While it is good that the Russian narrative is reproduced in leading news outlets, the arms-length approach implies confusion in the editorial offices over how to handle these developments which do not match the image of Russia as the West’s enemy…
News Blackout: Civil society living in near total ignorance
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Is it any wonder that your average, well educated, public minded American, Briton, Frenchman, or Belgian is largely clueless about the key international events that are today leading the international community to the brink of world war after reading his or her favorite newspaper of record, be it The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Figaro or Le Soir, and after catching the news bulletins on local state television, or on Euronews or the BBC for that matter.
I will take one vivid example from this week to drive home the reality of a news blackout that cuts across the United States and Europe media when something which might upset the complacency of the audience about Russia comes up. On Wednesday, 2 December, the Russian Ministry of Defense invited several hundred journalists and military attaches of accredited embassies in Moscow to a briefing at which Deputy Minister Anatoly Antonov presented reconnaissance photos taken from satellites and aircraft proving the existence of a massive logistical operation that has been bringing illicit oil from wells in Iraq and Syria controlled by the Islamic State jihadists by tanker truck across the border with Turkey and onward to processing facilities for domestic use and to port installations from where it is shipped to third countries. The key points in this operation were identified explicitly. Given the scale, involving thousands of tankers on the move, the revenue from these sales would amount to hundreds of millions of euros per year, if not over a billion, sufficient to finance extensively the recruitment of fighters and military supplies for the terrorists.
The context for this presentation was Russian insistence that the destruction of their bomber by Turkish F-16s at the Syrian-Turkish border the preceding week was an ambush intended to put a stop to Russian attacks on this lucrative trade in illicit oil and also to disrupt the grand alliance against the Islamic State now in formation between Russia, France and several other NATO states. Since Turkish President Erdogan pledged he would resign if anyone could prove his complicity in financing terror through the oil trade, the slide show raised the stakes in the week-old Russian-Turkish confrontation.
Russian television gave extensive coverage to this extraordinary briefing, showing in particular, officers from NATO states photographing the slides being displayed and taking notes furiously. In the West, however, almost all media made no mention of it at all. Not a word in The New York Times, which could fill its front page already the same evening with details of the San Bernardino shootings in California. Not a word in leading German and British dailies, which also turned coverage inward on home stories.
The French were odd man out on this, but in a very qualified way. Shortly after the briefing in Moscow, both Le Figaro and Le Monde did devote a few paragraphs to it, but in terse and noncommittal manner. That is to say they referred to Russian ‘allegations’ about the connection between the Erdogan family and the illicit oil trade, which by all appearances were indeed not proven at the briefing. However, they said nothing about the material which was presented and which proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the jihadists have a complete logistical chain for very large traffic in oil across the territory they control in Syria and through the Turkish border. If this is not a smoking gun, one may reasonably ask what is?
Surely no US or NATO presentations on their military operations in the region have been better prepared or more persuasive than what the Russian Ministry of Defense delivered. And a great deal of what the US has presented to the press over the downing of MH-17 over the Donbass to implicate Russia and/or its local supporters never rose above video images from social networks. Yet, the US ‘proofs’ were accepted by the media and the Russian ‘proofs’ were spoken of as allegations, or simply ignored altogether.
Further to my remarks several days ago about Euronews taking a turn to greater balance on Russian issues, the channel did in fact show some images from the Ministry of Defense briefing in Moscow. But like the French print press, they were sparing in coverage and avoided giving any sense of the depth of documentation made available.
In today’s annual Address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin opened and closed his speech with mention of the clash with Turkey going back to the downing of the Russian aircraft in Syria and he once again charged the governing elite in Turkey with supporting jihadist terror by its trade in illicit oil. This part of the speech was duly reported by Figaro, and also by the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which had published not a word about the briefing for military attaches the day before. While it is good that the Russian narrative is reproduced in these leading news outlets, the arms-length approach implies confusion in the editorial offices over how to handle these developments which do not match the image of Russia as the West’s enemy and give a perplexing twist to the EU’s current rapprochement with Turkey over refugees.
Meanwhile, from another stage, another ‘opera,’ we see that within the chancelleries of some major powers in Europe, the Russian charges against Turkey are taken very seriously indeed. Today’s Financial Times and other British newspapers reporting the start of British bombing in Syria that followed directly on the vote in the House of Commons yesterday tell us specifically that ‘Tornado jets target Syrian oil field.’ So apparently it is now right and proper for US Allies to bomb the sources of financing of the Islamic State, as the Russians have been doing for two months in the face of US derision that they were not finding the right targets.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015
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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to firstname.lastname@example.org