Years of war and violence have led to extreme compassion fatigue when it comes to Iraq. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion — and during the insurgencies that followed — the media has been oversaturated with images depicting the death and destruction endured by Iraqis. After the initial power of public provocation, the threshold for what level of violence is deemed newsworthy has increased.
This compassion fatigue has contributed to the normalization of violence carried out against Iraqis, allowing their leaders to continue carrying out brutal human rights violations — with little response from the international community.
Take the latest protests. Demonstrators continue to occupy areas in and around Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, defying a government-imposed curfew and calling for more jobs, better services and an end to corruption. This brave, intelligent and hopeful new generation of Iraqis are demanding the removal of political elites and sectarian factions, and have refused to retreat.
In response, security forces have targeted protesters with live rounds. Firsthand accounts and footage recorded by activists suggest tear gas canisters are being used not as deterrents, but as weapons. Videos shared on social media show demonstrators falling to the floor after being struck by grenades, gas pouring out from their heads. They are allegedly being fired at head-height and point-blank range. Medical professionals have even shared CT scan images of skulls that were pierced by canisters.
There have been powerful reports of these abuses from journalists on the ground. Yet they have not been given the attention they deserve, and there has been little international outcry. How many more people will have to die for this violence in Iraq to become the focus of international news?
This lack of attention is part of a longer trend in both the media and society. The Mosul offensive against the Islamic State — like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where tens of thousands of people were killed — dominated the headlines. But during episodes of insurgency or public unrest, international coverage is largely inconsistent.
Between 2015 and 2016, Islamic State attacks became so regular that only the deadliest would make it to the top of the news. For example, in March 2016, an Islamic State suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt at a soccer stadium in the southern town of Iskandariya, killing 41 people — including 17 children. News outlets, however, quickly moved on from the attack. There were no eulogies showing the names and faces of those who died, in stark contrast to the treatment given to victims of terrorist attacks in Europe. The media’s inattention to these deadly attacks in Iraq only reinforced the idea that abusers could act at will and with impunity.
The reality is that much of today’s mainstream coverage of international news remains formulaic. News organizations face immense pressure to return profit, and the need to increase and retain audience figures, paper sales, subscriptions and clicks has blurred the line between what’s in the public interest and what the public are interested in.
Yet the fate of Iraq’s people is not only a humanitarian issue but also a vital factor in regional and international stability. It was the disenfranchisement of some Iraqis which helped create a climate for the Islamic State to sweep through the country and carry out attacks from France to Sri Lanka. Unrest has already had an impact on the price of crude oil, and archenemies the United States and Iran both have vested interests in the country.
When the media does report on Iraq with depth and context, we have seen stories generate clicks and shares. On Vice News’s online platform, for example, longer-form video reports on Iraq, which often tell the human side of conflict, regularly rack up significant views. This tells me there is an audience if organizations put in the effort to engage a wider, nontraditional audience in nontraditional ways. There are also real-world impacts.
In October 2016, I reported from Qayyarah, a town on the outskirts of Mosul that had just been liberated from the Islamic State. Many of those I spoke to were fed-up and, given the state of their existence over the past three decades, didn’t believe speaking to us would change anything. There are many things that contributed to this, but inconsistent international attention to their suffering had added to their feelings of hopelessness.
The media alone cannot overcome the world’s disappointing compassion fatigue on Iraq. It is likely that, even with more coverage of Iraq, atrocities would still take place — and parts of the world would still remain silent. But effective reporting would likely put pressure on authorities to investigate accusations of abuses and hold offenders accountable. And without it, Iraq’s new generation will fall into the same cycle of violence and hopelessness as the ones before them.