AntiNote: We return here to our continuing collaboration with the German “prole-cult” journalism collective Lower Class Magazine. Some of their members have been traveling in Kurdistan once again, and are once again pulling information and insight out of places we are apparently not meant to be looking.
This seems like a good ice-breaker, a little peek behind the curtain, and an interrogation of a matter close to all of us who work in insurgent media: trust and trustworthiness, and how its assignation—as we have often emphasized in these pages—can be an ideological question. Frequently with a disappointing answer.
Translations of their substantive reporting will follow.
“No, that’s not a tree.”
Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Co.: LCM’s attempt at cooperation with German prestige media
by Fatty McDirty for Lower Class Magazine
28 April 2017 (original post in German)
Imagine: you are standing in front of a tree. You call up a guy thousands of kilometers away. You say to him, “I am standing in front of a tree.” He replies, “That isn’t a tree.” You turn your camera phone around, point it at the trunk, then the crown, and you send him a picture. His response: “So. A photo. Anyone can fake a photo. I don’t believe your tree story.” You feel yourself starting to lose it. You can touch the bark, pluck the leaves; it’s a fucking tree.
But how do you prove it to this dude? You film the tree, with metadata and all that jazz. “Nope, not a tree,” he insists. “I would know. I’m a tree expert.”
You’re pulling out your hair. You make audio recordings of conversations with passersby, who confirm: “Yep, there’s definitely a tree right there.” The tree expert stands firm. “You are not a tree expert, and neither are they,” he says, “so I cannot with a clear conscience disseminate your report that there is a tree in front of you. Besides, the German Central Committee of Treeology has confirmed that there are no trees where you are. So it can’t be a tree.”
The story seems absurd, and it is. And yet it is precisely what happened to us over the last few days, after we decided to take up contact for the first time with that storied guild known as the professional press.
Big story, little impact
A couple weeks ago we thought we’d landed a pretty major scoop. The story went like this: on 3 March 2017 there were skirmishes around Khasanor, Iraq; afterwards a video turned up on the internet apparently showing the use of German armored vehicles by fighters under the Kurdish warlord Mesud Barzani—against Yezidi militias. If the video is accurate, this was definitely illegal.
The German government’s first public statement on the matter came on March 31, through state secretary Walter Lindner: there is a so-called Final Disposition Declaration [Endverbleibserklärung], he said, that stipulates equipment obtained from Germany may only be deployed against ISIS; he regards full compliance with this clause as assured, because all those suspected of committing the infraction have been questioned. The government in Erbil “took the allegations seriously,” and the results of their rigorous investigation have been released to the German government. According to their report, “no German materiel had been deployed in any battles except those against ISIS terrorists.”
Great, we thought. We were nonetheless in the area where the incident took place, the Yezidi region around the Sinjar mountains, so we started to look into it. The picture was definitive. Every resident of the area knew about the use of German armor on March 3. We collected witness statements, visited the front lines (where the hostile parties were still facing off), and were able to scare up four more videos of the incident.
We thought our efforts had paid off. Still, we’re just a little blog—not to mention one whose origins in the extra-parliamentary radical left can hardly be denied. We didn’t want to make it too easy for our opponents to wriggle out of accountability, we’re an easy target, so we thought: we’ve worked diligently, let’s just offer this whole pile to one of these fantastic legacy media outlets and let them report it out.
Ready, set, fail. First there were no replies. So we posted on Facebook asking who among our social media swarm could help us. Hundreds of comments and a few inquiries later, negotiations were set up, and then canceled, over and over, without anyone ever giving us a reason why the results of our research couldn’t be used. Frequently, it went like this: an editor is considering doing an article for Newspaper XY; after a conversation with his boss communications abruptly cease.
Now, we’ve got a pretty good network, so we have been able to get our hands on some email exchanges from the editorial offices of some of these large media companies, which, out of consideration for the leakers, we regrettably cannot publish. In these emails, two simple reasons for the odd behavior become apparent. The first is ignorance of the region, plain and simple: foreign affairs editors who cannot distinguish among the many Kurdish militias, who still think Rojava is a city, and otherwise give the impression they think the Middle East is about as far from Germany as Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe.
The Great PKK Swindle
The second reason, beyond this disturbing lack of knowledge, is even more important: they don’t trust us. The German government has been quietly spreading the rumor among journalists that the videos are fakes. And since we are leftists, after all (as the thinking in certain newsrooms might go), we’re probably somehow involved in the Great PKK Swindle.
At first, the realization is kind of funny. People who get paid many thousands of euros each month to slip this or that Truth into the diminishing gaps between advertisements accuse people practicing journalism out of conviction of being untrustworthy—and precisely because we do it out of conviction and not for money. Anyone who feels themselves, as we do, as belonging to the Kurdish liberation movement, or to the left more generally, is simply “biased.”
Ding ding ding, that is correct. We are definitely not neutral. We are for a society beyond capitalism; we are against bourgeois states and their power structures and a whole panoply of other shitty things. But does that make us untrustworthy as journalists? And another thing: You find us lacking in credibility? What about you? You are also not free of ideology. Further, our bias is up front and obvious, and any reader can therefore reflect on our orientation and take it into account. They can argue with us about it. If someone’s got a better argument than ours, we might even adjust.
Mainstream journos, in contrast, try to project the image that they provide information with a floating, disinterested omniscience, like that of Laplace’s demon. The biggest lie that this illustrious guild repeats to itself day after day is that it doesn’t have a position. But it does, of course: firmly rooted in the foundations and forms of consciousness that reproduce capitalist modernity.
A long stick, a swift broom
But nevermind all that. Isn’t the goal of bourgeois-democratic journalism also, at its core, to keep a critical eye and be a check on government? And sure, you don’t have to believe our every word (although the allegation that we—or the Yezidis—faked four videos with multiple Bundeswehr Dingos and invented seven deaths is outrageous). But is there anything you could do?
Well, you could be a bit more critical of your government and at least attempt to investigate its claims. We don’t have any financial resources. And we are here in the Middle East anyway. How hard could it be for Der Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to not just inquire in Erbil for once, but come to Khanasor or to Serdest on Sinjar to have a look into what really happened on March 3? No, they’d rather sit in their newsrooms and say, “Well, if the Central Committee of Treeology says your tree video is of ‘uncertain origin,’ then there’s nothing for us to investigate.”
This experience shows that we have to build up our own media. Because, as the Chinese popart model Mao Tse-tung once said, “Where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.” And, “In waking a treeologist, use a long stick.”
PS: We reached a collective agreement, I regret to report, not to release any of our correspondence with the prestigious treeologists here. Its contents would turn any middle-schooler with superficial knowledge of the Middle East bright red with shame. Kind regards also to VICE.
Translated by Antidote