We are all familiar with the phenomenon of old news. A story which was on the front page for weeks gradually stops being reported because other things are considered more newsworthy. The issues which made the story so newsworthy are still there, but the media owners decide that the public is bored with them, inconvenient truths, and the audience wants to hear about something else.
The question is: how is this decided? Now we have the internet you can see how popular stories are by the number of hits they get – although that is only a rough measure, as you don’t know why those stories are actually being read, or by whom in particular. But how did anyone decide before then whether a story was stale or not? If it was by editorial judgment, what does that actually mean?
The inhabitants of Libya and Yemen might well ask the same question. Libya was in the news frequently under Gaddafi because he was an international pariah, and any story about his actions, repetitive or not, served a political purpose which suited the newspapers. When he was overthrown by the West we were fed stories about the heroic freedom fighters liberating their country from tyranny. What the people of Libya had done was a model for the rest of the world to follow, in the wake of UN Resolution 1973, so we were told, so all eyes were directed to what was happening there—as in a false flag.
But what now? Following the logic of earlier reports, we should now be hearing about all the positive steps being taken by the new Libyan government to reconstruct the country. But Libya is now yesterday’s news. If the issues which made that conflict news had gone away there would be no problem with reinstalling the experienced Gaddafi henchmen, cleansed of past misdeeds. That isn’t happening, so Libyans are fighting the same newsworthy cause, but someone has declared it is no longer important enough to hear.
Yemen is a similar case. It got dragged into the “Arab Spring” because of its location, despite the fact its government was in power as a result of the Western-backed reunification of the country, and its actions were no worse than those of a dozen other governments the West has supported. Such was the West’s devotion to Yemen’s freedom that the US maintained an embassy there despite it being bombed and civil war raging around. Then some documents were stolen, and the US fled like greased lightning. Suddenly Yemeni freedom is something no one wants to hear about, so we are told, even though most people are more interested in this obscure country now than they were before they heard the news reports.
Those who remember the Vietnam War do so because it was featured on Western TV screens practically every night, even though the story presented never changed much. So why Libya and Yemen are yesterday’s news now? Is it, perhaps, because the dream they represented has proved to be exactly that? Or that it was a lie all along, and any reportage would lead the Western public to the same conclusion?
Publicity works two ways. If the public doesn’t choose to believe the reports given, they rebound on you, as Tony Blair found over Iraq and its WMD’s. Libya and Yemen are yesterday’s news because media outlets are in a quandary – either they have to admit to telling false stories until now, or they have to keep telling them and risk people drawing their own conclusions. This is very embarrassing for those who can fly home to the West whenever they like and claim everything on expenses. It is even worse for the people of Libya and Yemen, whose concerns are not being addressed, but as always the people being reported about in the MSM are the ones that media is least concerned about.
Like every country the West intervenes in to help, Libya is learning the hard way that the strings attached are not what they thought they were. It would be logical to assume that Western countries believe in democracy and human rights and want to introduce and strengthen these values everywhere they go. It is even more logical to assume this when the justification given for Western interventions is exactly that – that these countries fall short of Western standards in these areas, and thus the West has a right to impose a superior culture on the country in response to public demand.
Libya was not a democracy under Gaddafi but had a functioning central government, for good or ill. Now it is run by competing militias, who do not derive their power from, or have any reason to serve, the Libyan people. These militias are supported by the West because they are fighting ISIS, which is also armed and supported by the West elsewhere. Exactly like the various mujahedeen groups were in Afghanistan when they were fighting the Soviets, until they began 25 years of civil war which was likewise made into “yesterday’s news” by the daredevil politicians who fought the Soviet invasion by boycotting the Olympics, not going to Afghanistan to help its people.
If Gaddafi’s repressive government was news, the militias running Libya should be even greater news. Can anyone pretend that warlords accountable to no one are more democratic or respectful of human rights than Gaddafi was, or have any interest in becoming so? But this is precisely why Libya is no longer on the front pages. The suffering people were sold a pup, and any publicity would make that cruelly obvious to a global audience which already tacitly assumes its governments will lie to it.
There are two contexts in which we hear about Libya nowadays. One is the hot topic of the day, migrants. Though fewer asylum seekers are trying to reach Europe, increasing numbers are trying to escape Libya by crossing the Mediterranean Libya is of course a Muslim country, and at present there is much talk about clamping down on Muslim asylum seekers because these countries might be “exporting terrorism”. But apparently Libya is not exporting terrorism, because Gaddafi is no longer in charge – the only “terrorists” are his supporters who hijack planes. If we were given the same coverage of Libya we were given before, if would not be hard to work out why this presentation is being made.
The other context is oil. The West always objected to Gaddafi deriving wealth from oil sales, even though it still bought the oil. Now OPEC is trying to restrict the flow of legal oil, and thus increase prices. Though there are token objections from the West, this actually suits its geopolitical purposes: restricting supply means restricting control, and the West can reach agreements in order to take a greater share of these legal supplies, as the main customer with a hand to play, and at the same time increase the importance of the illegal oil supplies it controls, which largely fund ISIS.
Now Libya wants to support itself, not unreasonably, it is ramping up oil production, which fell dramatically after Gaddafi’s overthrow. This would undoubtedly help not only the Libyan people, provided they had a government which could use the money for their benefit, but also Western consumers, as it would drive prices down again. But the warring militias, who were put in charge by Western actions, reaching an agreement to boost oil production is being presented as an implied threat rather than a global benefit. This completely contradicts the official line taken on Libya before, as we should all be ejoicing at this positive step to reconstruct a sovereign state as a Western partner, but as long as Libya is yesterday’s news, no one will notice this too much.
During the “Arab Spring” series of regime changes Yemen was presented as another state with a repressive government overthrown by popular will. What this meant was that its government was backed by Saudi Arabia, that well-known oil power, and due to the country’s history of division and occupation there were any number of groups who felt that they had more claim to power than the legal government.
After President Saleh was forced out in 2011 Mansur Hadi replaced him temporarily and then permanently in an election in which he was the only candidate, but supported by both the ruling party and the parliamentary opposition. Having then been forced out by Houthi rebels who had claimed they wanted to overthrow the departed Saleh, he fled to Saudi Arabia and asked for its support, as the still-legal President. As the Houthis had not formed any government he had as much right to ask for this support, and receive it, as Bashar al-Assad had to ask the Russian government for help in Syria.
The West has continually supported the Houthis and denounced the Saudi intervention as “aggression”, whereas its own armed intervention in the form of the Arab Spring was considered justified. In November the Houthis formed a new government, without consulting Hadi who rejected the move. The UN has called for the restoration of Hadi and the US has theoretically done the same. However it continues to support the Houthis and brokered the deal which created this new government, on the basis of “power-sharing”, without consulting the man it regards as the legal president.
If Yemen were in the news all this would be difficult to explain and keep track of. It is no more complex, however, than the means by which Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination for President when mathematically she hadn’t, and that was front page for months, with the numbers distorted accordingly. Furthermore, the same strictures apply as in the Libyan case. If the Houthis represent the legitimate desire of the Yemeni people their takeover should be seen as a celebration, proof of the rightness of the US position and a promise of prosperity for Yemen. Is it being reported that way, or at all, when the thrust of the reports from 2011 suggest that it should be?
The US has an answer to why Yemen is yesterday’s news. Since the embassy pulled out, it is merely fulfilling the terms of a contract by supporting one side of the conflict whilst presenting this as a peace move. We are now told that the conflict is a proxy one for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and therefore of no real interest to Western countries. For example, it is now revealed that the arms seized from a smuggling ship which happened to be off Yemen at the time were made in Iran – they may not have been intended for that conflict, but this particular shipment of what we are told is a long-running operation up the Arabian Peninsula is the one drawn attention to.
When the US ran away from Yemen after those documents were stolen it stated that it believed Iran had stolen them. If the Yemen conflict is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the US is on the other side to Saudi Arabia, what is the problem? In order to answer that question you have to ask what is in those documents which Iran could use against the US. If no one hears about Yemen any more, the only people asking that question will be in Iran and Saudi Arabia – not people in Western countries which can, and do, put pressure on their governments in relation to both these countries.
Yesterday’s news never completely goes away. The people crying out for attention to their problems are ignored, but eventually redemption of the dead story is at hand. Some new slant is put on the old news which makes it serve a purpose again, although the original issues we were encouraged to see as news never went away.
Afghanistan provides another example here. The conflict was brought to global attention again when the Taliban took control because a war-weary population was prepared to accept that alternative rather than keep fighting. Now the complexity of the previous situation had been cleared up, here was one clearly anti-Soviet group which the same causes could be imprinted upon.
When the true nature of the Taliban regime became apparent it was still in the news because it was one force easy to attack. The various other war machines n the country had done no different, the people had suffered just as much before, as Afghan refugees all over the word testify. But now the facts were less embarrassing, they were news, although they again ceased to be news when the Karzai government was seen by the population as another Western puppet.
One day Libya and Yemen will be top of the news pile again. But only when the events taking place there can be fitted to a narrative of Western geopolitical progress. As long as questions can be asked about what good the West has done in these countries we will be encouraged to look elsewhere. If something happens which can be expressed as a Western achievement – and it’s a big if at the moment – we will be hearing about the plight of the Libyan and Yemeni people again.
It used to be said that if you wanted to know what was going on the Soviet Union you read the humour magazine Krokodil. The US had its equivalent, MAD magazine, full of satires on US society and expectations. One of its cartoons featured a boy who kept asking his father things he wanted to know and being told “don’t bother me with stupid questions.” Finally the father answers one question, and the boy asks “Why was that a good question and not a stupid one?” The father replies, “Because THAT one I knew the answer to.” How long Libyans and Yemenis have to wait for Uncle Sam to hear that particular question we will have to wait and see.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.