Journalists in Iraq: from ‘embeds’ to targets

Journalists in Iraq: from ‘embeds’ to targets
By Ann Cooper

(This article appeared in The Seattle Times on February 9, 2004)

A year ago this month, hundreds of journalists prepared to travel with U.S. and British troops as they went to war in Iraq. Embedding, as the Pentagon called its policy of allowing journalists front-line access, yielded stunning scenes of war and largely sympathetic stories about the Western troops who waged it.

The Pentagon was pleased with the “embed” coverage, but openly irritated that hundreds of other journalists reported on the war “unilaterally,” that is, without traveling with the troops. Now, several months after the end of active war and the embed program, the press corps covering Iraq is virtually all unilateral, residual good will from the embed program is fading, and a troubling pattern has emerged of U.S. troops harassing journalists covering the post-war violence.

The targets appear to be Arab journalists, in most cases, and most of the harassment — including detentions and warning shots fired over journalists’ heads — has occurred when they are reporting on the aftermath of guerrilla attacks.

In November, 30 international media organizations wrote to the Pentagon to complain of “numerous examples of U.S. troops physically harassing journalists and, in some cases, confiscating or ruining equipment, digital camera discs, and videotapes.”

Arab journalists from the popular Al-Jazeera satellite channel have reported multiple cases of arrests. An Arab photographer for the Associated Press was stopped by soldiers, handcuffed, and held at gunpoint for three hours. That was brief, compared with the four-month detention of two Iranian journalists, arrested by the U.S. military after they were seen filming near an American military outpost. No charges were specified when the Iranians were finally released and sent home.

In a particularly unsettling case last month, American troops detained four Iraqis working for Reuters and NBC, held them for three days, and subjected them to sleep deprivation — and, according to the Reuters news agency, other “uncomfortable treatment.” The Guardian in London reported that the “treatment” included stuffing a shoe into the mouth of one of the Reuters men, a grave insult in the Arab world.

The four were detained after they arrived at the site of a downed American helicopter outside the Iraqi city of Falluja. After the journalists were arrested, the U.S. military announced that it had detained “enemy personnel posing as media.” The so-called guerrillas wore bulletproof jackets marked “press” and fired on U.S. forces, according to the military’s story.

It seems quite clear that the military was referring to the Reuters and NBC crews, who did wear press markings, who were detained, but who were armed with television cameras, not guns, and had come to report, not fight. More than a month later, the military has offered no adequate explanation for holding the journalists for three days. Nor has it retracted its claim that soldiers were attacked by guerrillas disguised as journalists.

Last week, after seeing an internal report on the military’s investigation of the incident, Reuters branded the study “woefully inadequate.” Noting that military investigators spoke with the soldiers involved, but never interviewed the journalists they detained, Reuters said the halfway investigation “speaks volumes about the seriousness with which the U.S. government is taking this issue.”

This latest report is not the first in which the military has ducked accountability in attacks on journalists covering Iraq. The Pentagon has yet to release a full report into its investigation of the shelling of a Baghdad hotel last April, in which two journalists were killed. And when a Reuters cameraman, Mazen Dana, was shot dead last August while filming near Baghdad, the military’s subsequent conclusion was that the “regrettable” shooting was “within the rules of engagement,” but to date the details of the investigation remain secret.

Postwar Iraq is a tense and violent place where American soldiers die every week. It is also a story of global dimension whose outcome has implications for the world economy, international alliances and America’s reputation at home and abroad. Like the U.S. military, journalists are in Iraq for the long haul, and the Pentagon needs to ensure that they can report in the presence of U.S. troops without fear of being mistaken for hostile forces.

An important first step would be a public acknowledgment by the Pentagon that the Reuters and NBC journalists detained last month were not “enemy personnel posing as media.” Public release of military investigations in incidents involving journalists would also be a welcome move toward transparency and accountability.

The harassment of journalists, whether based on mistaken identity or other reasons, is a resolvable issue — but only if the military talks with the media and recognizes them for what they are: reporters doing their jobs of covering the news.

Ann Cooper is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based nonprofit organization promoting press freedom worldwide. She is a former correspondent for National Public Radio who covered the former Soviet Union and Africa.