A 38-minute video called Collateral Murder was released to the world via YouTube on 5 April. It showed a US helicopter firing on a group of possibly unarmed civilians in Baghdad. Twelve people were killed, including two Reuters journalists. The footage clearly contradicted public statements issued by the US military regarding the insurgent nature of the incident. It should have been considered a story of great consequence.
There was more. The video then showed a van arrive to attempt to rescue the wounded. The van was fired upon and its occupants killed. The story should have been given even more weight, because these men were non-combatants attempting a rescue.
Arguably, there is evidence in the footage to sustain allegations of war crimes. Front-page news — surely?
This certainly wasn’t the case in the US, as this comparison of Al Jazeera’s and CNN’s front-pages on the day that Collateral Murder was broken by Wikileaks illustrates.
Here in Australia, Collateral Murder made the technology section of The Age. As the dimensions of the story became apparent, it did appear in the world news sections of Australian newspapers but focus shifted rapidly from the incident in Baghdad itself to questions of technology and profiles of the mercurial founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange. To a large extent, the Australian media coverage of the story fulfils Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ prediction that while the video was "unfortunate" — it was also something that shouldn’t have "any lasting consequences".
The New York Times ran an article on 12 July 2007 containing an eyewitness account to the Collateral Murder incident from photographer Ahmad Sahib, who confirmed that "it looked like the American helicopters were firing against any gathering in the area". The New York Times had the facts of this story and is one of the few global media outlets sufficiently resourced to follow it up, but three years after the incident took place, Reuters was the only news agency still asking questions rather than accepting the military line.
Unembedded journalist Rick Rowley was in Baghdad the day after the shooting and interviewed witnesses. He is indignant at the claims that locals were insurgents because they were armed: "Every neighbourhood in Baghdad organised its own protection force. And it was legal at the time for every household to own a Kalashnikov in Iraq, and every household I ever went to did."
Any journalist in Baghdad in 2007 could have visited the site of the Collateral Murder incident and interviewed locals instead of remaining in the safety of their hotel. These were seasoned journalists familiar with war zones. Why didn’t they ask more questions about why the US military blamed the deaths of the Reuters journalists on their "proximity to armed insurgents" and failure to "identify themselves to a helicopter gunship"?
White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs maintains the line: "Our military will take every precaution necessary to ensure the safety and security of civilians, and particularly those that report in those dangerous places on behalf of news organisations." Why aren’t these statements being more closely scrutinised by the media: what does "our military will take every precaution necessary" mean? That they haven’t in the past, but intend to in the future?
As Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald states, these are the rules of engagement in Iraq and the military conduct in the video is "anything but rare. This is something that takes place on a virtually daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places where we invade and bomb and occupy … this is standard operating procedure."
The reason this footage is so harrowing is because the military does its utmost to prevent such evidence from surfacing. Everyone knows that war is ugly, but it’s easier to stay ahead of the "war of perceptions" if the public isn’t constantly reminded of the costs of war and occupation. The shock of the Collateral Murder video is evidence of a widespread disconnection from the reality of what Australia and other countries are involved in in Iraq and Afghanistan. The media is not working hard enough to change perceptions, to establish connections.
While the Australian media can lay claim to journalists like Sophie McNeill and Geoff Parish from SBS’s Dateline, these days, they are exceptional. McNeill and Parish spent a year uncovering the events that led to the deaths of one adult, four children and one teenager in Oruzgan province, Afghanistan, at the hands of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
The ADF initially claimed that these deaths were the result of an exchange of gunfire; Dateline revealed this version of events to be false. A story like this is a rarity for two reasons. Firstly, Australia doesn’t even have journalists based in Afghanistan, and secondly, the ADF doesn’t allow embedding. As a result, the ADF controls a majority of the media emerging from the region and from the war. Put simply, almost every piece of information about Operation Enduring Freedom that we encounter in the Australian media sphere comes from an ADF press release.
Two weeks ago, Wikileaks, although high-profile in some corners of the internet, had a very low profile in the mainstream media. That’s all changed. In the first day that Collateral Murder was posted, 2.5 million people watched it on YouTube — and thousands of news agencies around the world broadcast it with the evening news.
This is the kind of journalism the world expects, and with two wars having lasted nearly a decade still underway and more conflict on the horizon, it’s the kind of journalism the world urgently needs. On Thursday, WikiLeaks tweeted, "Raised >$150K in donations since Mon. New funding model for journalism: try doing it for a change".
WikiLeaks is working on another encrypted video, allegedly of a US air strike in Afghanistan that killed 97 civilians in 2009. Who will ensure that this story doesn’t disappear? Or will the media continue to only regurgitate the sanitised military view of these conflicts?