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US Forces Newsweek To Back Down From Its Koran Desecration Story: Reporting the truth
We live in a world where the means of communication are so sophisticated and swift that they can stir up violent emotions almost instantly in some of the least advanced countries in the world.
As a result policies are destroyed, buildings are torched, and people killed even before the initial report can be verified.
On 9 May, the US magazine Newsweek printed a paragraph that read: "Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell Newsweek: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Koran down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash."
The item, with its reference to the mistreatment of the Koran, was spotted by someone on the Arabic-language television news channel al-Jazeera and broadcast as a news report.
Since then, there have been violent riots in at least six areas: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, the Palestinian territories and Indonesia. A dozen or more people have died.
A spokesman for the Pentagon in Washington put the blame squarely on Newsweek. "People are dying," he said. "They are burning American flags. Our forces are in danger."
The pressure was on Newsweek to retract its report. The magazine checked with its source - a senior US official - who confirmed that he had come across references to the mistreatment of the Koran in the results of an US investigation into the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.
But he was no longer certain that they had come from the specific report he had originally named.
This was immediately greeted in the US as a sign that Newsweek had backed down, though nothing in the Newsweek statement indicated that it had.
These are not even the first allegations that US guards and interrogators have desecrated the Koran in order to frighten prisoners or humiliate them.
On his website the respected US authority on the Middle East, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, carries a despatch from the Italian news agency Ansa on 18 August 2004. It quotes accusations from former Guantanamo prisoners that a Koran was thrown into a toilet.
Perhaps these specific allegations are true, and perhaps they are not. But people tend to believe them, because there have been so many other allegations of deliberate anti-Islamic acts from Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq - of prisoners being forced against their religious convictions to shave their beards, and even to eat pig-meat.
The shaving clearly happened: there is pictorial evidence for that. As for the forcible feeding of pork and bacon, and the desecration of the Koran itself, these things have not been proven. But such reports are instantly believed across the Islamic world.
So should Newsweek have reported the Koran allegation, given its inflammatory nature? It looks very much as though the magazine's editors had no idea that it would be taken up so widely, or cause so much trouble.
And what about al-Jazeera? Should it have rebroadcast it, knowing how fiercely the allegation would be received by Muslims around the world?
Media under fire
The weakness of the story lies, as the Pentagon spotted immediately, in the vagueness of its sourcing, though Newsweek was perfectly clear that the source was an official who had seen the detail about the Koran in an official report.
With hindsight, perhaps, the magazine would have been more comfortable if it had had more details. But it did not try to deceive its readers about the story.
Yet since this was by no means the first time that allegations of the desecration of the Koran by US guards and interrogators have emerged, Newsweek may not have been as concerned as it might otherwise have been.
What about al-Jazeera's part in the affair? Well, if news broadcasting is about telling people what is of interest to them, then the station was only doing its job - even if that job is something which the UK and US governments often dislike and suspect. (A leading adviser to the White House habitually calls al-Jazeera "the enemy".) All al-Jazeera did was to report what Newsweek was saying.
It is hard to avoid the inference that the people who are really to blame are the men and women who have abused their prisoners, not those who have reported allegations about the ill treatment.
What happened in prisons like Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib after 2001 has done serious damage to the United States and its allies: not just the dwindling number who still have troops in Iraq, but the new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Do not blame the news media for this. Instead, all the effort needs to go into convincing the world that the abuse has stopped, and will never be allowed to start again.
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan were skeptical after a U.S. magazine backed away from a report that U.S. interrogators desecrated copies of the Quran while questioning prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
The account in Newsweek magazine's May 9 issue has been blamed for sparking deadly riots in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world.
On Sunday, Newsweek backed away from the report and offered its sympathies "to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst." (Full story)
But Muslims said they suspected that pressure from Washington was behind the magazine's climbdown, Reuters reported Monday.
"We will not be deceived by this," Islamic cleric Mullah Sadullah Abu Aman told Reuters in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan.
"This is a decision by America to save itself. It comes because of American pressure. Even an ordinary illiterate peasant understands this and won't accept it."
On Sunday, a group of clerics led by Aman vowed to call for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States in three days unless it handed over the interrogators reported to have desecrated the Quran.
He said the call for a holy war still stood. In the May 9 story, Newsweek cited sources as saying investigators looking into abuses at the military prison found interrogators "had placed Qurans on toilets, and in at least one case flushed a holy book down the toilet."
CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen said "desecrating the Quran is a death-penalty offense" in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
The Pentagon said last week it was unable to corroborate any case in which interrogators at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, defiled the Muslim holy book, as Newsweek reported.
At least 15 people were killed and dozens injured last week when thousands of demonstrators marched in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world, officials and eyewitnesses said.
"Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we," Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in the magazine's May 23 issue, out Sunday.
"But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."
Some Afghans, however, were unconvinced.
"It's not acceptable now that the magazine says it's made a mistake," Reuters quoted 42-year-old writer and journalist Hafizullah Torab as saying. "No one will accept it."
Sayed Elyas Sedaqat, who heads a cultural group in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, where the protests began last Tuesday, said: "Possibly, the American government put pressure on the magazine to issue the retraction to avoid the anger of Muslims."
In neighboring Pakistan, a religious party said it was going ahead with a call for protests on May 27.
"Newsweek is backtracking, but it's not just their report," said Ghaffar Aziz, a top official of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. "All innocent people released from U.S. custody have said on the record that there was desecration of the Koran."