Thursday, 8 December 2005

Chad’s genocide – missed by the media

Masses of information from the media constantly bombard us yet, paradoxically, often the most important goes uncovered. Take for instance, Africa. A country like Sudan suddenly comes under the spotlight. Reports of rape, massacre and corruption in the Darfur region reinforce all the stereotypes about the “dark continent” of savage aliens. And then, just as quickly, Sudan will fall from view.

However, while thousands of refugees from the Darfur conflict have fled to Chad, just to the west of Sudan, this country remains largely off the British and American media map. And so one of the most remarkable contemporary human rights campaigns goes largely unreported in the UK as the Belgium courts seek to try the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for crimes of genocide during his rule from 1982 to 1990 – even in the face of the Belgium Parliament’s decision to repeal its landmark “universal human rights jurisdiction” statute.

Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to NATO’s headquarters, the 1993 historic law, which allowed victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad, was repealed. Yet a new law, adopted in August 2003, allowed for the continuation of the case against Habré – much to the delight of human rights campaigners.

And finally last month, Senegal, where Habré has been under house arrest, arrested the former dictator to face an extradition request from Belgium over the genocide charges.

Formerly part of French Equatorial Africa, Chad gained its independence in 1960 and since then has been gripped by civil war. In a rare instance of coverage on 21 May 1992, the London-based Guardian carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that Habré had committed genocide against the Chadian people.

Five years ago, in a case inspired by the one against Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, several human rights organisations, led by Human Rights Watch, filed a suit against Habré in Senegal (his refuge since 1990). They argued that he could be tried anywhere for crimes against humanity and that former heads of state were not immune. However, on 21 March 2001, the Senegal Court of Cassation threw out the case. And so human rights campaigners turned their attention to Belgium where one of the victims of Habré’s torture now lives.

Extraordinary events but all of them hidden behind a virtual wall of silence in the West. Yet also hidden is the massive, secret war waged by the United States and Britain from bases in Chad against Libya. British involvement in a 1996 plot to assassinate the Libyan leader, Colonel Mu’ammar Gadafi, as alleged by the maverick M15 officer David Shayler, was reported as an isolated event. Yet it is best seen as part of a wide-ranging and long-standing strategy of the US and UK secret states to remove Gadafi.

Grabbing power by ousting King Idris in a 1969 coup, Gadafi (who, intriguingly, had followed a military training course in England in 1966) soon became the target of covert operations by the French, Americans, Israelis and British.

Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of M16, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade the country, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in an embarrassing flop. Nine years later, the head of the French secret service, Alain de Gaigneronde de Marolles, resigned after a French-led plan ended in disaster when a rebellion by Libyan troops in Tobruk was quickly suppressed.

Then, in 1982, away from the glare of the media, Habré, with the backing of the CIA and French troops, overthrew the Chadian government of Goukouni Wedeye. Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), in his semi-official history of the CIA, reveals that the Chad covert operation was the first undertaken by the new CIA chief William Casey and that, throughout the decade, Libya ranked as high as the Soviet Union as the bête noir of the White House. A report from Amnesty International, Chad: The Habré Legacy, records massive military and financial support for the dictator by the US Congress. It adds: “None of the documents presented to Congress and consulted by AI covering the period 1984 to 1989 make any reference to human rights violations.”

US official records indicate that funds for the Chad-based covert war against Libya also came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Iraq. The Saudis, for instance, gave $7million to an opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (also backed by French intelligence and the CIA). However, a plan to assassinate Gadafi and seize power on 8 May 1984 was crushed. In the following year, the US asked Egypt to invade Libya and overthrow Gadafi but President Mubarak refused. By the end of 1985, the Washington Post had exposed the plan after congressional leaders opposing it wrote in protest to President Reagan.

Frustrated in its covert attempts to topple Gadafi, the US government’s strategy suddenly shifted. For 11 minutes in the early morning of 14 April 1986, 30 US air force and navy bombers struck Tripoli and Benghazi in a raid code-named El Dorado Canyon.

The US/UK mainstream media were ecstatic. Yet the main purpose of the raid was to kill the Libyan president – dubbed a “mad dog” by Reagan. In the event, the first bomb to drop on Tripoli hit Gadafi’s home killing Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months – while his eight other children and wife Safiya were all hospitalised, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.

Reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media after the 1986 assault. But away from the glare of publicity, the CIA launched its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gadafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And as concerns grew in M16 that Gadafi was aiming to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya.

Then in 1990, with the crisis in the Gulf developing, French troops helped oust Habré in a secret operation and install Idriss Déby as the new President of Chad. The French government had tired of Habré’s genocidal policies while George Bush senior’s administration decided not to frustrate France in exchange for co-operation in its attack on Iraq. Yet, even under Déby, abuses of civil rights by government forces have continued.

Recently, relations between the US, UK and Libya have thawed, with Gadafi pledging support for the “war against terrorism” and agreeing to pay compensation to the victims of the 1988 Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing, for which a Libyan intelligence agent was jailed. But significantly, at his trial in November 2003, David Shayler was denied the right (under the European Convention of Human Rights) to speak out about the 1996 anti-Gadafi plot. Since it is obvious there are a lot of shady secrets from the years of the dirty war to conceal, such a decision by the court must have come as a relief to the government.

And a report in the Guardian of 15 March 2004 said US troops were arriving in several African countries, including Chad, as the Pentagon warned that the region runned the risk of becoming an al-Qaida recruiting ground. Giles Tremlett reported (“US sends special forces into North Africa”): “…US navy P-3 Orion aircraft guided Chad troops during a two-day battle on the border with Niger last week in which 43 suspected members of Algeria’s Salfist Group for Preaching and Combat were killed.” Oil reserves in North and West Africa are drawing increasing attention from the US. West Africa supplies the US with 15 per cent of its oil while the US National Intelligence Council has projected the figure will grow to 25 per cent by 2015.

Richard Keeble is Professor of Journalism at Lincoln University. His publications include Secret State, Silent Press (John Libbey; 1997), a study of the US/UK press coverage of the 1991 Gulf conflict.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005, 21:20

And so to Manchester University...

And so to Manchester University to give a talk titled “Translation and the Languages of Silence: Newspeak, nukespeak and the massacrespeak of New Militarism” at the Centre for Translation Studies and Intercultural Studies. I look first at Orwell’s newspeak, reminding the audience that one of the major themes of Nineteen Eighty Four is the political role of translators.

In his novel Orwell described a Big Brother state in which the authorities controlled thought and language by inventing a new one – newspeak. Significantly those who translate oldspeak into newspeak play the most crucial political and ideological roles in Oceana constantly re-translating history to conform to the demands of the present.

In the Appendix to Nineteen Eighty Four titled “The principles of newspeak” Orwell wrote: “The purpose of newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” In other words the dominant language served above all to silence all dissident modes of thought. And newspeak was inherently moving towards silence. Newspeak was, in effect, a language in a process of self-disintegration. Adjectives and adverbs were being cut. There was little need for them since almost any adjectival meaning could be arrived by adding –ful to a noun-verb. Thus speedful meant rapid. Adverbs were created by adding –wise - so speedwise meant quickly. And so on.

I then examine Paul Chilton’s concept of nukespeak to explain the specific language of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Chilton made three main claims. Firstly there existed a specialised vocabulary for talking about nuclear weapons together with habitual metaphors. Secondly that this variety of English was neither neutral nor purely descriptive but ideologically loaded in favour of the nuclear culture. And finally that nukespeak was massively important since it affected how people translated their thoughts and feelings about the subject and largely determined the ideas they exchanged about it.

The atomic bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were, indeed, weapons of mass destruction. Their deployment represented, according to Chilton, a revolutionary jump in military strategy. And inevitably it heralded a new order of experience in science, politics and everyday discourse.

The names given to these horrific bombs are very telling. They are strangely humanised drawing on familiar parts of our normal everyday lives. The horror is silenced. The Hiroshima bomb was called “Little Boy”, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki “Fat Man”. Edward Teller is known as the father of the H-Bomb.

Finally I examine the dominant (though contested) language of the mainstream media’s coverage of current US/UK military adventures. I argue that US/UK militarism is best understood as having three major strands each of them with a significant mediacentric dimension:

The totally secret activities with no media coverage. This will include the destabilisation by intelligence agencies and covert forces of countries and ruling elites: not just through the CIA but a range of clandestine forces. Other secret activities include the manipulation of elections, assassination of “enemy” military and political leaders, the arms trade, economic sanctions and diplomatic pressures. US covert intervention in Chad during the 1980s (organising two coups in 1982 and 1990 and imposing a series of ruthless dictators on the country) would provide an archetypal case study here.

Low Intensity Conflicts (LICs in the jargon). These are conflicts that are conducted mainly in secret but with occasional brief media coverage. Pentagon adviser John M Collins, in his seminal analysis of the United States’ LIC strategy, isolated just 60 US examples during the 20th century. These included Iran 1951-53, Bolivia 1980-86; Lebanon 1982-84. For the UK, the Irish Troubles/War (1967-1998) has been an archetypal LIC given only spasmodic coverage in the mainstream media. Currently US/UK operations in Afghanistan and Iraq can be defined as Low Intensity Conflicts. Recent massacres of civilians in Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq have gone largely uncovered in the mainstream media.

Finally, manufactured, media-hyped, quickie attacks against puny third world opposition usually largely celebrated by the mainstream press. These New Militarist attacks provide the spectacular theatres in which the US/UK can gain rapid “victories”. Recent examples include 1982 The Falklands; 1983 Grenada; 1986 Libya; 1989 Panama; 1991, 1993, 1998, 2001, 2003 Iraq; 1992-1993 Somalia; 1999 Serbia/Kosovo; 2001 Afghanistan.

And all of these conflicts resulted in massive civilian casualties – though the media represent them as largely “heroic”, “clean”, “precise” and “humanitarian”. Colin Powell, in his account of the 1991 Gulf conflict, estimated that 250,000 Iraqis perished. Thousands died during the Kosovo attacks; many more were traumatised and military sites, broadcast stations, hospitals, homes were bombed. Hundreds of thousands were left jobless. Up to 10,000 civilians died during the Iraq invasion of 2003 with more than 100,000 Iraqis reported killed since May 2003.

Thus the essential function of the mainstream media in New Militarist wars, I argue, is no longer to naturalise and humanise the possibility of nuclear holocaust as during the Cold War but to acclimatise the public to the acceptability of mass slaughters of the nameless “enemy”. In place of nukespeak we have the massacrespeak.

After my talk, Prof Mona Baker, of Manchester University, shows me a fascinating paper she has written on activist translators. She examines the work of committed translators and interpreters in such bodies at Peace Brigades International (, Front Line Defenders (, Babels ( and Translators without Borders (

Baker writes: “Today, the worldwide web has become a symbolic space in which peace activists and marginalised groups who wish to challenge dominant discourse can elaborate and practice a moral order in tune with their own narratives of the world. Translation enables such groups to elaborate their alternative narratives across national and linguistic boundaries.” In other words, Baker is arguing that translators need to translate a political analysis into political activism. I agree. And I incorporate some of Baker’s ideas when I repeat the talk to a meeting organised by the translation department at City University, London, later in the week.

Those interested in seeing the full text of my talk can email me at

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