Attacks on the Press 2003: Iraq

The U.S.-led war in Iraq proved extremely dangerous for journalists. More than a dozen lost their lives reporting there in 2003, and many seasoned war correspondents have called the postwar environment the most risky assignment of their lives. With the demise of Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime, Iraqi media have flourished, but news organizations faced potentially restrictive new media regulations, as well as harassment from U.S. and Iraqi authorities.

While the Bush administration geared up for a military assault in 2002 and early 2003 to unseat Saddam Hussein, news organizations prepared to cover one of the biggest stories in years. Journalists braced for a range of possible dangers, including the prospect of Baghdad-based reporters being used as “human shields” or being taken hostage by the Iraqi government. There were major concerns that Saddam Hussein might use chemical or biological weapons, which would have not only jeopardized the local population but also those covering the front lines. Many journalists expressed fears about banditry and random violence in the chaos that might ensue following the collapse of the Iraqi regime. Journalists were also apprehensive about whether the Pentagon, which had sharply limited press access to previous conflicts in Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, and Afghanistan, would censor reporting and keep the press at bay.

But the Pentagon’s plan to embed some 600 journalists with U.S. troops proved to be advantageous for both media organizations and the military. Soon after the war began on March 20, networks captivated viewers with dramatic images of U.S. tanks rolling through the Iraqi desert and firefights between U.S. and Iraqi forces. Embedded reporters covered the battle of Baghdad, U.S. air strikes on the city, and Hussein’s garish palaces. They also produced a number of stories that embarrassed U.S. forces, such as Washington Post reporter William Branigin’s account of an incident in which U.S. soldiers killed 10 Iraqi civilians at a checkpoint in central Iraq, refuting the military’s claim that troops had fired warning shots that went unheeded. Also noteworthy was Dexter Filkins’ story in The New York Times describing a U.S. soldier who mistakenly shot an Iraqi woman and then remarked: “I’m sorry. But the chick got in the way.” Other stories described how armed Iraqis inflicted damage on U.S. Apache helicopters, forcing them to retreat, and how U.S. Army units were running out of food because supply lines had come under Iraqi attack.

Before the war began, embedded journalists raised concerns about whether they would face unreasonable restrictions. Embedded reporters were required to sign ground rules containing a host of vaguely worded provisions that could have easily been used to limit or censor reporting. In most cases, these formal restrictions were not enforced. However, some commanders did impose unreasonable embargoes on stories, expel a handful of reporters for alleged security breaches, and bar some from covering sensitive topics, such as a Los Angeles Times reporter who was told to refrain from reporting on extensive damage to a group of Apache helicopters, even though reporters with other units reported the details.

The close quarters shared by journalists and troops inevitably blunted reporters’ critical edge. There were also limits on what types of stories reporters could cover, since the ground rules barred journalists from leaving their unit. “[The] access could be suffocating and blinding,” noted the Los Angeles Times‘ David Zucchino, who was embedded with the 101st Airborne. “Often I was too close, or confined, to comprehend the war’s broad sweep. I could not interview survivors of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. soldiers or speak to Iraqi fighters trying to kill Americans. I was not present when Americans died at the hands of fellow soldiers in what the military calls ‘frat,’ for fratricide. I had no idea what ordinary Iraqis were experiencing. I was ignorant of Iraqi government decisions and U.S. command strategy.”

News organizations also covered the war with independent, non-embedded reporters, or “unilaterals,” as the Pentagon termed them. These journalists faced a multitude of hazards and restrictions, limiting the reporting from non-U.S. military perspectives.

The Pentagon frowned on the presence of unilateral reporters in Iraq. Officials repeatedly warned that the military could not guarantee their safety and urged them to avoid the country. Once hostilities began, Kuwaiti authorities systematically prevented non-embedded reporters from entering southern Iraq by enforcing a 75-mile (120-kilometer) “military exclusion zone” established in mid-February in the northern third of the country where U.S. troops were based. Those journalists wishing to travel to the border were required to obtain official approval from the Kuwaiti government, although in practice, few were granted approval. One Reuters correspondent told CPJ that if journalists managed to cross the border, they could work freely. But he said U.S. and British military authorities often would not speak to them or allow them into military bases.

In some cases, however, unilateral journalists faced outright harassment from U.S. forces. On March 25, U.S. troops detained two Israeli and two Portuguese journalists near Baghdad and accused them of being spies. According to the journalists, soldiers assaulted one of the men, Portuguese reporter José Castro, who was thrown to the ground and kicked in the ribs. In a separate incident, U.S. troops detained Christian Science Monitor reporter Phillip Smucker and escorted him out of southern Iraq to Kuwait on March 27, accusing him of revealing the location of a nearby military unit during a CNN telephone interview. (Smucker’s editors pointed out that the unit’s position had previously been revealed in other U.S. media.) He was marched away at gunpoint and denied contact with his newspaper and family for two days. Troops threatened to detain the journalist again when he re-entered Iraq a few days later.

Unilateral reporters who did manage to get into Iraq remained partly dependent on U.S. and coalition troops for security and supplies. In several instances, troops provided support to unilateral journalists and allowed them to accompany U.S. troops. Many journalists stayed away from the front lines altogether because of the fighting. The death of ITV News correspondent Terry Lloyd–who was killed after his car came under U.S. and Iraqi gunfire in southern Iraq in the first days of the war–made some non-embedded journalists more cautious. But there were other incidents in which non-embedded journalists came under fire, were nearly killed on the battlefield, or were detained after stumbling across Iraqi forces.

The 200 or so journalists who stayed in Baghdad to cover the start of the war faced similar challenges. Operating mainly from hotels, foreign correspondents worked under close Iraqi government supervision, with authorities assigning reporters minders who shadowed their moves. In many cases, the fear of expulsion further deterred hard-hitting reporting. Iraqi officials detained, threatened, or otherwise intimidated several reporters. Shortly after the war began, Iraqi authorities detained four reporters on suspicion of espionage. Freelance photographer Molly Bingham; Johan Rydeng Spanner, a freelance photographer with the Danish daily Jyllands Posten; and correspondent Matthew McAllester and photographer Moises Saman, both with the U.S.-based daily Newsday, were taken from the Palestine Hotel and held for eight days in Bagdhad’s Abu Ghraib Prison. The journalists were eventually released following an intensive international campaign on their behalf.

The war in Iraq raised public awareness about the risks journalists face to report the news. By year’s end, 13 journalists had been killed by hostile acts, while six others died of ailments or in accidents. Two more media workers–ITV News cameraman Fred Nerac and translator Hussein Othman–have been missing since late March, when they were caught in the crossfire incident in southern Iraq that killed ITV’s Terry Lloyd.

The bloodiest day of the war for journalists was April 8, when two separate attacks by U.S. forces killed three journalists and injured several others. In the first attack, a U.S. warplane struck an electricity generator outside the Baghdad bureau of the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. The attack occurred in an area of heavy fighting, although Al-Jazeera noted that it had provided the Pentagon with the coordinates of its offices weeks before the incident. The nearby office of Abu Dhabi TV also came under U.S. fire at the time. In October, a U.S. military spokesman acknowledged to CPJ that no investigation into the incident was ever launched.

In the second incident later that day, a U.S. tank fired a shell at the Palestine Hotel, which housed most foreign correspondents in Baghdad, killing cameramen Taras Protsyuk of Reuters and José Couso of Spanish television channel Telecinco. U.S. troops claimed that they were responding to hostile fire emanating from the hotel. A CPJ investigative report published in May concluded that the shelling of the hotel, while not deliberate, was avoidable since U.S. commanders knew that journalists were in the hotel but failed to relay this information to soldiers on the ground.

On August 12, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) issued a news release summarizing the results of its investigation into the incident, which determined that the tank unit that opened fire on the hotel did so “in a proportionate and justifiably measured response.” Centcom called the shelling “fully in accordance with the Rules of Engagement.” While Centcom’s summary was mostly consistent with CPJ’s findings, it failed to address one of the conclusions in CPJ’s report: U.S. commanders knew that journalists were in the Palestine Hotel but failed to convey this knowledge to forces on the ground. CPJ has urged Centcom to make the full report public, but a Centcom spokesperson told CPJ on August 13 that the report is classified. At press time, CPJ was still waiting for the Defense Department to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests related to both April 8 attacks.

In covering postwar Iraq, journalists have confronted an assortment of hazards, including bomb attacks, shootings, carjackings, holdups, and abductions. Traveling to Iraq from Jordan and Kuwait carried risks of armed assault by well-organized bandits who prowl the main roads. Western correspondents, who stand out and can be mistaken for coalition personnel or foreigners in general, were particularly vulnerable.

In September, a small explosive device detonated outside the Al-Aike Hotel in central Baghdad, where NBC News had based its Iraq operations. The blast shattered windows, killed a hotel security guard, and slightly injured NBC News soundman David Moodie, who was one of about a dozen NBC employees in the hotel at the time. In November, the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, which continued to house large numbers of journalists, came under rocket attack, though no one was seriously hurt.

Also in November, unidentified gunmen in southern Iraq opened fire on a convoy of Portuguese journalists, wounding Maria João Ruela, a reporter with the television channel Sociedade Independente de Comunicação. Reporter Carlos Raleiras, who works for the Portuguese radio station TSF, was abducted by the assailants but was freed 36 hours later.

The conduct of U.S. troops has exacerbated the tenuous security situation for journalists in Iraq. On August 17, soldiers shot and killed veteran Reuters cameraman and former CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient Mazen Dana while he filmed a U.S. tank convoy outside Abu Ghraib Prison near Baghdad. U.S. soldiers said they mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. Dana had secured permission from U.S. forces to film in the area, and, according to eyewitnesses, there was no fighting in the area when the journalist was shot.

On September 22, the U.S. military announced that it had concluded its investigation into Dana’s killing, and a Centcom spokesman told CPJ that while the journalist’s death was “regrettable,” the soldiers “acted within the rules of engagement.” No further details were provided, and the results of the investigation have not been made public. Observers have frequently pointed out that although a soldier might mistake a camera for an RPG at a long distance, a camera would be clearly visible from the estimated 55 yards (50 meters) at which Dana was hit. In October, CPJ filed a FOIA request with the Department of Defense seeking information about Dana’s killing and the subsequent classified military investigation. In December, U.S. Central Command said it would provide CPJ in 2004 with a “redacted copy” of the classified report on Dana’s killing.

Journalists who approached or worked near U.S. troops encountered other forms of harassment. Many described incidents in which they were briefly detained, roughed up, had warning shots fired over their heads, or had their film or equipment confiscated. In August, U.S. soldiers detained Associated Press (AP) photographer Karim Kadim and his driver, Mohammed Abbas, near Abu Ghraib Prison. Both men were handcuffed, forced to stand in the sun for three hours, and denied water and the use of a telephone while soldiers kept their guns pointed at them, even though the journalist had told the troops they were members of the press. A U.S. military officer later apologized to the journalists and told AP’s Baghdad bureau that their arrest was a “misunderstanding.”

In July, U.S. forces detained Said Abu Taleb and Soheil Kareemi, two journalists with Iranian State Television who, according to their colleagues, were in Iraq working on a documentary for Iran’s Channel 2 television. U.S. forces arrested the journalists after they were seen filming near a U.S. military outpost. At the time of the arrests, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the U.S.-led interim authority in Iraq, said the two were being held for committing “security violations,” and that they were “not acting in a journalistic capacity when they were arrested.” They were released in November and allowed to return to Iran. The British Foreign Office later admitted that, “It was unfortunate that these two journalists were caught up in the stringent security regime currently in place in Iraq.”

Al-Jazeera reported that its correspondents were arrested on multiple occasions while covering the aftermath of guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops. U.S. forces accused Arab satellite channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya of having prior knowledge of attacks on coalition troops–a charge that both stations deny. U.S. officials also continued to launch other harsh invectives against both stations, labeling them as anti-coalition, among other things.

Following the downing of a U.S. Army helicopter by guerrillas in the Iraqi town of Fallujah in early November, U.S. troops confiscated the camera of Knight Ridder photographer David Gilkey, of The Detroit Free Press, and erased all of his photographs.

In November, representatives of 30 U.S. and international media organizations signed a letter to Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita stating that they had “documented numerous examples of U.S. troops physically harassing journalists and, in some cases, confiscating or ruining equipment, digital camera discs, and videotapes.” Pentagon officials acknowledged the organizations’ concerns and said that they had reissued guidance to field commanders and public affairs officers in the region that journalists should be allowed to do their jobs.

Since the fall of Baghdad, new Iraqi media outlets have exploded on the scene, with dozens of partisan and independent newspapers being published after decades of state control under Saddam Hussein. The quality of the journalism is uneven, but a number of respected publications have emerged. The CPA, which inherited the old Iraqi broadcasting infrastructure, operates a nationwide television station, Al-Iraqiyya, as well as two radio stations and a newspaper.

In an attempt to regulate nascent Iraqi media outlets and rein in what it viewed as inflammatory material, the CPA implemented a controversial anti-incitement decree in June that empowered occupation authorities to close newspapers and detain, fine, or imprison journalists. Specifically, the order bars incitement to violence against individuals, religious sects, and the CPA and prohibits any support for the return of the Baath Party to power in Iraq. The CPA closed the publication Al-Mustqaillah, which had cited the calls of Islamic clerics for the death of “spies” who cooperate with U.S. troops. The clerics said killing spies was a religious duty. There were also reports of U.S. forces raiding or closing other local media outlets.

While the Iraqi media are freer than ever, the CPA and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council have made several attempts to sanction the press. In September, the council barred Arabic satellite broadcasters Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya from covering official press conferences and from entering official buildings for two weeks. Council spokesmen said the decision came because the channels incite “sectarian differences in Iraq,” “political violence,” and the murders of council and U.S. coalition members. Officials also said the broadcasters failed to disclose information about pending attacks on U.S. troops, but it is unclear what specific broadcasts prompted the sanctions.

In November, the council closed the Iraq offices of Al-Arabiyya after it aired an audiotape on November 16 purportedly of Saddam Hussein urging Iraqis to resist the U.S.-led occupation. Jalal Talabani, a member of Iraq’s Governing Council who ordered the closure, said in an op-ed published in The Washington Post several days later that the ban was “temporary,” and that the broadcaster was only barred from transmitting footage from Iraq via satellite and could continue newsgathering. He said the penalty was instituted because Al-Arabiyya had incited violence by airing the tape.

Because satellite dishes were banned under Hussein’s rule, Iraqis have voraciously bought dishes, giving citizens a wide range of international and Arabic programming. The Internet, although beyond the financial reach of most Iraqis, is available to those who can afford it.