For journalists, Iraq is a continuing danger

Liz Halloran
U.S. News & World Report
June 12, 2006

It’s been more than 16 months since CNN’s former chief news executive Eason Jordan made what even he now regards as inarticulate comments about the U.S. military’s role in the deaths of journalists working in Iraq.

Inarticulate-and incendiary: Under fire from conservative bloggers and others for his suggestion at a forum in Davos, Switzerland, that the military may have targeted and killed a dozen journalists, Jordan resigned, saying he wanted to spare the network from being tarnished by “conflicting accounts” of his statements about the “alarming number of journalists killed in Iraq.”

Today, with the Iraq war securing the morbid title of the most deadly conflict for reporters in modern times, Jordan remains passionate about the plight of journalists in Iraq. He prefaced our conversation last week by saying he does not believe that the U.S. military is trying to kill journalists, though “it certainly has happened.”

“All have been mistaken identity, but that doesn’t excuse them,” Jordan said. “And that was the key issue I was trying to raise, not very eloquently, in Davos. Journalists are being killed. Journalists are being detained.”

And most of them are Iraqis.

The Committee to Protect Journalists last week reported that 73 journalists – including 52 Iraqis-have died in Iraq, surpassing the rolls for both the Vietnam War and World War II. And though many Iraqi journalists have routinely been imprisoned, a man believed to be the last documented detainee held by the U.S. military, Ali Mashandani from Reuters, was released last week, said Joel Campagna, the CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

But keeping track of detained journalists-most held on suspicion of “insurgent activity”-is a murky business, and Campagna said that on the day of Mashandani’s release, Reuters reported that an unnamed Iraqi journalist working for an international news organization was still in U.S. custody. In 2005, CPJ documented seven cases in which Iraqi journalists working for news organizations including CBS, the Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse were held, some for periods exceeding 100 days, before being cleared and released.

“Iraq’s an extremely complicated and dangerous assignment, but to us it’s unacceptable that journalists can be taken off the streets while doing their jobs and then held for weeks or months without charge,” Campagna said. Or even a year: Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a cameraman working for CBS, was shot in the leg by U.S. troops and detained last spring after he’d been cleared to film the aftermath of a car bombing. He was held in Abu Ghraib for a year until a panel of Iraqi judges in April said the military had insufficient evidence of “insurgent activity” against the 25-year-old Iraqi.

The military claimed in leaks to the media that Hussein’s confiscated videotape contained footage of four separate incidents, proving he was a member of an insurgent group sent to document the aftermath of its dirty work. “The charges were exposed as a complete, conscious lie,” said New York lawyer Scott Horton, who helped represent Hussein. “There was never anything else on the video but the 18 seconds taken before he was shot.”

Other news organizations have reported that their Iraqi employees have been beaten, held in solitary confinement, and detained on obscure charges. But there have been two recent developments that both Jordan and Campagna say hold promise of protecting journalists-particularly Iraqis-working in Iraq: The Pentagon has for the first time recognized the status of nonembedded journalists reporting from the scene of attacks. That’s a significant softening of the military’s earlier position that only journalists embedded with U.S. forces will be recognized and guaranteed some expectation of safety and ability to work freely.

The military has also adopted a fast-track policy for arrested Iraqis and others who identify themselves as journalists. The military says it will review claims within days, and the detainee released quickly if his or her journalism credentials are established. (Mashandani, the Reuters employee, was among the first to be released under the new program, though marines had held him for a week before military commanders were alerted, Campagna said.)

Jordan says the fast-track program under Maj. Gen. John Gardner “is the first really encouraging news on this front for some time. If it can be maintained, this is a great leap forward.”

These days, Jordan is still focused on Iraq professionally. He’s months away from launching a new venture called Praedict-an Iraq-based, 24-hour online subscription service that will provide breaking Iraq news, locations and trends of recent attacks, tips for finding the safest travel routes, and intelligence reports from a team of 50 Iraqis dispatched across the country.

The new business seems, in part, a labor of love: Ten CNN employees were killed under Jordan’s watch-seven in Somalia and three in Iraq. Jordan, who has invested a bundle of his own money, says he believes at least two of his employees in Iraq could have been spared by a similar service.