Dec 1 2013

Seeing What They Want to See in Malala

Media amplify Yousafzai’s criticisms of Taliban, not US drones

Obama meeting with Malala Yousafzai

You’d think a 16-year-old criticizing the world’s most powerful person in his own office would be news.

Sixteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley one year ago, and has remained a steadfast champion of girls’ education in the face of continued threats on her life. She’s received extensive coverage in US corporate media as a symbol of the Taliban’s war on girls.

The attention for Yousafzai is well-deserved. But it stands in striking contrast to the muted coverage of another form of violence affecting girls and women in Pakistan: US drone strikes.

This disparity was on full display during Yousafzai’s heavily covered October visit to the United States, when her remarks portraying the US government as anything but heroic were ignored by most major US media outlets—particularly her insistence that the US government and the Taliban are both obstacles to women’s rights in the tribal regions of Pakistan, a sentiment she bravely expressed to President Obama when she met with him in the Oval Office on October 11.

Yousafzai (McClatchy, 10/11/13) released a statement after that meeting:

I…expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education, it will make a big impact.

Her comments echo a report published last year by Stanford and NYU (Living Under Drones, 9/12), which found that the 24-hour-a-day presence of US drones buzzing over northwest Pakistan “terrorizes men, women and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.” As a result, “some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school.”

But Talking Points Memo (10/12/13), Politico (10/11/13) and MSNBC (10/11/13), all of which reported on the Obama/ Yousafzai meeting, didn’t bother mentioning Yousafzai’s statement on drone strikes, which raises questions about whether the media outlets praising this extraordinary girl for speaking out are even listening to what she has to say.

In the week following the meeting, ABC, NBC and CBS aired 20 Malala Yousafzai–related stories, according to a search of the Nexis news media database. But not one of them mentioned her comments about US drone strikes. In the same time period, the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and Los Angeles Times ran 24 Yousafzai-related articles, only one of which (Washington Post, 10/17/13) mentioned her indictment of US drone policy.

This by no means absolves the Taliban of its heinous policies towards women and girls, but it does reveal a great deal of hypocrisy in a mainstream press that’s quick to publicize the Taliban’s cruelty while ignoring equally inhumane US practices in Pakistan, which a recent Amnesty International report (10/22/13) described as “unlawful killings that may constitute …war crimes.”

The Amnesty report profiles an eight-year-old girl named Nabila and her brother Zubiar, 13, who were injured last year as they watched their grandmother killed by a US airstrike as she picked vegetables on their family’s land in north Waziristan.

“I wasn’t scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?” Nabila told Amnesty.

The children and their father testified in person about their experience at a congressional briefing on October 29, marking the first time Congress heard from survivors of the CIA’s drone war (Guardian, 10/29/13). Only five members of Congress bothered to show up.

Some might call Nabila brave for her willingness to stand up to the most powerful country on earth over its atrocities. Yet elite journalists are not rushing to praise her like they did Yousafzai. Perhaps it’s because Nabila threatens the narrative that glorifies US aggression, often in the name of protecting brown women from their uncivilized culture. Yousafzai’s struggle against the Taliban, on the other hand, can be easily co-opted to reinforce the idea that the US is fighting the good fight against an evil entity, even if Yousafzai’s own words contradict this framing.

Almost immediately after Yousafzai was shot, Cynthia Dill, a former Democratic state senator in Maine, took to the Huffington Post (10/11/12) to proclaim that “thanks to…the presence of US troops and allies in Afghanistan, the rights of women and girls in this region have grown as individual freedoms have flourished.” In an editorial praising Yousafzai, the Washington Post (10/11/13) recently echoed this sentiment, writing: “When US troops helped Afghans topple the Taliban in 2001, vistas for Afghan women opened that were unthinkable earlier. But the Taliban did not disappear, and it continued to pursue its medieval thinking.”

What the Washington Post forgets to mention is that the continued presence of those troops combined with US drone strikes serve as helpful recruiting tools for the very militants that Yousafzai has been praised for defying (New York Times, 5/29/12).

Extra! December 2013