When US Central Command has good news to report in Iraq, as it did after troops from the Fourth Infantry Division captured Saddam Hussein on December 13, it adores the media. But journalists say that when there’s bad news–a helicopter crash, a mortar attack–they are increasingly being blocked from covering the story by US soldiers, who frequently confiscate and destroy their film disks and videotapes.
This happened to Detroit Free Press photographer David Gilkey while covering the crash of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying thirty-six US soldiers, shot down near Fallujah on November 2. His film disk was erased by a soldier from the 82nd Airborne, who then forced Gilkey and other journalists on the scene to a site twenty miles away. “Listen, I have respect for these guys,” Gilkey says of the soldiers. “I truly understand that they are upset, and angry, that they’ve lost friends. The point is, however, you don’t have the right to take disks and clean them. When did that become standard operating procedure?”
Chip Somodevilla, a Knight Ridder photographer, was accompanying two Iraqi fishermen on their small boat in the Tigris River in Baghdad on December 9, when shots from a high-velocity rifle exploded in the water under the port bow of their twelve-foot craft.
“We looked in the direction from which it was fired–a mansion formerly belonging to Saddam Hussein’s nephew–and noticed several men waving their arms in the air and shouting,” Somodevilla e-mailed to his editors after the incident. He and the fishermen drove their boat toward the group of men. One of them turned out to be an American in civilian clothing who was carrying a high-velocity rifle outfitted with a silencer and scope.
“He asked who I was and what I was doing,” the photographer said. The American, who appeared to be some sort of Special Operations paramilitary or intelligence official, “asked me to produce identification and then attempted to destroy my press credentials. He forcefully quizzed me about my assignment and then turned to an Iraqi standing nearby” to verify aspects of the photographer’s story.
“After being shot at, I felt very threatened and swore to the man that I was an American and that I was on his side,” Somodevilla said. “Yeah, John Walker [Lindh, the so-called American Taliban] made a lot of promises too,” the American interrogator snapped back. “What have you done for your country?” He let Somodevilla go with the warning, “We’re watching you.”
“Our journalists in Iraq have been shoved to the ground, pushed out of the way, told to leave the scene of explosions; we’ve had camera disks and videotapes confiscated, reporters detained,” says Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press. On November 12 Johnson sent a letter to the Pentagon, signed by thirty other media companies, which cited their concern at “a growing number of incidents in Iraq in which journalists are harassed by U.S. troops in the course of covering the news.”
“We consider it to be a pattern that is a problem,” Johnson says. “There are no circumstances under which it is acceptable for an American soldier to destroy camera disks or take videotapes from journalists at gunpoint. The Pentagon knows that. We went through the whole war with virtually no incidents. All they have to do is send guidance to the field that this not acceptable behavior.”