The High Price Of An Unforgiving War

Media

At the Coalition Media Center, on the As Sayliyah military base, the reigning sentiment was frustration. More than 700 journalists were registered at the center, and all were competing for the same small morsels of information from a public-affairs staff notably stingy with it.

Fortunately, I had come on a different kind of mission -- to monitor issues of journalistic safety and access on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists. I hoped to raise matters of concern with someone in authority at the U.S. Central Command. Soon after my arrival, I found that person: an Air Force colonel who, with nearly three decades in the service, was one of the senior members on the Centcom press team. He said he’d be happy to field my queries.

Over the next two weeks, there would be many of them. The war was proving unforgiving to journalists. In some cases, the attacks they suffered were the unavoidable cost of covering a war. Journalists died from land mines, suicide bombs, and accidents on the battlefield. Four journalists in Baghdad, including two from Newsday, disappeared -- at the hands, it turned out, of the Iraqi government, which accused them of being spies. Pressure from Newsday, CPJ, and many other organizations eventually helped win their release.

Many incidents, however, involved the U.S. military. I duly took them up with the colonel. At first, he seemed responsive. Early on, for instance, I raised with him the case of four journalists -- two Israelis and two Portuguese -- who had been detained by U.S. troops at gunpoint in central Iraq. According to the journalists, the U.S. -- accusing them of being spies -- had held them for more than forty-eight hours, denying them food and water. When one of the Portuguese journalists tried to talk with the soldiers, he was beaten, thrown on the floor, and handcuffed. Eventually, the journalists were flown by helicopter to Kuwait City and released.

The incident raised serious questions about the military’s treatment of "unilateral" journalists. The colonel said he would look into it but needed to know more about where the journalists had been picked up and by which unit. After getting more details, I forwarded them to him in an e-mail. That was the last I heard of the matter.

Next, I approached the colonel about the case of an ITN TV crew who had been caught in crossfire near Basra. Correspondent Terry Lloyd had died in the attack. His cameraman, Fred Nerac, and translator, Hussein Osman, were still missing. Reports from the field suggested that the crew had been hit by both coalition and Iraqi fire. Fred Nerac’s wife was appealing to the U.S. government to help find him. CPJ joined in her appeal, and to help push it, I sent an e-mail to the colonel asking him what, if anything, Centcom was doing to investigate. Again, I never heard back.

Then, on the morning of Apr. 8, the war came to central Baghdad, and journalists were prominent among the casualties. In one incident, a U.S. air strike severely damaged the office of al-Jazeera, killing one of its correspondents. Moments later, another explosion damaged the nearby office of Abu Dhabi TV. Finally, a U.S. tank opened fire on the Palestine Hotel, the main base for journalists in Baghdad. One cameraman was killed, and a second would die shortly.

The attacks sent shock waves through the media center. At that day’s press briefing Brigadier General Vincent Brooks was peppered with questions. In response, he said that the United States regretted the loss of life and extended its condolences to the families of the fallen journalists. He insisted that the United States did not target journalists. Brooks said that coalition forces operating near the Palestine Hotel had come under fire from its lobby and that a tactical decision had been made to fire back. When asked if the coalition forces could be ordered not to fire on journalists’ strongholds, he replied: "We don’t know every place a journalist is operating on the battlefield. We only know those journalists that are operating with us," i.e. those who were embedded. Any other journalists on the field of battle, he added, were "putting themselves at risk."

The next day, I asked to see the colonel. He received me at his desk inside the Centcom press office. I handed him a letter that CPJ had sent to the secretary of defense expressing its grave concern over the attacks and urging the Pentagon to investigate them. I said my purpose in meeting now was not to discuss why these attacks had occurred but rather how future ones could be avoided. Let us, I said, take at face value Centcom’s claim that the attack on the Palestine Hotel was an accident. Let us further assume, as reports from Baghdad were suggesting, that the commander of the tank unit that fired on the hotel had not known that it was packed with journalists, and, moreover, that he may have mistaken a cameraman on a balcony for a spotter for Iraqi fighters. Would it not be possible in the future to inform commanders in the field about sites where journalists were staying so that they could avoid attacking them?

No, the colonel said flatly. Journalists were there at their own peril; the only way for them to stay safe would be to leave the combat zone. I pointed out that only a handful of sites were involved. At its daily briefings, I added, Centcom had noted that it exercised special caution with regard to schools, mosques, hospitals, and historic sites. Would it not be possible to add journalistic sites to the list?

No, the colonel insisted. Baghdad was a battlefield. If troops believed they were coming under fire, they had a right to return it. Providing journalistic locations in advance was out of the question. I tried pressing the point, but the colonel grew irritable, and the meeting quickly broke up.

I understood the colonel’s position. Soldiers in the field have one main mission -- to defeat the enemy while minimizing costs to themselves -- and they don’t want to jeopardize it by having to worry about a bunch of journalists. But journalists have a job to do as well, and, given the U.S. military’s stated determination to avoid civilian casualties, refraining from attacking a building full of journalists would not seem to be asking too much.

The colonel’s stance, together with Brooks’s comments at the briefings, led me to one disturbing conclusion -- that the U.S. military believed that only reporters who were officially embedded had the right to protection. Everyone else was at risk -- and expendable.

Michael Massing is a CJR contributing editor.

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