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EARLIER this month Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned the world was facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the second world war.
Speaking to the UN security council, O’Brien said more than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria were facing starvation and famine.
Following up on this, on March 17 2017 the Guardian published a report on Yemen, noting that aid agencies have warned the country is “at the point of no return.”
UN figures show 17 million people face severe food insecurity, the Guardian noted, including nearly seven million people deemed to be in a state of emergency.
With the article relegated to page 29 of the newspaper, there was just one oblique mention of the US and Britain, which the report explained “have influence over the Saudi-led coalition” currently attacking Yemen and blocking aid entering the country.
Here are the basic facts the Guardian chose not to highlight. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of countries in a bombing campaign to overthrow the Houthi government in Yemen (which itself overthrew the previous government).
According to the United Nations, there have been over 10,000 civilian casualties, with the Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes responsible for the majority.
In 2016 the Yemen Data Project — a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists — reported that one third of Saudi-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. Martha Mundy, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, believes that “in some regions, the Saudis are deliberately striking at agricultural infrastructure in order to destroy the civil society.”
The US and Britain have been closely collaborating with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way, short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support,” the then foreign secretary Philip Hammond announced a month into the bombardment.
Speaking to me last year, activist Medea Benjamin, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, explained Saudi Arabia is “getting munitions from the West… The US is even refuelling their planes in the air.”
President Barack Obama, described as “the reluctant interventionist” by senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, sold $115 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia during his eight years in office. This makes the 44th president of the United States “the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history,” according to senior Brookings Institution fellow Bruce Riedel.
Speaking in January 2017, O’Brien was crystal clear about the main cause of the ongoing humanitarian crisis: “The conflict in Yemen is now the primary driver of the largest food security emergency in the world.”
The Guardian has form when it comes to (not) reporting the causes of the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Surveying the newspaper’s coverage of Yemen between June 2016 and mid-January 2017, Peace News editor Milan Rai concluded: “The critical role of the Saudi blockade in creating these conditions in Yemen has been effectively suppressed by the British media, including Britain’s most liberal mainstream newspaper, the Guardian.”
According to Rai, there were 70 stories or editorials about Yemen on the Guardian website during this period: “Most of those 70 items (42 stories, 60 per cent of the total) do not mention the humanitarian crisis — or the role of the Saudi blockade — in any way at all.” And though the other 28 articles did refer to the humanitarian crisis “most did so only in a way that effectively suppressed the information,” Rai notes.
Unsurprisingly a recent YouGov/ Independent poll found more than half of British people were unaware of the war in Yemen, with just 37 per cent of 18-24 year olds aware of the conflict.
Turning to Somalia, on March 13 the Guardian published a full-page article on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in east Africa. “As many as 6.2 million Somalis — more than half the population — need urgent food assistance,” noted the Guardian, including “some districts… under the control of Islamist rebels al-Shabab, making [aid] access complicated.” There is one mention of the US: “The US government says it has spent more than $110 million on humanitarian assistance in Somalia in 2017.”
In reality, the US has been heavily involved in Somali affairs since the 1990s. These interventions, noted BBC journalist Mary Harper in her 2012 book Getting Somalia Wrong?, are viewed by “a growing number of experts” as having “contributed towards [Somalia’s] destruction as a viable nation-state.”
Speaking to Democracy Now! in 2013, journalist Jeremy Scahill explained that in the early years of the “war on terror” the George W Bush administration “made a disastrous decision to put [Somali] warlords on the CIA payroll” and “basically had them acting as an assassination squad.”
A relative stability was created for a brief period when the Islamic Courts Union took control in 2006 — quickly shattered by the December 2006 USsupported Ethiopian invasion and occupation.
The occupation, as occupations often tend to do, energised extremists, with Somali journalist Jamal Osman explaining “al-Shabab was born when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and some still see the group as a resistance movement.”
Since then the US has been trying to destroy the group its actions helped create. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times reported: “The US has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabab.”
“Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union,” the report explained. “But in truth, according to interviews by US and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon.” The US government “is trying to achieve US military goals with minimal risk of American deaths and scant public debate,” the Los Angeles Times noted.
Since then the US has intensified its clandestine war in Somalia “using special operations troops, air strikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants,” the New York Times reported last year.
Like Yemen, the US military involvement in Somalia has harmed the country’s ability to deal with humanitarian crises. For example, though the Financial Times explains the looming famine in Somalia is primarily the result of regional drought, it goes on to note: “The lack of effective government and an insurgency by al-Shabab, an al-Qaida linked jihadist group, have not helped.”
This quick survey of the Guardian’s recent coverage of Yemen and Somalia puts the lie to Guardian regular Polly Toynbee’s claim that the newspaper is “always free to hold power to account: to take on politicians, global corporations, the secret security state or great vested interests.”
The Guardian may well be free to hold power to account but it’s currently missing some huge open goals when it comes to Western foreign policy.
To be clear, I’m not saying the Guardian never mentions Western interference in Yemen and Somalia or links this to the growing humanitarian crises — I’m arguing the newspaper’s coverage does not match the importance of the issue.
As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, the fact “that the media provide some information about an issue… proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage… More important is the way they present a particular fact — its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition — and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.”
Indeed, by downplaying of US intervention in Yemen and Somalia, the Guardian has helped to keep the large swatches of the general public ignorant of Western foreign policy — a state of affairs that suits the US government’s interests, as the Los Angeles Times report above makes clear.
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