The appalling massacre of 108 people, including 49 children, in Houla, Syria, dominated the Independent on Sunday’s latest front cover. Above a few short lines of commentary the banner headline read:
‘SYRIA: THE WORLD LOOKS THE OTHER WAY. WILL YOU?’
The text beneath observed:
‘There is, of course, supposed to be a ceasefire, which the brutal Assad regime simply ignores. And the international community? It just averts its gaze. Will you do the same? Or will the sickening fate of these innocent children make you very, very angry?’ (Independent on Sunday, May 27, 2012)
Readers, then, knew exactly where to direct their anger - the 'brutal' Syrian 'regime' was responsible for the massacre.
It is not quite true that the 'international community' has averted its gaze. And the Syrian government is not the only party to have violated the April 12 ceasefire. Earlier this month, four weeks into the attempted pause in fighting, the Washington Post reported:
‘Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.’
The weapons were having an impact:
‘The effect of the new arms appeared evident in Monday’s clash between opposition and government forces over control of the rebel-held city of Rastan, near Homs. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel forces who overran a government base had killed 23 Syrian soldiers.’
This kind of detail was not allowed to disturb the trans-spectrum media insistence that Assad, and Assad alone, was responsible for the slaughter of innocents in Houla. Nobody reading and watching the national media could come to any other conclusion. Also in the Independent on Sunday, David Randall wrote bitterly:
‘He is the President; she is the First Lady; they are dead children. He governs but doesn't protect; she shops and doesn't care… And one hopes that those on the United Nations Security Council, when it reconvenes, will look into the staring eyes of these dead children and remember the hollow words of Assad's wife when she simpered that she “comforts the families” of her country's victims.’
In March, US soldier Robert Bales shot dead 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children, in a night-time massacre in a village outside a US base in southern Afghanistan. The Guardian reported:
‘Among the dead was a young girl in a green and red dress who had been shot in the forehead. The bodies of other victims appeared partially burned. A villager claimed they had been wrapped in blankets and set on fire by the killer.’
What kind of evidence would the media need before finding Barack Obama (and even Michelle Obama) personally responsible for this or any other massacre? Clearly, the involvement of US forces would need to be confirmed beyond doubt. They would need to have been acting under orders. Presumably Obama would need to have signed these orders, or at least to have been aware of them and agreed to them on some level.
But in the case of the Syrian leader, direct personal responsibility was attributed instantly, even before the killers had been identified. Within hours of the massacre being reported, a cartoon by Martin Rowson in the Observer depicted Assad with his mouth and face smeared with the blood of children. In the Independent, Assad was shown sitting in a bath filled with blood.
We challenged Rowson on Twitter: ‘On what actual evidence about the massacre in Houla is your cartoon based?’
We were asking what sources Rowson could offer indicating that Syrian forces were responsible, indeed that Assad was himself personally responsible. Rowson replied:
‘I have no more evidence than media & UN reports, like anyone else. Also used cartoonist's hunch - are you saying I'm wrong?’
We asked: ‘Would you rely on a "hunch" in depicting Obama and Cameron with mouths smeared with the blood of massacred children?’
Rowson continued: ‘Or are you saying I need New Yorker levels of verification for every story I cover? I'm a cartoonist, for f*ck's sake...'
Media Lens: ‘But shouldn't a cartoon also be based on fundamentally rational analysis, on credible evidence?'
We repeatedly and politely asked Rowson to supply some of the evidence (links to articles, quotes) that had informed his thinking. We received numerous and varied responses but no mention of evidence. Instead, Rowson erupted:
‘[Media Lens] has succeeded in riling me. Well done. If I'm proved worng I'll apologise. Meanwhile, f*ck off & annoy someone else.’
And: ‘No time for this anymore. Sorry. I stand convicted as a c*nt. End of...’
But Rowson did continue Tweeting and explained: ‘I'm answering you out of politeness…’
He finally pointed to one sentence in a BBC article quoting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:
‘There is no doubt that the government used artillery and tanks and this has been reported by UN observers who have visited the scene.’
This single sentence, Rowson claimed, 'seems to nail it'.
This was indeed the initial Western focus in blaming the Syrian government. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said:
‘We are appalled at what appears to be credible reports that the Syrian regime has been responsible for the deaths of 92 civilians in Houla, including 32 children. The UN Head of Mission has been able to confirm the numbers and also that artillery tank shells have been used. If this is the case then it's an act of pure, naked savagery and we condemn it in the most strongest possible terms.’ (Our emphasis)
But it turns out that shelling was not the major cause of deaths. Associated Press has more recently reported:
‘The U.N.'s human rights office said most of the 108 victims were shot execution-style at close range, with fewer than 20 people cut down by regime shelling.’
Also, if Rowson felt that the quote from Lavrov justified blaming Assad solely and personally for the massacre, he should have checked the previous sentence, also from Lavrov:
‘We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people…’
The exchange with Rowson is available, in full, here......
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