A new front opens every day in the current Middle East war, including propaganda flare-ups in which new and unexpected participants join the fray, eager to partake in the PR campaign for Western hearts and minds.
A British Web site, the EU Referendum Blog, which focuses neither on media nor the Middle East, accused the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France Presse on Monday of having staged their photos of the carnage in Qana, Lebanon where twenty-eight civilians, sixteen of whom were children, were killed on Sunday during an Israeli strike on the small village in the south. The incident was particularly charged because of memories of another Israeli air-strike in Qana 10 years ago that killed more than100 civilians in a UN compound.
Photos of bodies being pulled from the rubble by aid workers made the covers of many major newspapers around the world. EU Referendum decried the photos as “staged,” based on its analysis of the time-stamping of the photos and an examination of the mannerisms and attire of the principally photographed aid worker.
American commentator Rush Limbaugh, who never lets a fact get in the way of a rant, picked up on the story Monday directing radio listeners to the British website and then excerpting portions of the discussion under the title, “Kook Left Considers Any 9/11 Conspiracies, But Ignores Mounting Doubts About Qana.” Limbaugh even goes so far as to say Hezbollah actually blew up the civilians — despite the fact that Israel does not deny hitting the building where the civilians had taken refuge in the basement.
For their part, the agencies vehemently denied the accusations, emphasizing that their photographers can recognize when an event is being staged for their benefit. They also explained that time-stamping can indicate either when a photo has been taken or when it has been posted.
The Middle East photo director for AFP was quoted in a thorough AP article exploring the phony controversy, saying, “Do you really think these people would risk their lives under Israeli shelling to set up a digging ceremony for dead Lebanese kids?”
While the EU Referendum post was given considerable publicity on blogs dedicated to proving a liberal bias in the media, their critique of the photos was hardly convincing. Nonetheless, the AP felt it had to respond. It put together its story on the charges and the responses because “Certain blogs, Web sites and talk shows were impugning our journalistic integrity,” explained Jack Stokes, an AP spokesman.
The Qana photos are only the most recent in the still young conflict to gain some attention. Recently, photographs of little Israeli girls doodling “From Israel with Love” on missiles that would soon be dropped on Lebanon caused an outcry, one that was met by an attempt to contextualize the actions and mitigate the furor they caused, including on these pages. Similarly, many Lebanese bloggers have criticized Western media outlets for sanitizing the conflict for their audiences and have taken it upon themselves to circulate images of dead civilians, frequently children.
Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.
While the return of conflict and propaganda to the Middle East would seem nothing new, what has changed is the number of competing and clashing voices from a variety of fronts, all trying to spin the quite unspinnable — the reality of death and destruction that war in every era brings.