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They Shoot Journalists, Don’t They?

Eason Jordan of CNN is the latest casualty of a media cowed by the right wing and the military. Unlike some journalists in Iraq, Jordan only lost his job.
 
 
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CNN has a habit of devouring its own. Whenever the right-wing flak machine cranks up, CNN, like CBS last fall, dispenses with another top executive, producer, or correspondent, no matter how celebrated. The resignation last Friday of CNN’s top news executive, Eason Jordan, should be seen in the context of CNN’s previous abandonment of its top journalists, like April Oliver and Peter Arnett, and CBS’ dismissal of top producer Mary Mapes; all of whom raised the ire of the right with the revelation of unflattering facts about the military. But the resignation is also being hailed as more evidence of the power of bloggers to fell their perceived enemies.

In recent weeks, the “blogsphere,” as it likes to call itself, has been abuzz with vitriol over remarks Jordan made in a panel discussion at the Davos Economic Forum, in which he seemed to suggest that U.S. troops in Iraq shoot at journalists. Importantly, the controversy has obscured the more intriguing question of why international news executives (Richard Sambrook, news chief of the BBC, was also present) were addressing a conference of the global political and economic elite they report on; but such cozy interaction between news executives and the world’s movers and shakers is not uncommon.

According to Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who was also on the Jan. 27 panel with Jordan and recounted the event for the Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post , Jordan said “he knew of 12 journalists who were killed by coalition forces in Iraq.” According to the Post and The New York Times accounts, Jordan’s exact wording remains unclear. A videotape is said to have been made by the forum organizers, but has not been released on the grounds that the discussion was to be “off the record.” Did Jordan say U.S. troops targeted journalists, or didn’t he? It is agreed that he later attempted to clarify that he didn’t know if any journalists in Iraq were deliberately targeted. In an unprecedented message to blogger and media scholar Jay Rosen, Sambrook (one of the most important global journalists, given the reach, credibility, and agenda-setting power of the BBC) confirmed Barney Frank’s account and added that he shares Jordan’s concern about journalists: safety. Since the U.S. invasion, 60 journalists (more or less, depending on which account one consults) have died violently in Iraq while attempting to do their work.

An editorial board member of The Wall Street Journal , who, intriguingly, was also present in Davos, also confirmed the remarks and attempted retraction, and went on to call for Jordan’s resignation — not for lying about the issue, but because Jordan “can't be trusted to sit on a panel and field softball questions.” It is rather like the Journal, from its position as flagship of the “credible” conservative American media, is reminding CNN that some things shall not be spoken of. (But, of course, it is TV, not print, reporters who have been dying.) This, more than the blog-feeding frenzy which “real” journalists purport to ignore, may have inspired Jordan to step down (or inspired some high-up at Time Warner to request he do so).

I referred at the outset to unflattering facts about the U.S. military; but, like CBS’ truthful, though bungled, expose of the president’s unflattering war record, the facts of the story are all but lost when the conservative flak machine attacks the messenger. Government has no need to defend itself from criticism when popular media like Fox, and its countless devotees in the blogsphere, do so for them. Credible reports of the killing, torture, and harassment of journalists by “coalition” forces in Iraq have existed since the start of the U.S. invasion, and have been well documented by respected press freedom organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters sans frontières, and the International Federation of Journalists. The historical record suggests a pattern of these activities, but the question of deliberation cannot be answered unless each and every incident is fully, and independently, investigated — and to date, that hasn’t happened.

News executives like Jordan, Sambrook, and senior figures from Reuters have spoken about their concerns for some time, and leading British journalists, like Robert Fisk of The Independent and Janine di Giovanni of The Times , have written of the pattern of violence against journalists which they’ve witnessed. While news executives may know of incidents which are not part of the public record, they also tend to cautiously cite only those which are well documented by the press freedom groups, and this may ignore other incidents which those groups have avoided discussing.

For example, the killing of two journalists by a U.S. tank crew as they took pictures from their Baghdad hotel in 2003 was thoroughly described by veteran journalists — dozens of whom were present — and was the subject of a public battle waged by Reuters to hold the military to account. As with every other incident involving journalists, the U.S. military exonerated itself. But the presence of the world’s media in the hotel was well known to military commanders, leading to the suspicion that the killing wasn’t accidental.

But another possible murder of journalists was reported in the British press, though it — perhaps for lack of corroboration — has inspired less outrage. At the outset of the invasion, journalists were warned by the U.S. military not to operate independently in Iraq, and one British TV reporter, with his crew, died attempting to do so. The Mirror newspaper in the U.K. reported that witnesses watched a U.S. military helicopter kill the journalists. Other journalists attempting to operate independently in Iraq were detained by U.S. troops, and, in the early days of the invasion, U.S. forces threatened — according to a senior British reporter — to launch missiles against media organizations transmitting pictures out of Baghdad. U.S. missiles had already killed more than a dozen reporters in Afghanistan (where Al-Jazeera, Radio Kabul, and the BBC were attacked in 2001) and Serbia (where Serbian TV, along with CNN facilities, were attacked in 1999).

Both the Arab television media and the international news agencies have borne the brunt of the violence. CPJ and the other journalists’ organizations record a large number of lethal and non-lethal attacks by U.S. troops on Arab journalists. A senior Al-Jazeera correspondent was arrested, released, and re-arrested in Spain without clear charges, and an Al-Jazeera cameraman has been detained in Guantanamo Bay for four years. In Iraq, two Iranian journalists were detained for four months without charge. Two Al-Jazeera employees reported that they were tortured by U.S. troops last year, and the Associated Press reported that an Arab cameraman working for a European broadcaster said, after being attacked by U.S. troops, “They checked our identity badges and then let us go, saying they thought we were with Al-Jazeera. ...” Several Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya journalists have been killed by U.S. forces in well-documented incidents. Robert Fisk wrote with alarm about an attack by U.S. troops which he witnessed on a clearly marked press vehicle, again, driven by Arab journalists.

With so many American journalists operating in Iraq since 2003, it is odd that none report being targeted in the same way, as one might expect if the violence was the inevitable result of war correspondents’ proximity to fighting (as much of the recent blog blather has suggested). In addition to believing three of its cameramen have been killed by U.S. troops (two in view of other journalists), Reuters also complained to the U.S. military that four journalists working for them, and NBC, were abducted by U.S. troops and tortured for three days in January of last year. That incident, documented though it was by Reuters, the news organization most journalists trust above all others, was also referred to by Jordan in Davos, provoking the ire of not just the conservative bloggers, but of congressman Frank, according to the various accounts of those present. So far, neither Frank, nor Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who was also present, nor any other U.S. legislator, have called for investigation of the incidents Jordan referred to.

Ann Cooper, director of the CPJ, wrote that in late 2003, “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.”

Cooper’s observation, along with the public complaints of the Arab media and leading western media like the BBC, Reuters and CNN, confirm that this is no new story, but just the most recent, and public, development in an issue which has been concerning journalists for some time. They are concerned enough to have organized their own investigation under the rubric of the “International News Safety Institute” to discuss whether international legal protections for journalists need to be strengthened.

With proper investigation, it may be found that the attacks on journalists were genuinely accidental; though — as Reuters has pointed out in regard to its journalists — the question of how accidental torture can happen will be hard to explain. International laws (and indeed, U.S. laws, if they apply) require the protection of journalists (and certainly American advocacy of free information flow would suggest an interest in doing so). Disturbingly, the information available about most of the incidents in Iraq suggests the journalists involved were well identified and clearly engaging in journalism, and so the concerns expressed by the international press are not hard to fathom.

It remains to be seen if the media organizations with the most at stake — CNN, NBC, the BBC, AP, Reuters, and others — will weigh in forcefully on behalf of the news workers in jeopardy, or fall in line with the Right’s presumption that soldiers, in the heat of combat, never do things they shouldn’t. The major press freedom groups have been shouting as loudly as they can, but as with the ignored advanced warning about Abu Ghraib from the Red Cross and Amnesty International, their shouts will be in vain until policy makers and major media accept the need for comprehensive, independent, investigation in the spirit of creating a safer working environment for journalists. A military with nothing to hide should welcome an independent inquiry.

Jordan might have thought that raising the issue with the world’s top decision-makers would put it so fully into the public eye that news media, and U.S. lawmakers, could no longer ignore it. In that, he may have been right; and he may even have expected to take the fall to accomplish that goal.

Chris Paterson is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and co-editor of International News in the 21st Century (John Libbey/Univ. of Luton, 2004).