Media Concerns About Covering the War

Media Concerns About Covering the War
By Joel Campagna

The Boston Globe
March 19, 2003

The Pentagon insists that a war against Iraq could be the best-covered conflict in recent history. The plan to ”embed” more than 500 reporters with front-line troops will give journalists their best access since Vietnam. But will they really be able to cover fighting more freely than in the past? Perhaps. However, much depends on the Pentagon’s attitude toward the many journalists who will report independently, outside the embed system. So far, the media have embraced the embed plan while quietly acknowledging concerns about reporters’ ability to file timely stories, movement restrictions, and self-censorship that may result from living with a military unit.

The embedding guidelines are vague, and commanders have broad discretion over reporting. The Pentagon has been frank: It plans to use embedded media as a counterweight to enemy ”propaganda” and to garner good press. As a reporter for a major US newspaper said, ”We’re supposed to be the anti-Al-Jazeera.”

But many news organizations admit that their embeds will provide only part of the story; many outlets will send their most hardened correspondents to report independently from the region. But to what extent will US forces tolerate ”unilaterals” — Pentagonese for nonembedded reporters? Dozens of unilaterals are in Kuwait, Jordan, and northern Iraq awaiting war.

Many expect to cross into Iraq after fighting begins, while others already in Baghdad plan to stay after an assault. They will face not only the traditional safety hazards of covering a conflict, but also restrictions on their freedom to report.

During the 1991 Gulf War, the US ”pool” system barred journalists without a military escort from battle scenes and imposed prior censorship on all news and photographs. Many who attempted to work outside the pool were harassed or detained by US troops. In Afghanistan, the US military restricted access to troops and was sometimes hostile to reporters.

In one case, officials prevented journalists from reporting on an errant US bomb that killed three Special Forces soldiers and five anti-Taliban Afghan fighters. In another, Afghan tribal fighters harassed photojournalists, apparently because US Special Forces soldiers did not want to be photographed.

In February 2002, US soldiers detained a Washington Post reporter at gunpoint and prevented him from investigating reports of civilian casualties and confiscated a New York Times photographer’s film several months later.

Bush administration officials embrace the embed plan but have not provided details or assurances about the access non-embedded reporters will be allowed. Officials have warned unilateral journalists to leave Iraq when war begins.

”The battlefield’s a dangerous place . . . even embedded with our forces,” according to Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who designed the embed plan. And more dangerous, he says, for reporters outside the embed system.

Beyond such statements, military spokespersons say they are reluctant to answer ”hypothetical” questions. The potential scenarios for interference, however, abound. Will troops stop unilateral reporters at roadblocks and bar them from covering news? Will troops lock out the press by creating ”closed military zones” — as Israel did during its West Bank offensive last April? Because the Kuwaiti government already implemented a ”military exclusion zone” in the country’s northern half, access is uncertain, leading some reporters to contemplate camping in Bedouin farms or riding skiffs from Iran to the southern Iraqi port of Basra.

And then there are the journalists in Baghdad. In addition to the perils posed by US missiles and by Saddam Hussein’s possible use of journalists as ”human shields,” members of the media are concerned about attempts to jam broadcasting out of Baghdad. ”Transmissions could be a problem,” predicted one US correspondent. ”The Iraqis might not want the fall of Saddam aired live, and the Americans won’t want `enemy propaganda.’ ”

How will US officials react to Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, if it beams unsavory images of a US assault, including Iraqi civilian casualties? Al-Jazeera’s staff is worried about a repeat of the November 2001 incident in which US missiles destroyed their Kabul office. US officials alleged (without providing detail) that the office was an ”Al Qaeda facility” and that there were no indications that Al-Jazeera was using it.

Few journalists have any illusions about the dangers of working in a war zone and the difficulties accessing a battlefield. Yet reporters have an obligation to cover the news — particularly during war, when public information is crucial. Any US military action must consider the safety of working journalists and their ability to report developments freely — something the United States has failed to do in other recent conflicts.

Given the international opposition to war in Iraq, the political stakes of conflict will be high, as will the urge to contain negative news.

Joel Campagna is a senior program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.