Posted on Friday, February 18 - As the world awaits the trials of Saddam Hussein and the upper echelons of his former regime, expected to start this spring, the media itself has gone on trial in Rome. The charge was complicity in the build-up to the war in Iraq and during the war itself, as journalists, media experts, legal experts and peace activists gathered at the Roma Tre University for the start of the three-day World Tribunal on Iraq.
The World Tribunal movement (WTI) began shortly after the US-led war in Iraq, as people from Japan to America to Turkey almost simultaneously came up with the idea of holding a tribunal, rather than another demonstration, to channel their frustrations. The idea, in the words of one of the organisers in Rome, was to create, "a solid effort to establish the truth and record it against the constant re-writing of history."
Rome is the 16th session of the worldwide mock court dedicated to Iraq over the past year and due to wrap up in Turkey's capital, Istanbul, in June. The decision to put the media in the dock is incredibly timely, believes Tahrir Swift, an Iraqi peace campaigner and director of Arab Media Watch, in London, where she has lived since leaving her home country some 25 years ago.
"The other day Tony Blair stood up and said 'I have no doubt that Iran is a sponsor of state terrorism' and two years ago he stood up and said 'I have no doubt that Iraq possesses active programmes of weapons of mass destruction'. How can this man have the audacity to say things like that? And unfortunately people seem to have short memories," she says.
This is why Swift believes the tribunal is performing an important role by documenting these actions and their consequences. "Tony Blair has been telling the British people to stop talking about Iraq and move on. Well, Iím sorry, the people of Fallujah canít move on. The families of the 100,000 Iraqis who were killed canít move on," she stresses firmly.
Malaysian legal academic Jayan Nayar from the People's Law Programme who came up with the idea of focusing, at the Rome tribunal, on the media's role. He organised the session, which he says, "is arguing for a language of accountability, a language of culpability which does not exist in terms of media violation. The notion of media violation does not exist in media law. That does not make the suffering any less," he said.
Nayar dismisses any accusation that they are going "on the attack" against journalists, stating that they want to uphold the very fundamental principles of the profession. "The New York Times comes out and says 'Sorry, we did a bad job'. Thatís not good enough," he insists. "That bad job has a consequence - more than a hundred thousand innocent civilians being murdered. So what we mean by disinformation has to be made explicit. These have human and social consequences and we want this to be recognised."
One person who plans to defend the media when he addresses the tribunal on Saturday is Professor David Miller, editor of the book 'Tell Me Lies - Propaganda and Distortion in the Attack on Iraq'. "I'll be defending the right of the freedom to report, because the whole philosophy of US and UK propaganda is that you simply eliminate that," he says. Miller argues that this is a new philosophy which the Pentagon lovingly refers to as "Information dominance", in which information is only see as "helpful or unhelpful to them, friendly or unfriendly".
"Unfriendly info they have to 'deny, degrade or destroy', that is a quote from a US military document, so you simply try to annihilate every bit of information that is unhelpful to your cause," Miller says. And that, he believes, is the context in which the huge number of attacks on journalists should be viewed. When asked if he is surprised at the willingness of so many journalists and news organisations to swallow all they were told by the US and UK governments, his response is emphatic; "Not surprised. Appalled, outraged, but not surprised."
What becomes apparent from talking to those taking part, whether as witnesses, advocates or simply observers, is the vast difference between the reporting of independent journalists and that of the mainstream media.
Paola Gasparoli is an aid worker with the Italian organisation 'Un Ponte per...' (A Bridge to...), whose colleagues Simona Torretta and Simona Pari were kidnapped in Iraq in September. She was based in Iraq until August last yearand says the world is missing what is really going on inside Iraqi families and Iraqi society.
She is still amazed by the behaviour of journalists from the mainstream media, "If your way to be a journalist in Baghdad is to go out in the big car with black windows, and the guard and the big camera, of course you cannot approach Iraqis in a nice way." How do the independent journalists manage to do their job properly while the others don't? she asks. "Because perhaps the independent journalists have a different attitude," she offers, in answer to her own question. The Italian newspaper journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, who was kidnapped a week ago in Iraq, was one of those who really went out into the street, she says.
Another reporter who places great emphasis on talking to the Iraqi people is American Dahr Jamail, who was in Fallujah during the first US military seige in April 2004. "The mainstream journalists go out with the flack jackets and security guards and guns and what kind of information are you going to get from people like that? Versus me. We go in, we eat lunch with people, have tea with them, sit around and really talk," he says.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Jamail says he is regularly criticised for what he writes. He will present a short film shot a week ago by a friend who got into Fallujah pretending to be an aid worker. The film shows some of devastation caused by American bombs and clashes with militants, which left some 60 per cent of the city devastated. Ever since coming out, he says, his friend has been really ill and believes it is the effect of some of the weapons the US military used there.
Jamail works with just one interpreter and says he grows a beard to look more local. They drive around in a beaten-up car, never settle into a routine and will often drive around for a long time in case they are being followed. This paid off, when he got the story about the abuse in Abu Ghraib, long before the mainstream media, after finding a man who said he had been detained, electrocuted and beaten into a coma.
At least it should have paid off. "He had the marks all over his body, we had the pictures, I mean it was a cut and dried case, we had army doctor complicity in hiding what happened," he says. "We wrote it up and sent it out to every major newspaper in the US by email. We only got one response and that was - this is not news" But why would they say that? Jamail shrugs his shoulders, "I don't know, that's the question."
In the end, it took photographs leaked to the mainstream media by a soldier appalled at what had been going on, that really brought the abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison to the world's attention.
Danny Schechter, on the other hand, is a former mainstream media journalist, having worked for CNN and ABC. He is now described as being to the media what US film director Michael Moore is to US politicians. Schechter, who calls himself "the News Dissecter", has produced a book and film called 'Weapons of Mass Deception' and is now editor of Mediachannel.org, a global media watchdog organisation.
"Journalists are supposed to perform a watchdog function, not a lapdog function," he states emphatically. "I'm here to explain how that could happen, why that happened, and also to appeal to my colleagues in the media world to take responsibility for what they write, to try to understand in many ways how they are being used and orchestrated to help governments."
He is unflinching in his condemnation of the American network coverage in the run-up to the war. "Cheerleaders" he brands them, pointing out that from the build-up to the moment Saddam's statue came down in Baghdad, out of 800 experts used by all the channels, only six opposed the war.
But he admits that with the Pentagon having a massive information directorate, it is very difficult to offer a counter-narrative. "Embedded media covered Iraq as an American invader, not how the Iraqi civilian population were affected by it," he says.
And that, of course, came after five months of demonisation of Saddam Hussein. "Impressions and images drive understanding, not information and analysis," he states, and cites poll figures used in his film; "Eighty per cent of Bush voters think there are WMDs in Iraq, even after he himself said there werenít, and 42 per cent believe there were Iraqi hijackers on the planes that attacked the World Trade Centre, even though no-one ever reported it".
This may not be your standard trial, with clearly defined prosecution and defence teams, as most of those taking part share similar views. However, Fabio Marcelli from the Italian Legal Experts association - who was an international observer for the trial of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti - isn't concerned about that; "Iím not worried about them being on one side," he says, "because they are all on the side of peace."