Pakistan News

The first casualty

The first casualty

SHORTLY after the horrific Mina stampede, a news item appeared on the Iranian English language TV channel Press TV’s website. This article alleged that the stampede was caused when a massive security convoy escorting Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud arrived at Mina with 200 army and 150 police personnel. It was his arrival, the report alleged, that “prompted a change in the direction of the movement of the pilgrims and a stampede”.

This news item was then picked up by various outlets and was also widely shared on social media. However, this was not independently reported by any other news agency, prompting an examination of the source of this news.

The report cites an Arabic-language Lebanese daily named Al Diyar as its source. This newspaper is generally considered to be pro-Baathist and leans towards the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. That’s important because, as we all know, the Syrian government is supported by Iran and opposed by Saudi Arabia, making the latter a target of choice for the paper in question.

It was Al Diyar that first ran the story regarding an alleged Saudi offer to build 400 mosques in Germany for Syrian refugees. The Saudi government has since denied that it made any such offer, but that denial got a lot less play than the story itself. A news report claiming that the Makkah governor Prince Khalid Al Faisal blamed the stampede on African pilgrims was also later denied, but it is unclear if that statement was in fact retracted or if it was not made in the first place.

Press TV later also ran a televised report based on this same story, running footage that shows a large security convoy arriving at Mina. The footage is indeed authentic, but dates back several years and is in no way related to the current stampede.

The Saudis, for their part, have been less agile in their spin and damage control. Belatedly, they released an infographic from a semi-official source that claimed the stampede was caused by a group of Iranian pilgrims going the wrong way.

Just like the Al Diyar report was picked up and reproduced by pro-Iran outlets, groups and individuals, the Saudi version of ‘news’ was duly picked up by pro-Saudi and pro-GCC media outlets, such as the Saudi Gazette, the Khaleej Times and many others.

One particularly creative report even had a quote from an (unnamed) Iranian Haj official who “admitted” that Iranian pilgrims caused the stampede. This particular report even made it to the pages of none other than our very own Daily Ummat, where it was gleefully reproduced. Needless to say, the unnamed official has not been identified, probably because he does not exist.

Social media is, of course, a massive platform for the generation and dissemination of misinformation, and here there are at least two cases that come to mind. One was a short video of a Saudi dignitary in full regalia, performing the tawaf along with a few officials while a security cordon kept the rest of the masses out. This was captioned in a way as to show that the Saudi rulers even press their privilege at an occasion where all Muslims are supposed to shed difference of class, colour and nationality and stand united before God.

This video, however, is most likely not from the Haj, let alone from this Haj. Instead, it is similar to many other videos available online that show the ceremony of the washing of the Kaaba and the changing of its cloth covering.

Another picture montage shows a pile of bodies, clearly pilgrims, juxtaposed with two pictures of a bulldozer removing what the caption claims are bodies. Again, this is meant to depict the inhumanity with which the Saudis treated the dead, lifting them up as if they were so much garbage.

But dig a little deeper and look for the original and unpixelated photo and you’ll see that it is indeed garbage that the bulldozers are lifting. The photo is several years old, as is the accompanying picture of the piled bodies. That latter image is taken from a 2004 video, in which it is clear that many of those pilgrims are still alive. They are not, as the montage implies, gathered in a pile for quick disposal via bulldozer.

Does this absolve the Saudis of responsibility? Absolutely not. There are numerous eyewitness accounts claiming some form of obstruction from security forces during the ritual, and these must be investigated in a transparent manner. That won’t happen of course; the Saudis tend towards secrecy and statements from officials there do not imply that any heads will roll as a result of this tragedy.

And in that absence of information, conspiracy theories and misinformation will naturally thrive. Mina is now another theatre of the region-wide conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and, as we know, the first casualty of war is the truth.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2015

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