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"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why Asian Tsunami Is News, But Not The Destruction of Falluja

Kalinga Seneviratne

A year ago, two horrific calamities took place, destroying thousands of dwellings and people. One was in Asia and the other in the Middle East. The first year anniversary of the former will be big news with documentaries, features and news reports saturating our airwaves and the newspapers. But, the first anniversary of the other went almost unnoticed last month.

Why the double standards?

The one, about which we will hear a lot is the Asian tsunami, and the one we hardly heard anything was about the anniversary of the attack by US-led forces on Falluja in Iraq in November 2004.

In Falluja a year ago, we saw one of the most horrendous destructions in modern history, not by nature, but planned and executed by men. But, most of the world is yet to know the real story.

Writing in New Zealand's Pacific Media Watch after the Asian tsunami last year, journalist Mike Whitney observed: "The American media has descended on the Asian tsunami with all the fervour of feral animals in a meat locker. The newspapers and TVs are plastered with bodies drifting out to sea, battered carcasses strewn along the beach and bloated babies lying in rows. Every aspect of the suffering is being scrutinized with microscopic intensity by the predatory lens of the media".

"This is where the western press really excels: in the celebratory atmosphere of human catastrophe" he noted, asking, "where was this 'free press' in Iraq when the death toll was skyrocketing?"

Well they were not there either when the first anniversary of the attack was observed last month, coincidently with the admission by the US forces in Iraq that they used burning phosphorus weapons during their assault on Falluja a year ago.

Perhaps, you may ask, why should they be there?

It is because Falluja is a city of over 300,000 people, and US sources have claimed that some 6000 insurgents were holed out in the city, and in order to flush them out they destroyed the whole city. Falluja's compensation commissioner has reported that 36,000 of the city's 50,000 houses have been destroyed, along with 8,400 shops, 60 nurseries and schools, and 65 mosques and shrines.

Didn't the big waves which hit Aceh or the southern coast of Thailand and Sri Lanka, do the same? Well we know all about it and I don't need to say more here. But, why should we be kept in the dark about what man-made calamities could do to communities? Especially now that it has been admitted by the US that they used chemical weapons in the attack, which can melt through skin and clothes, a substance banned for use in civilian areas by international conventions.

"Falluja is a place name that has become a symbol of unconscionable brutality" noted Mike Marqusee, co-founder of 'Iraq Occupation Focus' writing in London's 'Guardian' on the first anniversary of the Falluja attack.

"As the war in Iraq claims more lives, we need to ensure that this atrocity - so recent, so easily erased from public memory - is recognised as an example of the barbarism of nations that call themselves civilised" he added.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in January that 300,000 people have fled during the attack and 40 percent of the city's population was living on charity. They estimated that 40 percent of the buildings in the city were completely destroyed, and the rest had significant damage, while three of the city's water purification plants have been completely destroyed.

In one of the rare reports on the anniversary of the attacks, BBC's Andrew North reporting from Falluja last month said that getting basic services like water, electricity, telephone and sewage are still a problem and though US$ 100 million have been pledged for the reconstruction of the city, people are only now beginning to get the compensation money they have been promised.

This would be the type of story, which will be told over and over again by Western journalists visiting tsunami devastated areas of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and India in the next couple of weeks.

Shouldn't they also be investigating the same of Falluja's population? Where they are now? What are they doing? Who are helping them now and how are they trying to rebuild their lives?

For the international media, it is much more easier to point fingers at corrupt Asian officials, inefficient local relief agencies, and praise the "compassionate" Western donors and relief workers. That fits in well with their Western news values. But, should the Asian media also follow suite?

A Chinese journalist who used to work for China's Xinhua news agency once told me that the role of the journalist at Xinhua was to assist the government to convey its policies to the people. But, those, who practice the Western media tradition believes that the role of the media is to be the watchdog of government to protect the citizenry against abuse of Sate power.

By cheerleading the American-led forces in Iraq, even when they are breaching international conventions, is the Western media any better than Xinhua - an agency they have always ridiculed as a mouthpiece of the Chinese communist regime?


* Kalinga Seneviratne is a journalist, television documentary maker and media analyst. Currently working as a senior research associate with a leading Asian regional media research centre in Singapore.

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