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21 July

Tragedies compete for column inches

“And death shall have no dominion” – not even in print

It is a cruel rule of newsprint, that some deaths are more important than others. And it says something about a society’s values, which  fatalities editors chose to headline and which they chose to bury in the electronic equivalent of an inside page. A classic example are the individual obituaries which the New York Times gave to everyone who died in the September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers. Those who died in the subsequent retaliation in Afghanistan, perished in relative anonymity.
 
The most common assumption is that a latent racism informs all these choices.  One American death equals ten Europeans equals a thousand Africans, is another cruel media rule of thumb.  And yet sometimes it is this biased arithmetic which can itself be newsworthy. How can the deaths of just two Israeli citizens, the result of a volley of unsophisticated rockets from the Gaza enclave, justify a counter strike in which hundreds die? That question, asked with full fury of indignation, is the subject of speechifying by Turkish politicians at Ramadan break-fast dinners and it is a subject which has dominated the Turkish press.
 
The most radical pro-government press has more than hinted a desire for a new international Nazism which will finish the work of eradicating the Jews that Hitler left unfinished. The Turkish prime minister has gone nearly that far in saying the comparison with Hitler is not far-fetched and that Israel’s enormity has outstripped that of Nazi Germany.  The algebraic tables have been well and truly turned. The Second World War was a conflict in which up to 75 million people died, 40 million of those were civilians and 10 million died through systematic extermination in death camps.
 
The politics of  counting the dead
 
There is an upcoming presidential election in Turkey and there of course is  an element of competition in all this hyperbole. Turks, as many elsewhere, identify with the plight of the people in Gaza. The government controlled media presents the prime minister as the only politician even in the Islamic world, to care genuinely about Gaza. The opposition media, not to be left behind, accuse the government of shedding crocodile tears while pursuing pro-Israeli defence and trade policies.
 
The unevenness of the conflict  is in large measure what strikes so popular a chord. Yet, and at the same time, there are stories that appeared in the foreign press of  deaths of families and children which were under-reported in the Turkish press. The Daily Telegraph gave a detailed account of how three children on the day of the Gaza land offensive, perished in a rocket attack along with their grandfather who was escorting them to school. Indeed, some 300 people, nearly a quarter of them children died in the same brutal attack.  If that were not bad enough, access to the bodies has been denied and the corpses robbed. However, the deaths did not occur in Gaza but in the airspace over Eastern Ukraine.
 
The downing of Malaysian Airline flight MH17 should have enormous resonance for Turkey. The evidence so far suggests it was the work of Ukranian pro-Russian separatists, most probably with technical support from across the border.  What happens between Ukraine and Russia matters more in Turkey than many countries elsewhere. The lira even gave a wobble on the news.  The story is huge in the European press. According to Jonathan Freedland, in The Guardian:
 
As I write, 18 of the 20 most-read articles on the Guardian website are about MH17. The entry into Gaza by Israeli forces stands at number 21. It’s not hard to fathom why the Malaysian jet strikes the louder chord. As the preacher might put it, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Stated baldly, most of us will never live in Gaza, but we know it could have been us boarding that plane in Amsterdam.
 
One can only speculate that Hürriyet or Yeni Şafak readers, unlike Guardian readers, cannot imagine themselves on that plane.  And they may find it hard to engage their sympathies in  a conflict, which  they do not fully understand. To most, the issues in Gaza are black and white; in Ukraine, they are shades of grey.  
 
But there are other deaths which go unreported and unexamined. We know of 301 deaths in the Turkish mining town of Soma. But might those deaths have been prevented if the press had dwelled more on the thousand mining fatalities that occurred since 2000? How much space does the press give to the almost daily rate of attrition in the Turkish construction industry? The Turkish prime minister has called the deaths in Gaza part of a pattern of “systematic genocide.” Those in Soma, he labelled routine
 
In an ideal world we would feel everyone’s pain equally.  A nation’s  press is not that ideal. It reflects the world as it is. It is no easy task confronting the prejudices and loyalties of its audience that may be based on tribe or faith.  At the same time, it is the obligation of a responsible press to challenge those prejudices.  On Thursday, the day of the jet downing and the land invasion of Gaza, 112 people were killed in the Syrian province of Homs. But who knows and worst of all, who cares?
 
Moral outrage is all too easy an option and best left to the politicians who want our votes.  As journalists, the best course of option is to report what we see. And for that to happen, we cannot shut our eyes.


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