by Finian Cunningham, published on Strategic Culture, November 10, 2018
The Western media coverage devoted to the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi proves the cynical adage that one person’s death is a tragedy, while millions of deaths are a mere statistic.
During the past four weeks since Khashoggi went missing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the case has been constantly in the news cycle. Contrast that with the sparse coverage in Western news media of the horrific Saudi war in Yemen during the past four years.
The United Nations has again recently warned that 16 million in Yemen were facing death from starvation as a result of the war waged on that country by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab partners, with the crucial military support of the US, Britain and France. That imminent death toll hardly registered a response from Western media or governments.
Last week, some 21 Yemeni workers at a vegetable packing plant near the Red Sea port of Hodeida were killed after US-backed Saudi warplanes launched air strikes. Again, hardly any condemnation was registered by Western governments and media pundits.
Admittedly, some politicians in the US and Europe are lately expressing disdain over the Saudi-led war and the possible culpability of Western governments in crimes against humanity.
Nevertheless, in proportion to the public concern devoted to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi there is a staggering indifference in relation to Yemen. How is possible that the fate of one man can provoke so much emotion and angst, while millions of children in Yemen appear to be shrugged off as “collateral damage”.
Partly, the circumstances of Khashoggi’s murder by a Saudi death squad are more easily visualized. His connections as a journalist working for the Washington Post also ensures ample interest from other media outlets. Photos of the 59-year-old Saudi dissident and his personal story of going to the consulate in Istanbul to obtain official papers for an upcoming wedding to his Turkish fiancée also provided a human identity, which then garners public empathy.
Another factor is the macabre plot to trap him, torture and dismember his body by a Saudi hit team who appear to have been acting on orders from senior Saudi regime officials. Khashoggi’s bodily remains have yet to be recovered which adds to the interest in the grisly story.
Regrettably, these human dimensions are all-too often missing in the massive suffering inflicted on Yemen. Thousands of children killed in air strikes and millions perishing from disease and starvation have an abstract reality.
When Western media do carry rare reports on children being killed, as in the Saudi air strike on a school bus on August 9, which massacred over 50, the public is still relatively insensate. We are not told the victims’ names nor shown photographs of happy children before their heinous fate.
However, the contrast between one man’s death and millions of abstract deaths – all the more salient because the culprits are the same in both cases – is not due simply to human callousness. It is due to the way Western media have desensitized the Western public from their appalling lack of coverage on Yemen.
The Western media have an urgent obligation because their governments are directly involved in the suffering of Yemen. If the Western media gave appropriately more coverage with human details of victims then it is fair to assume that there would be much greater public outrage over Yemen and an outcry for justice – at least in the form of halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Such calls are being made over the Khashoggi case. Surely, the same calls for economic and diplomatic sanctions should therefore be made with regard to Yemen – indeed orders of magnitude greater given the much greater scale of human suffering.
The Western news media have been shamefully derelict in reporting on Yemen’s horror over the past four years. One of the most despicable headlines was from the BBC which described it as a “forgotten war”. The conflict is only “forgotten” because the BBC and other Western news outlets have chosen to routinely drop it from their coverage. That omission is without doubt a “political” decision taken in order to not discomfit Washington, London or Paris in their lucrative arms trade with the Saudi regime.
Another way at looking at the paradox of “one death a tragedy, a million a statistic” and the Western media’s nefarious role in creating that paradox is to consider the fate of individuals facing death sentences in Saudi Arabia.
Take the case of female pro-democracy protester 29-year-old Israa al Ghomgham. Israa was arrested three years ago because she participated in peaceful protests against the Saudi monarchy. She and her husband Moussa al Hashem are facing execution any day by decapitation. Their only “crime” was to participate in non-violent street demonstrations in Saudi’s eastern provincial city of Qatif, calling for democratic rights for the Sunni kingdom’s oppressed Shia minority.
Another case is that of Mujtaba al Sweikat. He also is facing death by beheading, again because he was involved in pro-democracy protests against the absolute Saudi rulers. What makes his case even more deplorable is that he was arrested in 2012 at the age of 17 – legally a minor – when he was leaving the country to take up studies at Western Michigan University in the United States.
It is not clear if these individuals – and there are many more such cases on Saudi death row – will be spared by the Saudi monarchy in the light of the international condemnations over the Khashoggi killing. Any day, they could be hauled to a public square and their heads hacked off with a sword.
If we try to explain the disconnect in Western public reaction to the Khashoggi case, on one hand, and on the other, the massive misery of Yemen, one might invoke the cynical adage about a single death versus millions. But then how does that explain the apparent lack of public concern over the imminent death of individuals such as Israa al Ghomgham, her husband Moussa, or the student Mujtaba al Sweitat?
The tragedy of desensitized abstraction is not due to overwhelming numbers. It is primarily due to the willful omission – and worse, misinformation – by Western media on the barbarity of the Saudi regime and the crucially enabling support given to this regime by Western politics and economics.
The apparent disconnect is due to systematic Western media distortion. That’s not just a flaw. It is criminal complicity.
Finian Cunningham has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For nearly 20 years, Finian Cunningham worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent.