Media coverage determines ‘worth’ of victims

Saudi airstrike kills 25 Yemeni civilians

The notion of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims is important to understanding Canada’s propaganda system and foreign policy. A common form of bias is for media outlets to concentrate on the victims of enemy states while largely ignoring those victimized by friendly governments.

Contrasting Russia’s two-month-old invasion of Ukraine with the war in Yemen or the eight-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine highlights the stark difference between how friendly and unfriendly states’ crimes are covered.

Last Saturday almost the entire front page and 23 articles (17 large ones, four briefs and two letters) in the front section of the National Post focused on Russia/Ukraine. A search of the National Post database suggests the paper has never given a fraction of that prominence to the war in Yemen, which has killed nearly 400,000. (Almost 150,000 directly and the rest from hunger and disease caused by fighting and the Saudi-led blockade.) Last week the National Post devoted about as much attention to Russia/Ukraine as the paper has given to the seven year old war in Yemen.

Last Tuesday four of the five stories on the front page of the National Post and two of the three articles on the front of the Globe and Mail were about Ukraine/Russia. The next day all four stories on the front of the National Post focused on Russia/Ukraine. A search of its database found that Wednesday’s National Post devoted as much attention to Ukraine/Russia as the paper has given to 8 years of war in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine (prior to Russia’s February 24 invasion).

Having left some 14,000 dead prior to Russia’s illegal invasion, the conflict in the Donbas was precipitated by the 2014 US/Canada backed ouster of elected President Viktor Yanukovych. To a large extent the violence was the responsibility of the Ottawa-aligned government in Kyiv.

Yemenis are “unworthy” victims because their plight is largely the responsibility of Saudi, UAE and US policy. Ottawa has also been almost silent on a war it has helped fuel. To justify a massive Light Armoured Vehicle sale to Saudi Arabia, a Global Affairs memo to foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion in 2016 noted that the LAVs would help Riyadh in its efforts at “countering instability in Yemen.”

Another current, if less dramatic, example of media focusing on rights violations by a government in Ottawa/Washington’s crosshairs can be seen by contrasting coverage of Venezuela and Colombia. The media has devoted significantly more attention to human rights violations in Venezuela even though Colombia is the site of significantly more state-assisted violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that over 400 Colombians, mostly Indigenous rights defenders, were killed between 2016 and early 2021. Fifty-two human rights activists and community leaders were killed in the first three months of this year and last year an official committee revealed that between 2002 and 2008 the Colombian military assassinated more than 6400 individuals who they falsely labeled rebels.

But a search of the Major Canadian Dailies database found nearly three times more (1,424 to 660) references to Venezuela “human rights” than Colombia “human rights” since January 1 2016.

Colombia has been a staunch US ally in South America while Ottawa has sought to overthrow Venezuela’s government.

Probably the starkest historic comparison between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims ever laid out was by individuals associated with Canada’s East Timor Alert Network. In Complicity: Human Rights and Canadian Foreign Policy: The Case of East Timor, Sharon Scharfe compares the Globe and Mail’s coverage of Cambodia and East Timor, which both saw similar levels of mass killings in the late 1970s. She found that the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities in Cambodia were widely reported while Indonesia’s killings in East Timor were downplayed. Between November 1, 1977, and August 31, 1993, the Globe and Mail published 12 times as many major articles on Cambodia as East Timor (751 to 63). The coverage of Cambodia detailed widespread killings and sometimes even exaggerated the horror, while the stories about East Timor tended to present Jakarta’s (generally false) version of events.

Wilfrid Laurier professor Jeffery Klaehn came to similar conclusions. Author of a 2005 article titled “Corporate Hegemony: a critical assessment of the Globe and Mail’s news coverage of near genocide in occupied East Timor, 1975-1980” Klaehn writes: “Globe and Mail coverage reduced significantly after Indonesia invaded and dropped to almost nil as the atrocities reached their peak throughout 1978/79. The absolute low volume of news coverage effectively concealed (1) Indonesia’s near genocidal aggression and (2) Canada’s diplomatic and material contributions from public view.”

Prior to the December 7 Indonesian invasion, the Globe published 29 articles on East Timor in 1975. The paper ran seven more articles that year after the invasion and “a one-paragraph article on January 5 and a two-paragraph piece on January 16 reporting on the invasion. This was the extent of its coverage of the invasion throughout the entire year of 1976. Four additional articles on East Timor were published during 1976, three of which reported on its annexation. It published one article on East Timor in 1977 — a single paragraph article on March 1, which was headlined ‘Australians Charge 100,000 Killings’. Throughout the next 16 months there was no additional coverage of East Timor published in the G&M. On 9 October 1978, the newspaper published an investigative piece by Mick Lowe, headlined ‘60,000 Have Died in Unseen War’. Throughout 1979, it published three small articles on East Timor. This was the extent of the G&M news coverage of the crucial invasion period.”

Other Canadian papers’ coverage was even worse. In a search of the news database Klaehn didn’t find anything in the Calgary Herald, Montréal Gazette or Winnipeg Free Press about East Timor between the Indonesian invasion and 1980. The Toronto Star published a single article the day after the invasion, which gave prominence to the Indonesian foreign minister’s claims.

Recognizing how the media ignores or downplays crimes committed by allies while amplifying those of enemy countries is important to understanding Canadian foreign policy. Ottawa/Washington’s perspective towards a country/conflict greatly shapes whether the Canadian media considers people’s suffering ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ of attention. Astute readers, viewers and listeners need to be aware of how they are being manipulated.

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