, “God is not averse to deceit in a just cause.” No longer a first casualty or sacrificed for a just cause, Truth is now everywhere limping on crutches while Disinformation strides over the planet with shameless impunity.
If we rename facts as fallacy, it is evident that those who gather our facts must be fakers. Before the presidency of Donald Trump, the American public had held journalists in depressingly low esteem. When Trump arrived, distrust became contempt, with dire consequences for those who gather the news and question those in power. So far this year 45 journalists have died around the world, and more than 260 are in prison just for doing their job.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières — RSF), the international non-profit organisation that monitors the right to freedom of information, paints a depressing picture in its annual report. It says that the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified many crises and overshadowed freedom of the press. The European Union also warned that the pandemic could not justify any limits on democratic and civil functioning or respect for the rule of law. “The pandemic should not limit freedom of speech and media expression or access to information, online and offline. We cannot endorse measures that restrict human rights advocates, reporters, media staffers, and institutions of civil societies,” EU high representative Josef Bourl said in a statement.
RSF issues an annual Press Freedom Index which is depressing reading and should perhaps be named an oppression index. Suppression of press freedom and persecution of journalists exist alongside broader repression in the worst authoritarian states. So it is no surprise to find the bottom notorious five on the list of 180 countries are China, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea. The top five, where reporting is free, safe and unfettered, are equally unsurprising – Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Netherlands. It is in the middle sections of the list that complacency lurks and we may detect alarms tuning up. What is the UK doing down in 35th place instead of being up top with its northern European neighbours? But the US is a further ten spots lower at 45th, just above Papua New Guinea and Senegal. That means the land of the free is now “problematic” for journalism.
The UK — home of the venerable BBC news service — owes its low position in the freedom rankings partially to a government threat to review the BBC’s license fee that British citizens pay, plus a review of a public service network, Channel 4. There is also Northern Ireland, where journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead in April 2019 while reporting on unrest in Derry, and where police illegally got warrants to raid the homes of two investigative reporters.
In many democracies, which are supposed to have free and independent media, it is their elected leaders who try to silence critical news outlets and promote those that offer favourable coverage. The US may be one of the oldest democracies and known for its fierce defence of the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of the press. Yet for four years, the president has continuously demonised the news media as the “enemy of the people.” His rhetoric has boosted political leaders in other countries who have passed bills making “fake news” illegal — they dangerously define fake news as anything they don’t like.
Trump may have demonised journalists so the public had lost all faith in them by the time Covid-19 arrived, and this contributed to infections and deaths. An unprecedented 120 journalists were arrested or criminally charged in the US while covering protests in 2020. More than were 300 were assaulted and had 75 items of expensive equipment damaged — the majority of attacks were by law officers and Trump supporters. In June 2018, two years into Trump’s rantings against the “enemies of the people”, a gunman shot and killed five employees at the offices of The Capital Gazette, a Maryland newspaper, because he didn’t like a factual report about his criminal activity.
Between 2015 and today, Trump has tweeted negatively about the media around 2,500 times, according to the database of the US Press Freedom Tracker organisation. Also, his tirades against “the lamestream media” at his rallies became his greatest hits. Such rhetoric creates an environment ripe for physical attacks on reporters, Marty Steffens, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, said in an interview with the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists last week. “By fomenting the idea that the press is the enemy of the people…you really put journalists in the bullseye,” said Steffens. “Because the president pushes back against journalists and doesn’t respect them, local officials have been empowered to do the same thing.”
Attached to the annual international RSF reports is a rogues’ gallery of dictatorial leaders with a comprehensive tally of their sins against information freedom. (Trump is not yet authoritarian enough to feature in the gallery). For instance, there is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is worth remembering that Turkey was for many years an applicant for membership of the European Union, meaning it was supposed to align its policies with those of the liberal social-democratic EU. Now RSP bluntly reports:
“Erdogan does not like the media. Or rather, he likes the media to be submissive and docile to sing his praises. He persecutes critics with the help of the law under which they can be prosecuted for ‘insulting the president’ and broader terrorism legislation that allows every kind of abuse by various political and economic means. He controls almost all the leading media groups, especially TV channels. A state of emergency he declared in 2016 after a failed coup gave Erdogan the excuse to arrest unprecedented numbers of journalists and close more than a hundred newspapers magazines, TV channels and radio stations. At least 124 media outlets have been eliminated by decree, more than 200 journalists have been arrested of whom 125 were still in prison at the start of October, and dozens of others have fled the country. Turkey’s media freedom record was already grim in 2015 with 120 journalists arrested, at least 19 journalists and two cartoonists — yes cartoonists — convicted of “insulting the president”.
Under the dour dictator Erdogan, the country that once aspired to be a European democracy now ranks 154th on the Press Freedom Index of 180 states — lower than Bangladesh and Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus represents his country in the RSF rogues’ gallery of press persecutors. Other familiar unpleasant dictators in the depressingly long list include Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi of Egypt; Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela; Kim Jong-un, North Korea; Salman bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia; Vladimir Putin, Russia; Kim Jong-un, North Korea; Ali Khamenei, Iran, and Xi Jinping, China.
Assaults on real news reporting may have become both deadly and depressing, but that is no reason to assume that the dictators and their wannabe authoritarian groupies will prevail. It is worth pausing to note how much excellent journalism can be found almost everywhere and in many languages. The insane fascist noise in the echo chambers and social media and infotainment centres may have become deafening. However, students are still enrolling at proper journalism schools; excellent reporters are still investigating and reporting; political and serious magazines are thriving in print and online; non-fiction books are still rolling off the presses by the hour. The dictators may be out there, but so are the organisations and watchdogs that have eyes on them.
It was in 1644 that John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, published one of the first and most enduring defences of free speech in his pamphlet Areopagitica, at the height of the English Civil War between royalty and parliament. Milton argued that freedom of speech and press was nothing more than the right to speak freely. Speech does not just happen in pamphlets, or newspapers or over the airwaves. It also exists as private conversations, including conversations with ourselves. It even covers the right to be silent — a principle the US Supreme Court made sacrosanct in a 1943 case that invalidated a compulsory flag salute and upheld a student’s right to stand in silence during such a ritual.
In a recent opinion piece for CNN, Victoria Baranetsky, a free-speech attorney and a fellow at a centre for digital journalism at Columbia University, argued that we could extend the principle of silence to enhance freedom safeguards that protect journalists. “Put simply, our attention is spread too thin,” she wrote, and added that silence is not just sitting down for a meditation session. “It also occurs in the types of information we ingest. For instance, trained journalists encourage silence through publishing carefully curated pieces. By making redactions, edits and cuts, journalists’ curation removes noisy edges, distractions and unnecessary clutter. Thoughtful journalistic work instils more space to think and eliminates some of the distractions.” Baranetsky continued:
“Although counterintuitive, the press – a public loudspeaker – is also an institution that continues to promote silence, by presenting slowly curated information to the public. Journalism depends on reporters not blindly dumping information, as is done on countless online platforms, but reviewing, analysing, editing and even redacting information before publishing. … This quieting role against noisy information is essential as the social media deluge us with noise. As new threats against the press escalate, today’s courts should feel compelled to buttress the few safeguards left for the news media – one of the last bastions of silence. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in a media case, that ‘without some protection for seeking out the news, freedom of the press could be eviscerated.’”
Baranetsky suggested that by offering protections for the press, courts might actually save the news media and protect us from being consumed by a tyranny of voices — and the voices of tyrants.