Tuesday 17 June 2003

Turning the tanks on the reporters

Iraq will go down as the war when journalists seemed to become a target.

The Pentagon made it clear from the beginning of the Iraq war that there would be no censorship. What it failed to say was that war correspondents might well find themselves in a situation similar to that in Korea in 1950. This was described by one American correspondent as the military saying: 'You can write what you like - but if we don't like it we'll shoot you.' The figures in Iraq tell a terrible story. Fifteen media people dead, with two missing, presumed dead. If you consider how short the campaign was, Iraq will be notorious as the most dangerous war for journalists ever.

This is bad enough. But - and here we tread on delicate ground - it is a fact that the largest single group of them appear to have been killed by the US military.

Brigadier General Vince Brooks, deputy director of operations, has told us the Americans do not target journalists. But some war correspondents do not believe him, and Spanish journalists have demonstrated outside the US embassy in Madrid shouting 'murderers'. I believe that the traditional relationship between the military and the media - one of restrained hostility - has broken down, and the US administration has decided its attitude to war correspondents is the same as that set out by President Bush when declaring war on terrorists: 'You're either with us or against us.'

Journalists prepared to get on side - and that means 100 per cent on side - will become 'embeds' and get every assistance. Any who follow an objective, independent path, the so-called 'unilaterals', will be shunned. And those who report from the enemy side will risk being shot.

The media should have seen it coming. Last year the BBC sent one of its top reporters, Nik Gowing, to Washington to try to find out how it was that its correspondent, William Reeve, who had just re-opened the Corporation's studio in Kabul and was giving a live TV interview for BBC World, was blown out of his seat by an American smart missile. Four hours later, a few blocks away, the office and residential compound of the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera was hit by two more American missiles.

The BBC, Al-Jazeera, and the US Committee to Protect Journalists thought it prudent to find out from the Pentagon what steps they could take to protect their correspondents if war came to Iraq. Rear Admiral Craig Quigley was frank. He said the Pentagon was indifferent to media activity in territory controlled by the enemy, and that the Al-Jazeera compound in Kabul was considered a legitimate target because it had 'repeatedly been the location of significant al-Qaeda activity'. It turned out that this activity was interviews with Taliban officials, something Al-Jazeera had thought to be normal journalism.

All three organisations concluded that the Pentagon was determined to deter western correspondents from reporting any war from the 'enemy' side; would view such journalism in Iraq as activity of 'military significance', and might well bomb the area. This view was reinforced in the early days of the war in Iraq, when the Pentagon wrote officially to Al-Jazeera asking it to remove its correspondents from Baghdad. Downing Street made the same request to the BBC. In the US a Pentagon official called media bosses to a meeting in Washington to tell them how foolhardy and dangerous it was to have correspondents in the Iraqi capital. But no one realised it might also be dangerous to work outside the system the Pentagon had devised for allowing war correspondents to cover the war: embedding. In total, 600 correspondents, including about 150 from foreign media, and even one from the music network MTV, accepted the Pentagon's offer to be embedded with military units.

I found only one instance of an embedded correspondent who wrote a story highly critical of the behaviour of US troops and which went against the official account of what had occurred. On 31 March, American soldiers opened fire on a civilian van that had failed to stop at a checkpoint, killing seven Iraqi women and children. US officials said the driver of the car failed to stop after warning shots and that troops had fired at the passenger cabin as 'a last resort'.

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