Robert Fisk: Journalists are under fire for telling the truth

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First it was Roger Ailes, the chairman of the Fox News Channel, who advised the US President to take the "harshest measures possible" against those who attacked America on 11 September, 2001.

Let us forget, for a moment, that Fox News's Jerusalem bureau chief is Uri Dan, a friend of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the author of the preface of the new edition of Sharon's autobiography, which includes a revolting account of the Sabra and Chatila massacre of 1,700 Palestinian civilians and Sharon's innocence in this slaughter. Then Ted Koppel, one of America's leading news anchormen, announced that it may be a journalist's duty not to reveal events until the military want them revealed in a new war against Iraq.

Can we go any further in journalistic cowardice? Oh yes, we can. ABC television announced, a little while ago, that it knew all about the killing of four al-Qa'ida members by an unmanned "Predator" plane in Yemen but delayed broadcasting the news for four days "at the request of the Pentagon." So now at least we know for whom ABC works.

The Pentagon said that the murdered men – and let's not lose sight of the "murdered" bit, though that's not the word ABC used – were between "two to 20" of the top ranks of al-Qa'ida. Really? So were they numbers two, three, four and five in al-Qa'ida? Or numbers 17,18,19 and 20? Who cares? The press are onside. Don't ask who is resisting forthcoming US censorship of the Iraq war. Ask who is first to climb aboard the bandwagon.

In Canada, the situation is even worse. Canwest, owned by Israel Asper, owns over 130 newspapers in Canada, including 14 city dailies and one of the country's largest papers, the National Post. His "journalists" have attacked colleagues who have deviated from Mr Asper's pro-Israel editorials. As Index on Censorship reported, Bill Marsden, an investigative reporter for the Montreal Gazette has been monitoring Canwest's interference with its own papers. "They do not want any criticism of Israel," he wrote. "We do not run in our newspaper op-ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it is doing in the Middle East..."

But now, "Izzy" Asper has written a gutless and repulsive editorial in the Post in which he attacks his own journalists, falsely accusing reporters of "lazy, sloppy or stupid" journalism and being "biased or anti-Semitic". These vile slanders are familiar to any reporter trying to do his work on the ground in the Middle East. They are made even more revolting by inaccuracies.

Mr Asper, for example, claims that my colleague Phil Reeves compared the Israeli killings in Jenin earlier this year – which included a goodly few war crimes (the crushing to death of a man in a wheelchair, for example) – to the "killing fields of Pol Pot". Now Mr Reeves has never mentioned Pol Pot. But Mr Asper wrongly claims that he did.

It gets worse. Mr Asper, whose "lazy, sloppy or stupid" allegations against journalists in reality apply to himself, states – in the address to an Israel Bonds Gala Dinner in Montreal, which formed the basis of his preposterous article – that "in 1917, Britain and the League of Nations declared, with world approval, that a Jewish state would be established in Palestine". Now hold on a moment. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 did not say that a Jewish state would be established. It said that the British government would "view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The British refused to use the words "Jewish state".

This may not matter much to lazy writers like Mr Aspen. But when it comes to the League of Nations being involved, we really are into mythology. The League of Nations was created after the First World War – had it existed in 1917, it might have stopped the whole war – and Mr Asper is simply wrong (or, as he might have put it, "lazy, sloppy or stupid") to suggest it existed in 1917.

At no point, of course, does Mr Asper tell us about Israeli occupation or the building of Jewish settlements, for Jews and Jews only, upon Arab land. He talks about "alleged Palestinian refugees" – about as wrongheaded a remark as you can get – and then claims that the corrupt and foolish Yasser Arafat is "one of the world's cruel and most vicious terrorists for the past 30 years". He concluded his speech to Israel's supporters in Montreal with the dangerous request that "you, the public, must take action against the media wrongdoers".

Wrongdoers? Is this far from President Bush's "evildoers"? What in the hell is going on here?

I will tell you. Journalists are being attacked for telling the truth, for trying to tell it how it is. American journalists especially. I urge them to read a remarkable new book published by the New York University Press and edited by John Collins and Ross Glover. It's called Collateral Language and is, in its own words, intended to expose "the tyranny of political rhetoric". Its chapter titles – "Anthrax", "Cowardice", "Evil", "Freedom", Fundamentalism", "Justice", "Terrorism", Vital Interests" and – my favourite – "The War on..." (fill in the missing country) tell it all.

Meanwhile, rest assured, the journalists are getting onside, to tell you the story the government wants you to hear.

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