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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 18:20 GMT 19:20 UK
The media's fault?
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

We live in a world where the means of communication are so sophisticated and swift that they can stir up violent emotions almost instantly in some of the least advanced countries in the world.

As a result policies are destroyed, buildings are torched, and people killed even before the initial report can be verified.

Anti-US riot in Afghanistan
At least 15 died in Afghanistan in riots sparked by the allegations
On 9 May, the US magazine Newsweek printed a paragraph that read: "Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell Newsweek: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Koran down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash."

The item, with its reference to the mistreatment of the Koran, was spotted by someone on the Arabic-language television news channel al-Jazeera and broadcast as a news report.

Since then, there have been violent riots in at least six areas: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, the Palestinian territories and Indonesia. A dozen or more people have died.

A spokesman for the Pentagon in Washington put the blame squarely on Newsweek. "People are dying," he said. "They are burning American flags. Our forces are in danger."

Strong accusations

The pressure was on Newsweek to retract its report. The magazine checked with its source - a senior US official - who confirmed that he had come across references to the mistreatment of the Koran in the results of an US investigation into the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.

But he was no longer certain that they had come from the specific report he had originally named.

These are not even the first allegations that US guards and interrogators have desecrated the Koran in order to frighten prisoners or humiliate them.

Guantanamo prisoner
There are a number of allegations of anti-Islamic acts at Guantanamo
On his website the respected US authority on the Middle East, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, carries a despatch from the Italian news agency Ansa on 18 August 2004. It quotes accusations from former Guantanamo prisoners that a Koran was thrown into a toilet.

Perhaps these specific allegations are true, and perhaps they are not. But people tend to believe them, because there have been so many other allegations of deliberate anti-Islamic acts from Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq - of prisoners being forced against their religious convictions to shave their beards, and even to eat pig-meat.

The shaving clearly happened: there is pictorial evidence for that. As for the forcible feeding of pork and bacon, and the desecration of the Koran itself, these things have not been proven. But such reports are instantly believed across the Islamic world.

So should Newsweek have reported the Koran allegation, given its inflammatory nature? It looks very much as though the magazine's editors had no idea that it would be taken up so widely, or cause so much trouble.

And what about al-Jazeera? Should it have rebroadcast it, knowing how fiercely the allegation would be received by Muslims around the world?

Media under fire

The weakness of the story lies, as the Pentagon spotted immediately, in the vagueness of its sourcing, though Newsweek was perfectly clear that the source was an official who had seen the detail about the Koran in an official report.

With hindsight, perhaps, the magazine would have been more comfortable if it had had more details. But it did not try to deceive its readers about the story.

Yet since this was by no means the first time that allegations of the desecration of the Koran by US guards and interrogators have emerged, Newsweek may not have been as concerned as it might otherwise have been.

Man burns a US flag
Violent anti-US protests were also staged in Pakistan
What about al-Jazeera's part in the affair? Well, if news broadcasting is about telling people what is of interest to them, then the station was only doing its job - even if that job is something which the UK and US governments often dislike and suspect. (A leading adviser to the White House habitually calls al-Jazeera "the enemy".) All al-Jazeera did was to report what Newsweek was saying.

It is hard to avoid the inference that the people who are really to blame are the men and women who have abused their prisoners, not those who have reported allegations about the ill treatment.

What happened in prisons like Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib after 2001 has done serious damage to the United States and its allies: not just the dwindling number who still have troops in Iraq, but the new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Do not blame the news media for this. Instead, all the effort needs to go into convincing the world that the abuse has stopped, and will never be allowed to start again.


Your comments

Mr Simpson, writing for a major media outlet, decides the media is without blame or responsibility. Why does that not surprise me? The fact that it is hard enough to get a large wad of paper down a toilet, never mind a book, appears to make the story suspect and in need of further verification. Of course, not being a trained journalist, I've only common sense to guide me. It is known that the media is used and manipulated by all sides. Verification is more important than ever and the responsibility of the media.
Steve Mac, Boston, MA, USA

I cannot agree more with your statement that the abuse has to stop. Torture is still continuing, and prisoners are humiliated, beaten, sexually abused and on occasions get killed. Detention camps in Iraq are still full of detainees on suspicion only, with no charges and no proof of any committed crime. Human rights are still badly abused in Iraq, shaking the image of USA and its allies more and more in the eyes of the Iraqi people.
Anonymous, Baghdad, Iraq

Mr Simpson is right, don't blame the messenger. However, the real problem is that any perceived slight or insult to Islam triggers off uncritical belief in the veracity of the report and hysterical reaction. This mind-set is the problem, not the reporting, which, incidentally, could have benefited from editorial judgement!
Meira, Israel

The media do sometimes do good, but they also sometimes do bad. The media report things all of the time with little apparent thought as to the ramifications and consequences beyond getting the glory of a story, competition within their own world or in the sleazier cases if the story is actually true. They are certainly not beyond reporting the facts in such a way as to allow people to get a false impression for the sake of a good story - I have seen evidence of that first hand. It is not for nothing that they are often held in a similar level of esteem to, say politicians. After all they can always fall back on the mantle of public interest.
Phil Andrews, Essex, UK

Newsweek should get a failing grade for reporting, but should not take the blame for the crimes of others. I will defend Newsweek's freedom to perform badly in reporting the news. I mean no respect for Newsweek of the article, for I have none. But the blame for riots should be on the rioters.
Jamuna Singh, Houston, USA

The White House demands a retraction and seeks more from Newsweek in regard to an article later to have been found to have used information from an unreliable source. When does the White House issue its apology for going to war on bad intelligence from an unreliable source? When will the Pentagon retract its troops?
Beth Mengel, South Bend, US

I think it is highly irresponsible for Newsweek to have published such story knowing how Muslims are sensitive about their holy book.
Lester Eghagha, Lagos, Nigeria

These accusations that "the news media" are reckless, power-mad glory hounds are ridiculous generalizations. Reporters are individuals, news organizations have a wide range of standards - some worthy of criticism, others meriting respect. I've long admired Newsweek's Michael Isikoff as one of the most responsible reporters in the business. The fact he offered his resignation over this terrible matter enhances my opinion.
Stacy Jenel Smith, Los Angeles, USA

It is America's own doing that it has created this air of distrust through its actions and policies, not the media's fault for giving people news which it felt was correct. And what is the alternative - to start restricting news coverage?
A, Berkshire, UK

Mr Simpson's attempt to say the media is not responsible for the violence is no different that the commanding officers of the abusing troops saying they are not responsible for the actions of the people under their command.
Dennis Myhand, Victoria, Texas, USA

In these days of the world-wide web both Newsweek and Al-Jazeera must have known that what they reported would reach a wide audience. Given the nature of the allegations and the known sensitivity of many who received the stories from these sources, the likelihood of violence and danger to life was a foreseeable result. Whatever the blame attaching to the original perpetrators of such deeds the media must act responsibly and not spread insufficiently verified 'newsworthy' material of an inflammatory nature.
Stuart West, Netanya, Israel

Mr. Simpson makes a far too often overlooked point. Speaking as a Muslim American, I can attest to the fact that this is an epidemic in our society - blame whatever it is that lies upon the surface of the problem but don't dare go beyond it. We tend to rarely look at such incidents holistically. Rather, it's easier to condemn the apparent - especially if someone is willing to point it out for us.
Zain C, Seattle, USA

When will the media stop making excuses for its own irresponsibility? Of course the originators of the acts are horribly to blame! But so are people who, fully conversant with the explosive situation between Muslims and the free world, are prepared to stir the pot. In my view, this is at worst deliberate manipulation by the media of a bad situation in order to make money, and at the very least complete stupidity and lack of thought process. Either way, it's criminal, and the media should start to exercise accountability and responsibility.
Jodie Holloway, Roydon, Norfolk

The media do sometimes do good, but they also sometimes do bad. The media report things all of the time with little apparent thought as to the ramifications and consequences beyond getting the glory of a story, competition within their own world or in the sleazier cases if the story is actually true. They are certainly not beyond reporting the facts in such a way as to allow people to get a false impression for the sake of a good story - I have seen evidence of that first hand. It is not for nothing that they are often held in a similar level of esteem to, say politicians... After all they can always fall back on the mantle of public interest.
Phil Andrews, Essex, UK

I was very shocked that Newsweek would be so fallible as to print less-than-properly-validated news items and then have to retract the piece. For Newsweek or any other publication to print anything that has not gone through due verification is irresponsible.
Yoke Mui, Malaysia

The media wields enormous power and influence with little to no accountability and closes ranks whenever the spotlight could be turned on itself. The days are coming when the media will go the same way as politics and people will view it with apathetic indifference. Your responsibility is to awaken and educate people's consciences not dull and sear them. Its time you got out of the profitable business of information and into the vocation of responsible reporting for other's benefits.
Graham Stevenson, Arusha, Tanzania

Absolute rubbish Mr Simpson. "Don't blame the media".? You guys deliberately cause all the outrage, Newsweek was wrong and admitted being wrong/so why shouldn't the public blame the media? The media has to accept it makes mistakes just as anyone else, but it is in a position of power and influence, and must be very careful. I do blame the media, you all know that you are adding fuel to the fire.
Patrick Emerson, Oxford

I disagree with John when he states "It is hard to avoid the inference that the people who are really to blame are the men and women who have abused their prisoners, not those who have reported allegations about the ill treatment" surely the true blame lies at the feet of the rioters and radicals who will jump on any excuse to burn kill and maim innocent people.
Jim C, Aberdeen, UK

Very well spoken Mr. Simpson. All you have said is very true, honest and practical. You were very objective. This is the way we want all writers, journalists and reporters to be. Tell the truth.
Magda Mostafa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates




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SEE ALSO:
Newsweek withdraws Koran report
17 May 05 |  Americas


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