Journalists Take Flak in Iraq
"We are looking into these allegations, and we are aware of them," a Defense Department spokesman, who asked that his name not be used, told The Nation. "And we are doing everything we can to insure that commanders are aware of the proper way to treat the media." But many commanders evidently haven't gotten the word. Media organizations report increasing acts of harassment and intimidation of their reporters. Prompted by such reports from journalists in the field, the Military Reporters and Editors (www.militaryreporters.org) has formed an ad hoc committee to look into the matter, and the Committee to Protect Journalists has hired a stringer based in Iraq to investigate alleged incidents.
"This is without a doubt the nastiest, scariest conflict that we've seen in half a century," says Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. "It's just very, very dangerous over there. And when the soldiers get very nervous, and one can hardly blame them, they tend to shoot at anything they perceive as shooting at them," including journalists.
Dalglish says that while the military was able to exert tight control over press coverage during the war, "once we moved into a situation where it's an occupation force, it's very difficult for the military to control what the media is seeing. And they can make it difficult for you. And they tend to get away with what they can get away with."
Journalists covering the home front complain that their job is becoming more politicized and is being made more difficult by Pentagon red tape. UPI investigative reporter Mark Benjamin wrote a series of reports on the plight of sick soldiers and reservists--including some 8,500 American soldiers evacuated from Iraq for noncombat medical reasons, and the grim living conditions of sick reservists waiting for medical care at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. His stories spurred several congressmen and senators to send staff to the base and call for improved conditions. They may also have made Benjamin the target of Pentagon stonewalling of his subsequent information requests.
"I don't have any evidence the Pentagon is purposely making it difficult for me to find information on the plight of the American soldier," Benjamin told me, saying he's been waiting more than three months for one Freedom of Information Act request to the Pentagon having to do with troop casualties. "But I think most reporters would agree that I am facing extreme difficulty getting information at the same time that I am writing stories the Pentagon finds controversial."
Journalists are disturbed by what they see as very deliberate decisions made by the White House and the Pentagon to restrict the media's ability to cover the most politically sensitive aspect of the war at home--the repatriation of the bodies of troops killed in action in Iraq. "There are policy decisions being made such as restrictions on photography at Dover Air Force Base, restrictions on coverage at Arlington National Cemetery, as far as what reporters are being allowed to cover and the ground rules for coverage," says Jim Crawley, military reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. "These restrictions back home are not being made in the heat of battle. They are conscious decisions being made by people who have time to deliberate. And there is a potential that there is a political motivation for those restrictions." For their part, Pentagon officials say such policies are designed not to cover up casualties but to respect the privacy of fallen soldiers' families.
"All we ask for is fair play," says Sig Christenson, military reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, currently on assignment in Iraq. "It's a pretty tough place to work, and what we reporters are doing is in the great tradition of American democracy: to tell people back home what is taking place, the good and the bad. At the end of the day, Americans should be thankful."