For all the round-the-clock coverage of the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the media has been markedly absent from the actual conflict zones. Given the serious risks involved, this is understandable. If ISIL’s atrocities against civilians and executions of journalists are not enough to dissuade correspondents, the release this week of its rules by which the media must abide makes any credible reporting not only dangerous but impossible.
Journalists have to swear allegiance to ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and their work must be under the exclusive supervision of its media offices. Reporters are forbidden from working “in any way” with blacklisted TV channels, among them regional heavyweights such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Most worryingly, “the rules are not final and are subject to change at any time,” so journalists could never be sure if they were breaking them.
However, the danger comes not only from ISIL, but from the various forces that are bombing its positions. The Iraqi and Syrian armies have shown a blatant disregard for civilian life, while there have been eyewitness accounts of atrocities by Iranian-led Shia militias that have captured territory from ISIL.
Journalists would also be at risk from US-led coalition warplanes, which have caused civilian deaths and bombed civilian targets. Anyone who thinks these will be isolated incidents should think again. The White House acknowledged at the end of September that strict standards President Barack Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from US drone strikes do not apply to US military operations in Syria and Iraq.
This is alarming enough without factoring in that according to US officials this month, almost 90 percent of airstrikes have been carried out by US warplanes. As such, civilian suffering at the hands of coalition aircraft is not only inevitable, but viewed by Washington as acceptable.
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Given all these dangers, journalists can be forgiven for viewing assignments in the conflict zones as suicide missions. The nearest they dare go is within visible distance of smoke clouds on the horizon, or close enough to hear gunfire or explosions in the background – not close enough to see what, or who, is being struck.
More often than not, however, correspondents are reporting from neighbouring countries on events they are nowhere near.
The result is that audiences are getting a woefully incomplete picture. The media is having to rely on statements by the warring parties – with all the propaganda that entails – and on second-hand sources whose accuracy and credibility cannot be checked. Without the ability to verify claims and counter-claims, media outlets are little more than mouthpieces, whether they want to be or not.
Instead of actual reporting from the scene, there is a plethora of press conferences, tweets, TV pundits and grainy aerial video footage. There are agendas behind all these avenues of disseminating information. The media knows this, but is unable to do much about it due to the aforementioned risks.
Certain outlets may also be willing play along, either because they are owned by governments that are involved in the fight against ISIL, or out of a sense of patriotism and support for “our troops”.
We are witnessing another packaged, choreographed war, one where the most common image is that of Obama talking assuredly in front of a microphone. Interviews and pictures of a beaming Emirati female fighter pilot are everywhere, and her participation as a woman is celebrated, but where are the photos of Syrian civilians – including women and children – killed by coalition bombing? We know nothing of them, their backgrounds, achievements, hopes and fears. They are mere statistics – worse, a PR inconvenience.
Lack of media access has always been a problem in war, but this particular one has taken it to a new level, particularly compared to the region’s other conflicts. Embedding journalists with troops has become a hallmark of reporting since the 1991 Gulf war, despite obvious problems in terms of access and impartiality. Embedding inherently favours the militarily stronger side – it is safer for journalists to be with troops doing the bombing than those being bombed.
However, even in conflicts with glaring imbalances of power, the media have managed to have a presence behind “enemy” lines. For example, Al Jazeera made its name in Iraq and Afghanistan, often being the only international news outlet with correspondents in flashpoints deemed too dangerous or undesirable by others.
Despite stringent government restrictions since the Arab Spring began, the media have managed – with varying degrees of success – to get the people’s story across. However, the media’s absence on the ground in Iraq and Syria today is particularly stark.
Social media and citizen journalism have filled the void, adding to a trend over the years whereby traditional media are losing influence and relevance. However, while more and more people are using social media as news sources and outlets, these sites are as much a platform for misinformation as information. Too often, rumours, falsehoods and conspiracy theories are spread and unquestioned.
While citizen journalism has proved invaluable when media access is restricted, too much of a reliance on the former is problematic in terms of objectivity and professionalism. After all, anyone can be a citizen journalist if they are in the right place at the right time with a mobile phone, and they are no less prone to agendas than any other news source. Coverage of the campaign against ISIL may be abundant, but that does not mean audiences are well informed.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.