Weaponising the media normalises war and undermines democracy, making it ever harder to reach or accept a peaceful settlement
04 May 2022 | Marwan Bishara | Al Jazeera English
The war in Ukraine, like all wars, was born of sin – a terrible sin that has so far led to the death of thousands, the destruction of entire cities and the displacement of millions, with untold ramifications for global security.
But whose sin was it?
It was certainly not Ukraine’s. The insistence of its inexperienced president on NATO membership may have been unwise, but it was no crime.
It must have been Russia’s, obviously. Or was it – albeit not so obvious – America’s sin?
Washington and its pundits regard Putin’s Kremlin as the source of all evil. They accuse the Russian president of harbouring authoritarian and imperial ambitions reminiscent of those seen in 19th century imperial Russia, and waging a bloody war to dismember or annex large parts of a sovereign state, Ukraine. They claim in the process he is destabilising Europe and changing the world order.
Quite the feat.
Moscow and its pundits, on the other hand, see Washington as the source of all international malevolence, interfering in Ukraine politics and using Kyiv to undermine Russia’s security. They claim the expansion of NATO right up to its borders left Moscow with no choice but to intervene to defend its vital interests and protect Russian nationals against Western supported “Ukrainian Nazis”.
Quite the stretch.
So, who is right and who is wrong here?
The answer lies in an old parable about a man who goes to the village elder to complain about his neighbour. “You are right,” says the elder. And when the neighbour comes to make similar complaint, the elder declares that he is “right, too”. But “how could both be right?” protests the elder’s son, “when only one can be!” “You are right too, my son,” proclaims the elder.
Though not an elder, I also reckon both sides may be right, as I too hope to be.
Russia has indeed invaded under false pretences. If it had any real grievances against Kyiv or Washington, Moscow could have taken the UN or the international legal route. It had the clout to do so effectively. Instead, it chose war – a crude and antiquated conventional war.
The Kremlin knows all too well that a good deal of the trouble in Ukraine is of its own doing. It helped trigger this episode by annexing Crimea, and encouraging secession in the eastern provinces to destabilise the country after Kyiv turned westward in early 2014.
The Russian leader has made clear on a number of occasions that Ukraine holds a particularly special place in Russia’s heart, and that he was not going to let go of it.
Putin believes, as he explained in an article published last summer, “Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole”. This would have been a lovely sentiment if only it were not also imperial at heart.
It is sadism masquerading as “tough love“. In short, Ukraine is indispensable for Russian imperial revival.
What is happening in Ukraine is also part of a pattern. The Kremlin intervened in former republics of the Soviet Union like Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan as part of the same imperial ambition.
For his part, Putin claims to be acting defensively against hostile US intervention in Russia’s sphere of influence. He has criticised, even condemned the Western-led “rules-based world order”, or rather disorder driven by unrelenting US violations of international law, including interference in the internal affairs of states, the world over.
He has accused the US of insisting on putting Ukraine and Georgia on an immediate path towards NATO membership back in 2008, and then instigating the so-called Maidan revolution in Ukraine that deposed Russia’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014. Today, he blames Washington for cynically prolonging the war by arming Ukraine in a proxy war to weaken Russia and its military.
But Putin is adamant on putting a stop to the so-called “colour revolutions” against Russian allies in the former Soviet Republics.
It is on this particular point that Putin finds a strategic ally in China’s strongman, Xi Jinping, who has also been unhappy with constant US prodding and interference in Chinese as well as wider Asian political and security affairs, in the name of democracy and human rights.
Moreover, and to give America a taste of its own medicine, Russia went on to meddle in the US’s own elections, putting Western democracies on the defensive following the victory of Donald Trump.
In other words, Putin has been doing everything he accuses the US of doing, but more crudely. Yes, the US has cynically used Ukraine against Russia, but it seems to me that US meddling was more of an excuse than a reason for Russia to invade Ukraine.
All to say, there is clearly some truth and much exaggeration in both the American and Russian positions. All of which raise questions about the media’s performance in such a polarised and militarised environment.
After all, only a free press is able to interrogate state power and propagate the facts about the war.
I am in no way surprised that in authoritarian Russia, the government has intimidated and silenced critics of its war, but I am rather shocked by the venomous attacks on critics of US foreign policies by their fellow journalists and citizens, accusing them of acting as a “fifth column” on “Putin’s payroll”.
I am not sure which is worse, journalists forced to toe the official line, or doing it voluntarily, even enthusiastically, in order to get ahead in Washington or London.
Unfortunately, we are witnessing a repeat of the disastrous Gulf War coverage of two decades ago, where much of the influential Anglo Saxon mainstream media sided rather blindly and foolishly with the official line.
For some reason, many of the same gung-ho armchair journalists and chickenhawk pundits, who got it all wrong about the disastrous Iraq War, feel the need, yet again, to incite Western establishments and enlighten them with military insights.
But why do these “opinion makers” continue to peddle information or rather disinformation from military and intelligence services? Again and again?
Why should any journalist, no less a desk journalist, give advice on the type of weapons needed against the Russians in Ukraine, when in reality all that journalists know about the military side of the ongoing war in Ukraine comes from the US and Western military and intelligence services – the same services that provided falsehoods on “Iraq nuclear weapons”?
The real reason hides in plain sight: they are addressing the public, not the generals or even the decision makers; normalising the US support for the war and molding the public opinion in its stead. That is a self-inflicted crime against journalism that undermines public trust in liberal democracy.
When Western governments express moral outrage, these “opinion makers” demand even greater outrage over Russia. When the US government makes a huge military and financial contribution to Ukraine, the latest of which is $33bn, an influential media outlet asks the administration to make an even bigger contribution and take greater risks – knowing all too well, that a nuclear war is a risk?
Likewise, when President Biden calls Putin a war criminal and that he has to go, media pundits outdo him by calling Putin evil – pure evil – and urge the white House not to walk back Biden’s comment on regime change, insisting that the slip is a necessary slap down.
None of this is to say that media pundits should not advocate for the principle of resistance, liberation and justice. They must. Or, that journalists have not excelled in their coverage of the war tragedies. More than a few have.
When it comes to war, the media is indispensable to shine a light, not turn on the heat; provide more fact, less hype; offer analysis of the war, not battlefield strategies; and, yes, promote peace, not incite violence.
Weaponising the media is more fitting of an authoritarian regime than it is for a democracy. It weakens the chances for diplomacy and makes it ever harder to reach or accept a peaceful settlement when the time comes, as it must. For the sake of all Ukrainians. For all our sakes.