Attacks on the Press 2003: Introduction

By Ann Cooper

In real-time images, the war in Iraq splashed across television screens worldwide in March, with thousands of journalists covering the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein and his regime.

The conflict and its aftermath had a far-reaching impact on the press and its ability to report the news, with the reverberations felt in some surprising places and in unsettling ways.

In Iraq itself, 13 journalists died in hostile acts. Most were foreign correspondents killed in conflict situations, such as suicide bombings and air strikes, but the dead also included the Iraqi editor of a newspaper newly freed from decades of stifling censorship. Ahmed Shawkat was gunned down at his office in October in reprisal for his work. Shawkat’s articles criticized Islam, Saddam Hussein, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The deaths in Iraq were more than a third of the global total of 36 journalists killed during 2003 because of their work.

Journalists from dozens of countries covered the war, either traveling “embedded” with U.S. or British troops or reporting “unilaterally,”from Baghdad or the field. And there were great disparities in how correspondents reported. In the United States, for example, the media’s dominant focus was often on the U.S. military, while Arab television was far more likely to present the story through graphic images of Iraqi civilian casualties. The choices of emphasis and images led to one of the most bizarre attacks on the press in 2003, when the New York Stock Exchange revoked the credentials of two reporters from the Qatar-based satellite TV station Al-Jazeera. The ostensible reason was that the exchange floor was overcrowded, though exchange officials also acknowledged anger at what some Americans deemed as offensive coverage on Al-Jazeera. A few days earlier, the station had aired footage of American prisoners of war and U.S. soldiers’ corpses. U.S. broadcasters largely shunned those images, leading to criticism that their coverage was sanitized and overly patriotic.

And so it went around the world, with the war provoking fierce debates about the nature of truth and the role of journalism.

The war also provided cover for dictators like Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with Iraq during the first week of the fighting in March, Castro launched a massive crackdown on political dissidents. They included 29 journalists, all in prison at year’s end, whose courageous and critical reporting, many for foreign Web sites, had provided the world with some of the only independent accounts of life under Castro’s fearsome rule.

Following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the conflict in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq also reinforced a troubling new international climate in which it has grown easier for foes of press freedom to curb independent reporting in the name of fighting terrorism or defending national security.

For example, Morocco’s long record of relative tolerance for critical media was marred by the arrests of several journalists, some of whom were charged under an antiterrorism law passed in 2003. And after the United States embedded several hundred journalists with military forces headed for Iraq, Indonesia embraced the idea with a disturbing twist: Those reporters allowed to accompany Indonesian soldiers into battle against rebels in the separatist state of Aceh were warned that their stories must “contain the spirit of nationalism.”

If the world’s new security- and terrorism-conscious atmosphere emboldened restrictive governments, it also sometimes seemed to silence more democratic states with histories of speaking up in defense of human rights. Thus, few diplomatic reprimands were heard while President Vladimir Putin presided over the continued erosion of press freedom in Russia. In fact, in September, U.S. President George W. Bush shocked even some of his conservative supporters when he called Russia “a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive.” And in Africa, leaders such as South African President Thabo Mbeki kept silent while President Robert Mugabe forced almost all foreign media out of Zimbabwe and closed the country’s only independent daily paper.

With diplomats and politicians less likely to defend journalists, it grew more imperative than ever for members of the media and press freedom advocates to stand up against repression. And in many cases, their advocacy made a difference, gaining the release of Internet journalists in China and Tunisia and helping secure pardons, in January 2004, for two Moroccan journalists who were imprisoned in 2003.

Journalists also played a key role in a stunning human rights victory in Hong Kong, where public protests forced the government to withdraw the controversial “subversion” legislation that, among other things, would have seriously curbed press freedoms. And in Costa Rica, a journalist’s dogged fight against his conviction for criminal defamation could win an important precedent that would ease the threat of criminal sanctions against other journalists throughout the Americas.

Such a precedent would be welcome news, since imprisonment remains a common tool for silencing journalists whose work uncovers corruption, human rights abuses, or other misdeeds. At the end of 2003, 138 journalists were in prison.. China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the fifth year in a row with 39 behind bars, and Cuba leapt to number two with 29 journalists in jail. The number of imprisoned journalists remained stable in 2003 because there were significant drops in Nepal and Turkey, coupled with an enormous roundup in Cuba. In addition, a number of countries–Togo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, and Russia–each released one or two journalists in 2003.

The journalists who died in Iraq offered terrible reminders of the great risks faced by war correspondents. But, as in previous years, the majority of the 36 journalists killed in 2003 were murdered far from battlefields. Five were killed in the Philippines for their coverage of local corruption or criticism of public officials. Four more died in Colombia, three of them murdered for their reporting. And in Russia, the editor-in-chief of a hard-hitting provincial newspaper was stabbed to death outside his home–the paper’s second editor-in-chief to be murdered for his work in 18 months.

Though 2003 began with the convictions of several men for the 2000 murder of Mozambican investigative journalist Carlos Cardoso, the Cardoso case remained an exception; most murders of journalists continue to be committed with impunity. That makes journalists very vulnerable targets in countries such as the Philippines and Colombia, where the murders of dozens of journalists remain unpunished.

War correspondents face a different kind of risk in conflict zones. They are rarely “targeted” in direct reprisal for what they have written. Yet throughout 2003, those who covered the Iraq conflict spoke often of being “targets,” and in some senses they were. Their expensive computers and satellite phones made them prey to bandits, particularly on road trips into and out of the country. Some of the buildings they frequented for work or leisure–the U.N. headquarters or a popular restaurant–were prime targets of insurgency bombings. By year’s end, even the most seasoned war correspondents were calling Iraq the most dangerous assignment they had ever covered.

Despite the dangers, few spoke of abandoning the story, perhaps because the conflict has implications well beyond the future of Iraq itself. In response to the danger, some media organizations, particularly television broadcasters, hired armed security professionals to escort their journalists while they traveled in Iraq to report. Others–again including many television broadcasters–angrily denounced the practice, arguing that those who use armed guards jeopardize the perception of journalists as neutral observers. The debate intensified as reports circulated about journalists (not just their guards) carrying weapons.

Shortly before the war began, CPJ published a comprehensive security handbook for journalists, called “On Assignment: A Guide to Reporting in Dangerous Situations.” While noting that media organizations had hired armed guards in some particularly dangerous conflicts, including Somalia in the early 1990s, CPJ warned that journalists who carry guns or travel with armed guards endanger their status as neutral observers and could encourage combatants to view them as legitimate military targets.

A popular media Web site based in the United States carried some fierce letters on the debate, though most appeared to agree with Associated Press reporter Richard Pyle, who covered the Vietnam War, which claimed dozens of journalists’ lives. Pyle argued that weapons are more likely to hurt journalists than help them. Noting how many had already died in Iraq, he wrote, “Covering that war would seem to have enough danger for the Fourth Estate without inviting more.”

Ann Cooper is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Before joining CPJ in 1998, she was a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years, serving as bureau chief in Moscow and Johannesburg.