By Joel Simon
In 2008, the numbers of journalists killed and jailed both dropped for the first time since the war on terror was launched in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. This is welcome news, but it is tempered by harsh realities. The war on terror had a devastating effect on journalists, and the trends will be difficult to reverse. Over seven years, journalists were targeted for murder in record numbers, while deterioration in the international legal environment led to a surge in journalist imprisonments.
One loss was felt immediately on September 11—freelance photographer William Biggart died covering the World Trade Center attack—but it soon became clear that the dangers facing reporters would be profound and long lasting. As the United States prepared for war in Afghanistan, Bush administration officials made known that they expected the press to get behind the country’s military efforts. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told television executives on a conference call that they should not air videos from Osama bin Laden because they could contain coded messages. President George W. Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, warned that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” The implication: It would be irresponsible for news media to engage in criticism at a time of crisis. The sentiment was eagerly embraced by autocratic regimes around the world.
Nine journalists were killed covering the 2001 Afghanistan invasion, a prelude to an even more perilous conflict in Iraq. Journalists expected a hostile reception from the Taliban, but they also found unsympathetic attitudes among U.S. and other Western military forces. U.S. forces detained journalists on several occasions, including a February 2002 episode in which U.S. soldiers detained Washington Post reporter Doug Struck at gunpoint and prevented him from investigating reports of civilian casualties. In November, the U.S. military bombed the offices of Al-Jazeera in Kabul, claiming at the time that it was “a known al-Qaeda facility.” A month later, Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was detained at Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he was held as an enemy combatant for six years. He was never charged with a crime.
In January 2002, kidnappers in Pakistan seized Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, captured the world’s attention, and then delivered their brutal message. Pearl’s killing made clear that there would be no safe passage. Islamic militant groups viewed journalists as emissaries of their enemies. They were not interested in telling reporters their stories because they had no interest in public opinion in the West. They used the Internet to communicate directly with their followers, the only audience they cared to reach. This was a new and terrifying landscape for the world’s journalists, whose traditional role as a conduit to the public meant they had been tolerated, at times even welcomed, by even the most radical groups.
This dynamic played out dramatically in Iraq, where journalists found themselves caught between militants who wanted to kill them and military forces who wanted to control them. While the U.S. military implemented a program to accommodate thousands of embedded journalists accompanying the invading forces, non-embedded or independent journalists discovered that nothing could be taken for granted when it came to their safety.
In an action that has never been fully explained, a U.S. tank opened fire on the Palestine Hotel, a well-known base for the international news media, killing two reporters. CPJ’s investigation determined that tank personnel believed they were shooting at an artillery spotter. Commanders were aware that the hotel was full of journalists, CPJ concluded, but they failed to relay the information to troops in the field.
Over the next five years, journalists found themselves squeezed between the military and militants. In all, at least 16 journalists have been killed by U.S. forces in Iraq. Although CPJ found that none of the killings had been a deliberate attack on news media, we also concluded that none of the killings had been fully investigated—including the bombing of Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau, which killed reporter Tareq Ayyoub.
Militant groups, on the other hand, have singled out journalists and waged a war against the media that continues to this day. With 136 journalists and 51 media support workers killed, the Iraq war has been the deadliest conflict for the media in recent history, according to our research, and perhaps the most perilous ever.
As journalists were losing their lives in Iraq, the international legal environment for the media also deteriorated, leading to a sharp increase in the imprisonment of journalists worldwide. The number of jailed journalists rose from 81 at the end of 2000 to 118 by the end of 2001 and has remained stubbornly high since, averaging 128 per year. Not coincidentally, the United States has appeared on CPJ’s annual imprisoned list every year during this period. Dozens of journalists have been detained by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least 14 for prolonged periods without due process. No journalist held by the U.S. military was convicted of a crime.
While imprisonments by the United States are proportionately small in the worldwide tally, they have a disproportionate impact around the world. U.S. actions and rhetoric suggested that jailing reporters on vague security accusations was an acceptable practice. We saw countries around the world opportunistically and cynically embrace the Bush administration’s war-on-terror rhetoric to justify repressive policies. In Colombia, military officials asserted that journalists must be on the government’s side in the war against the “narco-terrorist” guerrillas. In China, the government began routinely referring to Uighur separatists as “terrorists” as it imposed severe restrictions on coverage of the restive region.
Two countries, Cuba and Eritrea, launched broad crackdowns on the opposition using the war on terror as cover. Eritrea shut newspapers and rounded up journalists in the days after the September 11 attacks, while Cuba cracked down as the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. Nearly three dozen of these reporters and editors remain imprisoned in harsh conditions.
Forty-one journalists died in 2008, down notably from previous years. A sharp drop in the number of journalists killed in Iraq led to the overall decline. Improved security conditions in Iraq and, possibly, a rollback in foreign bureaus in Baghdad helped lead to the lower numbers there. Many journalists killed in previous years were targeted because of their ties to Western media outlets.
The 125 imprisoned journalists was a modest decline from previous years. The United States continued to hold one journalist in late year: Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam remained in U.S. military custody even though the Iraqi Central Criminal Court found no evidence to hold him and ordered his release.
The decline in these two leading indicators of press freedom is a turning point that news media, CPJ, and other press freedom advocates must seize. The Obama administration has promised to redefine the war on terror by closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay and shifting the military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, some of the same challenges that confronted the media in Iraq are now emerging in Afghanistan, where there has been a spike in journalist kidnappings.
There are ways to limit future losses for the media. First and foremost, President Barack Obama must recognize that whenever the United States fails to uphold press freedom at home or on the battlefield, its actions ripple across the world. By scrupulously upholding press freedom at home, by ending the practice of open-ended detentions of journalists, and by investigating and learning from each instance in which the U.S. military is responsible for the death of a journalist, Obama can send an unequivocal message about the country’s commitment to protecting press freedom. These policies might accelerate declines in the numbers of journalists killed and imprisoned. They will certainly make it much harder for governments worldwide to justify repressive policies by citing the actions of the United States.
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