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.”
“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.”