CNN’s Jordan is gone, but questions remain over U.S. security record in Iraq

Committee to Protect Journalists

 This article appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on February 22, 2005

Posted: February 17, 2005

The media was abuzz over comments attributed to CNN news executive Eason Jordan that some of the several dozen journalists killed in Iraq were deliberately targeted by U.S. forces. Pundits, bloggers, columnists, and members of Congress expressed outrage at the remarks–and Jordan, who later made clear that he never believed or meant to suggest that the U.S. military deliberately tried to kill journalists, resigned in the aftermath.

Lost in all of the fulminating over Jordan’s comments has been an honest look at the U.S. military’s record on journalist safety in Iraq, something that should concern all journalists whether they are pundits, wire service reporters, or partisan bloggers.

There is no evidence to conclude that the U.S. military has deliberately targeted the press in Iraq, but the record does show that U.S. forces do not take adequate precautions to ensure that journalists can work safely. And when journalists are killed, the military often seems indifferent and unwilling to launch an adequate investigation or take steps to mitigate risk.

Since March 2003, at least 36 journalists [see 2003 and 2004] have been killed in action in Iraq, along with 18 media support workers. Insurgent-related actions are responsible for the bulk of media deaths, accounting for more than 60 percent (34 out of 54). What may be surprising to some is that U.S. military fire is the second-leading cause of death. At least nine journalists and two media support staff have died as a result of U.S. fire in Iraq in the last 23 months.

One of the bloodiest days for the media in the Iraq conflict occurred on April 8, 2003, when a U.S. tank fired a single shell at Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel–widely known as the main base for foreign press at the time–killing two journalists and wounding three others. While not a deliberate attack on the media, the shelling could have been avoided. A military investigation left unanswered important questions as to why U.S. troops on the ground were not made aware of one of the best known civilian sites in all of Baghdad–something their superiors clearly knew.

That same day, 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 U.S. military’s failure to launch an investigation has fueled charges from Arab journalists that the office was targeted by U.S. forces, understandable speculation given the fact that the station’s Kabul office had been similarly bombed two years earlier by U.S. forces.

Journalists working in post-war Iraq have encountered similar risk. In August 2003, award-winning Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana was shot dead by U.S. troops as he filmed an approaching U.S. tank near Abu Ghraib prison. The soldier who fired said he “saw a male wearing a black shirt and pants,” with “dark skin and dark hair” and mistook Dana’s camera for a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Two journalists from the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news channel were shot dead last year near a U.S. checkpoint when soldiers opened fire after they believed they were coming under attack.

And in September, a third Al-Arabiya journalist, reporter Mazen al-Tumeizi, died when U.S. forces launched an air strike on a disabled U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle near where al-Tumeizi was conducting a stand-up report. Several other journalists and civilians near the wrecked vehicle were wounded in the attack. These incidents have reinforced the view among some journalists that U.S. troops use reckless or indiscriminate force that endangers civilians, including members of the press.

The sources of danger have not been limited to bullets and missiles. Lost in the scrutiny of Jordan’s comments has been concern for allegations made last year by three Iraqi employees working for Reuters news agency who said they were subjected to sexual abuse and humiliation when U.S. troops arrested them near Fallujah last January while they were covering the aftermath of the downing of a U.S. helicopter.

According to Reuters, during their detention “two of the three said they had been forced to insert a finger into their anus and then lick it, and were forced to put shoes in their mouths.” Reuters also reported: “All three said they were forced to make demeaning gestures as soldiers laughed, taunted them and took photographs.” The employees claimed that U.S. soldiers said they would take them to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that the soldiers “deprived them of sleep, placed bags over their heads, kicked and hit them, and forced them to remain in stress positions for long periods.” Military investigators, who absolved the troops of any misconduct, did not bother to interview the detainees. The case has received scant media attention in the United States.

Some of the media deaths at the hands of U.S. troops have also not received due attention in the U.S. media, possibly because the victims were non-Americans–mostly Iraqi or Arab journalists.

To their credit, U.S. military officials have discussed ways to improve safety with news executives and press freedom groups. Military officials even formulated their own set of recommendations in their investigative report into the death of Mazen Dana. Unfortunately, few of these have been implemented.

The tempest surrounding what Eason Jordan said or did not say distracted the media from covering the real story. Journalists are not being targeted, but they are dying at the hands of U.S. soldiers because of negligence or indifference. Some steps have been taken to reduce the risk, but much more should be done. For starters, the Pentagon should act swiftly to implement the military’s own safety recommendations from its Mazen Dana report, which include calls to improve military communication regarding the presence of journalists in conflict areas, improve communications between the military and the media, and reassess the rules of engagement for U.S. troops. U.S. officials should also work closely with news organizations on addressing specific safety concerns on the ground all of which would constitute an important step toward avoiding more needless deaths.

Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator for the Middle East at the Committee to Protect Journalists.