Seeing the battlefield through a soda straw

December 3, 2023

Freedom of expression and freedom of information are routinely put forward as mandatory props for a democratic society. Known democracies have been found hideously wanting in upholding these values during the conduct of a conflict

Seeing the battlefield through a soda straw


he year 2002 was coming to an end and November somehow felt nippier to biological aliens living in London. Warmongers perched in powerful offices in Washington and London were finalising details to start another war. Apparently, the leading Western media organisations had been informed about what was around the corner so that they could make their preparations.

Journalists who had covered wars and conflicts across various continents were being informally asked by their line managers if they would be available or interested in travelling to the Middle East to cover an impending conflict. The War on Terror was to move from Afghanistan to Iraq.

The invaders’ justification on offer was to find and destroy weapons of mass destruction piled up somewhere in the presumed Iraqi rabbit holes. The UN weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, a former Swedish diplomat and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, were sniffing through government sites and presidential palaces to unearth what they had been told by Western intelligence agencies lay buried somewhere in that country.

Blix and his team had already said they had found “absolutely no evidence of the existence of the WMDs” and were seeking more info and time to wrap up the assignment satisfactorily. Bush and Blair had no time from Blix who later told Western audiences that the Bush administration’s real motivation for invading Iraq was a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The US was attacked on its own soil. I was here; it was like an earthquake in this country,” he told a university gathering in the US circa 2004. “It was as if Afghanistan was not enough.”

I was working for the BBC in London as a broadcast journalist. Knowledge of my previous journalistic experiences of observing regular skirmishes between the Indian and Pakistani troops stationed on the Line of Control in Kashmir; newsgathering excursions in the erstwhile tribal regions separating Pakistan from Afghanistan; engagement with aid convoys that travelled from UK to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s; and reporting on the 1999 conflict in Kosovo from the borders of Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia, propelled my news editor to casually inquire if I would be up for a reporting assignment in Iraq.

Not sure if the offer was a serious one or whether one should rise to the bait, I remember asking him what exactly one would be allowed to report and from where. “Well, most of the reporting would be embedded. The bulk of the British reporters would be transported to Basra in southern Iraq, from where they would make a move on Baghdad along with the military units.”

Many British journalists decided to give the opportunity to be a part of the “most reported-on war in media history” a pass. What fun would there be in acting like “cheerleaders or media relations representatives” for an invading army? What exactly could the embedded journalists be reporting from inside a Bradley or a Challenger apart from the number of shells fired in a day? Who would report on the damage and destruction these shells would inflict on residential areas or innocent lives those claimed?

It seemed that the invading armies were not willing to allow the “unilaterals” reporting for the international media to relay pictures of “collateral damage” to audiences at home.

More than 700 embedded journalists and media persons travelled with the invading soldiers. Those favouring embedded journalism said that in a 24-hour news cycle where commentary and analysis had routinely blended, embedded reporting relayed only facts. 

More than 700 embedded journalists and media persons travelled with the invading soldiers. Those favouring embedded journalism said that in a 24-hour news cycle where commentary and analysis had routinely blended, embedded reporting relayed only facts. Critics like Gaetano Talese, however, described the correspondents driving around in tanks and armoured personnel carriers as “spoon-fed mascots” for the military. He said he “wouldn’t have journalists embedded if I had any power.”


project commissioned by the Columbia University to study what embedded reporting had delivered for the American audiences quoted former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld as saying that “we are getting only ‘slices’ of the war.” Others said embedded media coverage was like seeing the battlefield through “a soda straw.”

Israel has learnt the lesson well. It not only undertakes flagrant violations of the international humanitarian laws but also rejoices in it too. The history of conflict between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah is unremitting. Israel has always had the upper hand when it came to punishing Hamas or Hezbollah but it also mounts a media war along with its attack on Gaza or southern Lebanon. It does not allow foreign journalists to report from the conflict zone independently. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War that I reported from Jerusalem, Haifa and Nahariya in Israel for Geo News, I was required to share all recorded footage with the Government Press Office before relaying it to Karachi for broadcasting. While life went on normally and people partied in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the summer of 2006, hourly news bulletins on Israeli media were full of images of tanks, missile batteries, and troop movements. People were shown running to bunkers pre-empting enemy missile attacks.

Now Israel is doing all it can to prevent the world from seeing for itself what horror it has wrought on Palestinians to avenge the surprise Hamas attack on Israeli kibbutzim bordering the Gaza Strip. Since October 7, when Hamas attackers baffled the Israeli Defence Forces, killing around 1,400 Israelis and abducting hundreds of them, their fighters have astonishingly vanished from the “battlefield.” Humiliated and enraged beyond imagination, Netanyahu’s Israel has been carrying out a brutal revenge campaign ever since, killing over 11,000 innocent civilians including women and children. Hospitals and residential blocks have been flattened by incessant bombing.

The horrifying images of Gaza’s devastation and Palestinians’ homelessness relayed to the world by the Palestinian and international journalists have moved many a million people around the world. Multi-faith marchers have walked through important world capitals demanding an immediate ceasefire and denouncing Israel for its brutality. Possibly unnerved by the world opinion, Israel has clamped a total ban on foreign media in Gaza. Foreign press is denied access to the destroyed and devastated city. Access is reserved only for journalists who are embedded with the IDF. Even they are barred from moving around and speaking to the victims. Leading US broadcasters have reportedly agreed to Israeli condition, allowing the IDF to “vet all materials” before they are broadcast.

While Hamas might have succeeded in its “strategic aim” to stall growing Israel-Arab diplomatic thaw by showing its planning prowess, fighting agility and ability to inflict inconceivable harm on Israel, it will have to share the blame for the death of thousands of innocent civilians. In retaliation, the Zionist Israel is hell bent upon inflicting unimaginable reprisals. It is in no mood to share the level and extent of its revenge with the world through the media lens.

The writer is Resident Editor of The News International, Islamabad

Seeing the battlefield through a soda straw