19 December 2011 — Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
The Sunday New York Times (12/18/11) featured a powerful investigation of civilian casualties resulting from the NATO war in Libya–casualties that, to hear NATO officials tell it, maybe don’t even exist.
The Times’ C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt report:
But an on-the-ground examination by The New York Times of airstrike sites across Libya–including interviews with survivors, doctors and witnesses, and the collection of munitions remnants, medical reports, death certificates and photographs–found credible accounts of dozens of civilians killed by NATO in many distinct attacks. The victims, including at least 29 women or children, often had been asleep in homes when the ordnance hit.
The Times even took its research–based on a small number of incidents–to NATO, which seemed to change its story immediately:
Two weeks after being provided a 27-page memorandum from the Times containing extensive details of nine separate attacks in which evidence indicated that allied planes had killed or wounded unintended victims, NATO modified its stance.
‘From what you have gathered on the ground, it appears that innocent civilians may have been killed or injured, despite all the care and precision,’ said Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO headquarters in Brussels. ‘We deeply regret any loss of life.’
The Times reports that  it ‘found significant damage to civilian infrastructure from certain attacks for which a rationale was not evident or risks to civilians were clear.’ The paper also noted that many witnesses talked about ‘warplanes restriking targets minutes after a first attack, a practice that imperiled, and sometimes killed, civilians rushing to the wounded.’ That is a tactic often associated with terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.
The Times also offers a sickening glimpse into the denial of NATO leaders after civilians were killed in an airstrike in Tripoli:
Initially, NATO almost acknowledged its mistake. ‘A military missile site was the intended target,’ an alliance statement said soon after. ‘There may have been a weapons system failure which may have caused a number of civilian casualties.’
Then it backtracked. Kristele Younes, director of field operations for Civic, the victims’ group, examined the site and delivered her findings to NATO. She met a cold response. ‘They said, ‘We have no confirmed reports of civilian casualties,”  Ms. Younes said.
The reason, she said, was that the alliance had created its own definition for ‘confirmed’: Only a death that NATO itself investigated and corroborated could be called confirmed. But because the alliance declined to investigate allegations, its casualty tally by definition could not budge–from zero.
If you recall the corporate media coverage of the war while it was happening, Libyan leaders were churning out laughably clumsy propaganda about civilian deaths.  ‘Libya Stokes Its Machine Generating Propaganda’ was the June 7 headline of a New York Timesstory by John Burns, who scoffed at the ‘nightly propaganda tour’ of the Libyan capitol. It seemed obvious at the time that Burns and his ilk were offended by by the Libyan government’s inability to lie as effectively as the NATO generals.
The Times also investigated August airstrikes that it termed ‘NATO’s bloodiest known accidents in the war’–a series of strikes on buildings in the town of Majer:
The attack began with a series of 500-pound laser-guided bombs, called GBU-12s, ordnance remnants suggest. The first house, owned by Ali Hamid Gafez, 61, was crowded with Mr. Gafez’s relatives, who had been dislocated by the war, he and his neighbors said.
The bomb destroyed the second floor and much of the first. Five women and seven children were killed; several more people were wounded, including Mr. Gafez’s wife, whose her lower left leg had to be amputated, the doctor who performed the procedure said.
Minutes later, NATO aircraft attacked two buildings in a second compound, owned by brothers in the Jarud family. Four people were killed, the family said.
Several minutes after the first strikes, as neighbors rushed to dig for victims, another bomb struck. The blast killed 18 civilians, both families said.
The death toll has been a source of confusion. The Qaddafi government said 85 civilians died. That claim does not seem to be credible. With the Qaddafi propaganda machine now gone, an official list of dead, issued by the new government, includes 35 victims, among them the late-term fetus of a fatally wounded woman the Gafez family said went into labor as she died.
The Zlitan hospital confirmed 34 deaths. Five doctors there also told of treating dozens of wounded people, including many women and children.
The airstrikes in Majer were discussed by FAIR in an August 18 media advisory, where it was noted that several reports talked about a death toll of about 30. The deaths were barely covered at all. As we pointed out, the Paper of Record did not think much at the time:
The New York Times (8/10/11) ran a 170-word version of a Reuters dispatch which noted: ‘There was no evidence of weapons at the farmhouses, but there were no bodies there, either. Nor was there blood.’
Corporate media were more offended by inflated Libyan claims about civilian casualties than they were about the false denials coming from the people doing the killing. What’s worse, to kill people and then deny that you did so, or to overstate how many people your enemies were killing? Many reporters–too many–seemed to think the latter was the more serious crime.