Flushing away journalistic responsibility

This week Newsweek issued a public retraction for a story that very well may be true.

Before opening the can of worms of whether they did the right thing, let’s look at the facts leading up to the retraction.

On May 9, Newsweek used an anonymous source to publish that an upcoming government report would include the fact that “interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Quran down a toilet.”

On March 17, 2004, more than a year earlier, one of the hundreds of prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay was released. Jamal al-Harith is a British citizen, and he told the Independent of London that a majority of the POWs there had gone on a hunger strike after a guard had kicked a copy of the Quran.

Defacing the holy book of Islam is punishable by death in some countries.

A year after this widely published interview, the New York Times interviewed a released Kuwaiti POW on May 1. It used much of the same source material for its article that the retracted Newsweek article did.

The freed Kuwaiti spoke of three hunger strikes, one of which began when a guard stomped on the Quran.

A former interrogator at Guantanamo Bay corroborated that the hunger strikes had indeed happened. He also heard the public announcement over the loudspeaker apologizing for the treatment of the Qurans.

The Pentagon did not deny the statement about flushing Qurans when it was given to them to check for veracity. During the first week after publication they still did not dispute it.

A group of students protested in Afghanistan, angry over the treatment of the Quran, the war and Hamid Karzai’s puppet government.

The protest got violent. People died. Newsweek retracted its story.

The Newsweek author contacted his anonymous source, who stated that he could not be sure he saw the “flushing Qurans” statement in the report that would soon be released, but did not deny that he had seen evidence that Qurans were flushed.

The retraction came on May 16: “Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay.”

Note the wording: they did not deny that it happened, they denied that it was uncovered in the investigation.

It is already well known that the U.S. tortures POWs. The United States has tortured at least five POWs to death. In addition to electric shocks, forced masturbation and humiliation (through the smearing of menstrual blood or showing naked Muslims to other Muslims) – interrogators have trashed a Quran or two.

The bloody protest in Afghanistan was not due to Newsweek’s article revealing known facts.

General Richard Myers himself, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the senior commander in Afghanistan believed the protests were “not at all tied to the article in the magazine.”

Condoleezza Rice is connecting the two, however, equating a story she says was “not very well founded” with a violent protest that killed 16 people.

“I hope that everybody will step back and take a look at how they handled this,” Rice said. “Everybody.”

So let’s take a look.

If people are dying because an article is printed that reveals horrific outrages, should the article be printed?

Do journalists have an obligation to keep the truth from the public for fear of what their revelation will do?

The people that run this country want to make it irresponsible, immoral even, to report on atrocities for fear of even more bloodshed if they are revealed.

Newsweek’s quick cowardice is evidence that it works. Any information that has an actual effect on the world is instantly suppressed. Investigative journalism is no longer an action. It is a buzzword.

The media are not in place to protect the status quo. The media exist to disseminate information, period. When it begins to use its power of dissemination to protect any person, nation or ideal, it is raping its purpose.

Maybe bloody riots are the proper reaction to what soldiers are doing in the name of the U.S. people. Hiding what we do will only make bloody riots more necessary, and more violent, when they do come.

Chaelan MacTavish can be reached at [email protected]