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World: Yes, War Is Hell, But How Much Should The Public See?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

War is hell. And modern communication technology now has the capacity to distribute images of the horrors of war more quickly and widely than ever before. The war in Iraq is once again sparking debate about exactly what should be carried by the media and what, if anything, may be too shocking for the public to see. Are gruesome pictures of mutilated bodies or dying soldiers tasteless sensationalism, or do such pictures bring home the real cost of war in a necessary way? And what of the propaganda value of such material?

Prague, 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Death in war has never been a pretty sight. The packed rows of bodies on the field at Waterloo, corpses strung out on barbed wire along the Somme, and the charred remains of tank crews at Tobruk were all stark reminders to different generations of the true cost of war.

Before the advent of cameras, however, eyewitnesses were the only ones to see the detritus of the battlefield. Later, photographs were taken during wartime, starting in the mid-1800s, but the audience that saw these images was relatively small.

In World Wars I and II, restrictions on journalists and official censorship often prevented a broad public from seeing such images.

But modern technology has changed all that. Today, in the U.S.-led war in Iraq, hundreds of journalists are "embedded" in front-line combat units. They share the danger of combat with the soldiers. They are present when life becomes death or some shattered state between the two. The often gruesome sights and sounds of battle can be transmitted around the world in real time to billions of people.

But should such images be shown? Is the privacy of the dead and dying being violated for commercial sensationalism? Does the public -- including children -- need protection from that? Or is suppression of this material a "sanitization" of combat, a move to hide its true horror from the public, so they will not turn against a particular war?

Bob Steele is a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a leading U.S. school of journalism in Florida. He addressed this point by saying: "It's important for citizens here in the United States -- and I would suggest around the world -- to see as complete a picture as possible, as reasonably as we can. That includes videos of casualties, videos and pictures of POWs [prisoners of war]. We should be thoughtful and professional in the way we use these images, but if we do not present that side of what is happening in the war, we will be 'shortchanging' the citizens, who have a [political] responsibility to respond to what is going on."

A case in point is the broadcast on Iraqi television of captured and dead U.S. soldiers this week. The images were relayed through Qatar's Al-Jazeera television channel and were used in part or in whole by television stations around the world and as still photographs in some newspapers. In the United States, in particular, there was controversy over the images. U.S. television networks aired, at most, only part of the footage. An anchorman for the U.S.-based NBC television network, Matt Lauer, called the video footage "extremely, extremely disturbing."

In Europe, France's broadcast regulatory agency summoned Al-Jazeera to complain on the grounds that the film violated the Geneva convention on prisoners of war. Al-Jazeera has an agreement with the agency to broadcast throughout the European Union. Al-Jazeera, in response, pointed out that pictures of Iraqi prisoners had previously been widely used by Western media outlets.

The question of media coverage is of key importance. The Vietnam War was the first conflict to be brought "into the living room" each day by television, and raw images of the fighting are considered to have helped swing U.S. public opinion against the war.

Senior analyst Kirsty Hughes of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels said she expects the media to play a powerful role in the war in Iraq, too. "The press is clearly important, and it impacts enormously at a time like this on how people view the war, how people respond to the war. They are looking at the pictures. They are not necessarily listening to what the political leaders are saying. They are watching the TV, listening to the radio, or reading the newspapers, and I think the longer the war goes on, the more powerful the media will be," Hughes said.

British photographer and writer Eamonn McCabe also noted the impact of the modern media on the public. "Now we have this 24-hour coverage. People are watching television 24 hours a day, like some almost obscene film. [But] these films don't last an hour and a half, they last for weeks," McCabe said.

Apart from the question of what is right and proper for the public to see and hear is the issue of the propaganda value of how things are reported. For instance, an editorial that appeared in Britain's conservative "The Daily Telegraph" on 25 March lamented the Western media's concentration on mishaps by allied forces that "paint a picture that must delight Saddam Hussein." In other words, the paper is worried that coverage of the Iraq war could provide propaganda for Baghdad.

On the other hand, Inayat Bunglawala, an official with the Muslim Council of Britain, writing in "The Times" of London on 25 March, referred to Al-Jazeera images of Iraqi civilian casualties and posed the question: Is this the "liberation" that the United States "promised the Iraqi people"? In other words, is he using the images to score propaganda points himself?

On this issue, Hughes said: "Inevitably, pictures of wounded civilians, especially children, or dead children, are going to be both true pictures of the horrors of war and also used for propaganda purposes. I think the media has to put them in their proper context, and then in that sense one can avoid the propaganda element."

With the Iraq war little more than one week old, it's too early to say what impact media coverage is going to have on public opinion. But if the fighting drags on, that should become clearer.

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