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<From an open letter to the New York Times> A disturbing pattern of inaccuracy runs through four recent New York Times articles on Iraq. The cumulative effect of these distortions is a) to obscure the severity of Iraq's humanitarian tragedy, b) to deflect blame for this disaster from U.S. policies, and c) to diminish the emotional impact of the tragedy by dehumanizing the victims. These are serious charges, but shouldn't be taken as blanket condemnation of the paper nor of the reporters involved. The Times remains a flagship of mainstream American journalism, and it continues to report news on this topic others miss, such as Douglas Jehl's informed report on the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Iraq (September 20). However, given the stature of the Times - and its vast reach through the syndicated market - it's vital that it cover Iraq fairly and with an intellectual honesty commensurate with its reputation. The articles of concern are: "Children's Death Rates Rising in Iraqi Lands, Unicef Reports" (by Barbara Crossette, August 13, 1999) "Do More to Aid Nourishment of Very Young, U.N. Tells Iraq" (by Barbara Crossette, August 24, 1999) "As Iraqis Starve, U.S. Asserts, Their Leaders Live in Luxury" (by Philip Shenon, September 14, 1999) "Major Nations Report Progress on Pact to Ease Sanctions on Iraq" (by Alan Cowell, September 15, 1999) ------------------------------------ >> "CHILDREN'S DEATH RATES RISING IN IRAQI LANDS, UNICEF REPORTS" (by Barbara Crossette, August 13, 1999) Background: On August 12, UNICEF released their preliminary report on "Child and Maternal Mortality" in Iraq, the first large-scale independent survey since 1991. The Times' story summarizing the report ran 19 paragraphs and was widely syndicated. The distortions in this report are: UNICEF "EXCESS DEATH" ESTIMATE NOT REPORTED The most notable distortion is an omission. UNICEF - in their press release and in their report - estimated that 500,000 excess deaths occurred among Iraqi toddlers and infants since sanctions began. Yet somehow, the Times chose not to report this number. Instead, the report includes a chalkboard full of more obscure and bloodlessly clinical data: mortality rates. The figures were valid, though obfuscatory and unscaled (only the ratios were reported, not the corresponding population estimates). A question for your staff: Can they define the calculations implicit in morbidity rates, mortality rates, and fertility rates? Can your readers? SYNTHETIC ARAB GRIEF The report not only hid the extent of the Iraqi disaster; it also masked its emotional consequences. The following statement is both offensive and insidious: "When important foreign visitors go to Baghdad, funerals of children are staged in the streets." What precisely is the point being made here? How better to mask the emotional impact of the death of half a million children than by invoking the "other" and implying their grief is somehow false and not deeply felt. As commentator Ali Abunimah has noted in another context, the "information can roughly be paraphrased thus: 'The emotions, feelings and perceptions these Arabs have are usually not real (unlike 'ours,' which are real), and so we can discount them. ... ... If it is just a frenzy, or 'staged' by an undemocratic government, then (the policies are) okay ... because they do not really suffer like 'us' .'" BIASED EXPLANATION OF NORTH/SOUTH DIFFERENCES Girded with two undeniable facts (that Saddam Hussein is brutal and that conditions in UN-controlled Iraqi Kurdistan are better than in the UN-monitored, Saddam-controlled south), the Times allows the State Department's James Rubin an unchallenged assertion: Saddam has manipulated conditions, causing depredation to force an end to sanctions. Unfortunately, the full story is not this simple -- nor as comforting to the American conscience. Sanctions are simply *not* the same in the north and south. In releasing the report, UNICEF's executive director, Ms. Carol Bellamy, explained the differences in Iraqi mortality rates as follows: the Kurdish north has been receiving humanitarian assistance for longer than the remainder of Iraq, agriculture in the north is better, evading sanctions is easier (the northern borders being far more porous); in addition, the north receives 22% more per capita from the Oil for Food program than the center/south, and the north gets about 10% of all UN-controlled assistance in currency, while the rest of the country receives only commodities. The Times should have carried the explanatory comments of the agency authoring the report. THE LAVISH PALACES OF SADDAM HUSSEIN The article notes "... with oil sales blocked, (Saddam) chose to spend what money was available on lavish palaces and construction projects." In addition to using a loaded code phrase ("lavish palaces" is favored by State Department publicists), this statement is historically inaccurate. In the years before oil-for-food, it's important to remember that the Iraqi government was distributing food to its civilian population. The rationing system that began in September 1990 was described by the FAO in 1995 as follows: "... The food basket supplied through the rationing system is a life-saving nutritional benefit which also represents a very substantial income subsidy to Iraqi households ... " Therefore - even in these early years - the claim that Saddam diverted all funds to personal use is simply not true. And of course, since the implementation of oil-for-food, Saddam has absolutely no control over the program's monies. Saddam's palaces (and, yes, they do provide an obscene contrast with the country's impoverishment) are likely financed by smuggling and black market operations; ironically, but not unexpectedly, these have flourished under the embargo. WAREHOUSED MEDICINES The article states "... Iraq appears to be warehousing medicines ..." in a context that implies malicious intent, stockpiling and diversion. This is misleading. The warehousing of medicines is heavily monitored by the UN and is acknowledged by local UN administration and staff to be caused by logistical problems stemming from 9 years of sanctions and lingering Gulf War damage. Periodic UN reports on the humanitarian programs in Iraq list many technical issues that complicate providing medicine to a country of 22 million people. Obstacles to efficient distribution include: low wages of Iraqi warehouses workers, insufficient transport, and the poor condition of Iraqi warehouses in the provinces hinders distribution of medical supplies. A lack of cash in the hands of Iraqi authorities also makes it difficult to insure shipments will be paid for and therefore go through. The Iraqi government has to overcome numerous obstacles put up by the sanctions to even find suppliers of medicines. In addition, the Iraqi government did not do a good job finding the right-sized companies to distribute medicine. In addition, the UN Security Council has delayed for months approving the distribution contracts. The UN Security Council has not approved the refrigerator trucks required to transport the medicine nor the computers necessary to run the inventory system. Inefficiencies in the Iraqi Ministry of Health also hurt efforts to distribute medicines. ------------------------------------ >> "DO MORE TO AID NOURISHMENT OF VERY YOUNG, U.N. TELLS IRAQ" (by Barbara Crossette, August 24, 1999) Background: On August 23, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan released his latest report on the Iraqi oil-for-food program. The press-watch group FAIR has exhaustively criticized the Times' coverage of this report. See http://www.fair.org/activism/nyt-iraq.html ------------------------------------ >> "AS IRAQIS STARVE, U.S. ASSERTS, THEIR LEADERS LIVE IN LUXURY" (by Philip Shenon, September 14, 1999) Background: On September 13, the U.S. State Department began a publicity offensive to argue that Saddam Hussein remained repressive and dangerous, and that he alone was responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people under sanctions. The opening salvo was a State Department report and a briefing by spokesman James Rubin and Assistant Secretary Martin Indyk. To their credit, the State Department's report - while grossly misleading in its analysis and self-serving in its conclusions - was (generally) factually accurate. However, the Times' coverage of this event was error-riddled, containing charges beyond even those made by the State Department. FALSE: "BILLIONS OF OIL-FOR-FOOD MONIES ARE UNSPENT" The article states, "And billions of dollars made available to Iraq to buy food and medicine under the program have gone unspent." This statement is simply untrue, and the State Department did not make this claim. FALSE: "IRAQ HAS STOCKPILED FOOD AND MEDICINE" The article states Iraq has "stockpiled" food and medicine -- a loaded term, as it implies government hoarding and diversion. For this reason, the word "stockpiled" was assiduously avoided by the State Department in both their briefing and report. The UN *has* reported significant quantities of warehoused medicines in Iraq (see above discussion), but this is laid to logistical problems - not to hoarding. Further, the State Department's report correctly notes this warehousing occurs for medicines, only - not for food (as the Times incorrectly states). FALSE: "UNSCOM WAS THROWN OUT OF IRAQ" As background, the article claims "UNSCOM was thrown out of Iraq". This is untrue. UNSCOM head Richard Butler withdrew the inspectors just prior to Desert Fox at a time when cooperation with UNSCOM was on hold amid spy charges, later proven true. ------------------------------------ >> "MAJOR NATIONS REPORT PROGRESS ON PACT TO EASE SANCTIONS ON IRAQ" (by Alan Cowell, September 15, 1999) Background: In an effort to break the stalemate on Iraq, the five permanent members of the Security Council held a pre-session meeting in London. The Times' report on this meeting has been criticized for its bias by commentator Ali Abunimah; see his report at http://www.abunimah.org/features/990916nytlies.html. ------------------------------------ ------------------------------------ In summary, an epic disaster has occurred for which U.S. policies share blame; however, the scope, cause, and emotional impact of this tragedy have been obscured by the New York Times. This story won't remain hidden and it won't go away. There are tens of thousands of concerned, informed readers of your paper (armed with, literally, hundreds of web sites) who are increasingly aware of the failures in your paper's coverage. And unlike the old days, the Internet now makes the original sources available to us all. Please do a better job covering this story. Regards, Drew Hamre Golden Valley, MN ------------------------------------  For the UNICEF estimate (500,000 excess deaths of children under five), see http://www.unicef.org/newsline/99pr29.htm (paragraph 4, beginning "Ms. Bellamy ..."), and also http://www.unicef.org/reseval/iraq.htm ("A note on estimation of under-five deaths").  See http://www.abunimah.org/nprletters/990726grief.html  Reported by the Associated Press, August 12, 1999  Communication with Professor Richard Garfield of Columbia University. Garfield is an epidemiologist who studies the health effects of sanctions, and this information was in an unpublished letter to editor of the Times.  The UN's Office of the Iraq Program issues reports quarterly and in response to specific events. See http://www.un.org/Depts/oip/  Refer to the transcripts of conversations with the current and former UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq, available at http://www.scn.org/ccpi/  The State Department's report and briefing transcript are available online: > Report: http://www.usia.gov/regional/nea/iraq/iraq99.htm > Transcript: http://www.state.gov/www/policy_remarks/1999/990913_indyk_rubin.html  See, for example, the web directory at http://headlines.yahoo.com/Full_Coverage/World/Iraq_U_S_/ -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------- This is a discussion list run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To be removed/added, email firstname.lastname@example.org, NOT the whole list. Please do not send emails with attached files to the list *** Archived at http://linux.clare.cam.ac.uk/~saw27/casi/discuss.html ***