Guns Under Fire  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2004

Guns Under Fire   

Though some war correspondents say having weapons on the job saved their lives, most journalists are still against carrying them.

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


CNN correspondent Michael Holmes was heading back to Baghdad with his crew after an assignment in southern Iraq early this year when a rust-colored Opel pulled up behind their two-car convoy.

Without warning, a gunman armed with an AK-47 popped up through the sunroof and began firing at the CNN crew. The journalists' hired security guard fired back.

After a brief battle, two CNN employees, producer Duraid Isa Mohammed and driver Yasser Khatab, were dead. A bullet grazed a third, cameraman Scott McWhinnie, on the head.

Holmes, a veteran anchor and war correspondent, knew why he and the rest of the CNN crew survived. "There is no doubt in my mind that if our security adviser had not returned fire, everyone in our vehicle would have been killed," Holmes said in a CNN broadcast. "This was not an attempted robbery; they were clearly trying to take us out."

With the volatile situation in Iraq, the rules are blurring on when and how journalists should protect themselves. Though more than a dozen reporters died in Iraq over the last year, journalistic tradition says reporters should never carry guns, even in the most dangerous war zone. A journalist with a weapon could be mistaken for a soldier or a spy and muddy the understanding of reporters as neutral observers outside the fray.

But, in an era when journalists are targets and enemies look like a civilians, is it time to change the rules? If journalists are fair game, how far should they go to protect themselves? And is there really a difference between traveling with armed guards and slipping a handgun into your bag beside your reporter's notebook?

New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins helped fuel the debate late last year when the Wall Street Journal reported he had been carrying a gun while on assignment in Baghdad. Filkins' practice led to friction within the Times' Baghdad office, where his bureau chief questioned whether arming reporters crossed the line.

A few weeks later, Times editors in New York released a new policy following a "comprehensive evaluation of our security measures in Baghdad," says Catherine Mathis, the New York Times' vice president for corporate communications.

Firearms were off-limits, no matter how dangerous the assignment.

"Reporters, photographers and other editorial personnel on assignment from the Times to cover a war or civil conflict must never carry a weapon, openly or concealed on their person or in their vehicle," the policy states. "While the Times acknowledges that its journalists do find themselves in harm's way, the newspaper believes it is imperative that they be perceived always as neutral observers. The carrying of a weapon, for whatever reason, jeopardizes a journalist's status as a neutral."

The newspaper is less strict on the increasingly common practice of hiring armed security guards to accompany reporters and photographers on assignments. Those decisions "should be handled on a case-by-case basis between the ranking Times journalist on the scene and senior editors in New York," according to the new policy.

Other news organizations have similar philosophies. CNN allows armed security teams to accompany news crews, says CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson. Such guards intervened both in January's ambush of the CNN crew outside Baghdad and a similar roadside attack of network staffers in Tikrit last spring.

However, the network's employees are still forbidden from carrying weapons themselves, Robinson adds.

"CNN's journalists are deployed in many of the world's most dangerous places. Their safety is our most important responsibility," Robinson says. "Reporting the news from these war zones is one of CNN's most important missions. Our journalists are not, and will not, be armed."

The Committee to Protect Journalists recently interviewed dozens of reporters and editors for a new handbook on working in war zones. The authors of "On Assignment: A Guide to Reporting in Dangerous Situations" (available at www.cpj.org) come down solidly against journalists arming themselves.

The guide also cautions against relying on armed security because the practice could jeopardize journalists' neutral status, says Joel Simon, CPJ's deputy director.

Hiring local armed escorts first became widespread in Somalia in the 1990s when television crews carrying expensive equipment were frequent robbery targets, Simon says. "The reality is sometimes, in certain situations, the only way journalists can report is with some protection," Simon says.

The U.S. Department of Defense considered the issue before allowing about 600 journalists to embed with the troops during the Iraq war. Military officials warned reporters if they were caught carrying a gun they would be sent packing--again for fear of compromising the neutral observers rule.

"The larger issue is if you carry weapons into a war zone, you are a combatant," says Lt. Commander Dan Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesman.

However, military officials know several reporters returned from Iraq with stories of being handed guns and grenades by troops in both life-threatening and casual situations. Some journalists refused the weapons; others accepted.

In the heat of battle, the rules become gray, Hetlage says. "On the ground you can't dictate what is going to happen," he says. "When somebody's life is in danger, you do what you have to do as a human being."

When Ron Steinman arrived in Vietnam in 1966 to run NBC News' Saigon bureau, his predecessor left him a German automatic pistol and advised him to learn how to use it. He kept the Walther P-38 in a drawer until the 1968 Tet Offensive put the city on edge. He carried it for two days, but was never comfortable with the heavy weapon in his waistband, physically or ethically.

"If you start becoming a combatant, you lose all credibility as a reporter...I refuse to accept the temptation," says Steinman, who went on to run NBC's Hong Kong and London bureaus. "There is absolutely no excuse for a journalist to carry a gun."

As Saigon bureau chief, Steinman reprimanded a young soundman who picked up an automatic weapon in combat and began firing. Though few Vietnam correspondents openly carried weapons, he also knew two AP reporters and a New York Times reporter who carried guns or kept them in their desks.

Also, a woman working in Steinman's bureau was shot in the head when an NBC sound engineer cleaning an AK-47 accidentally discharged the weapon. She later became Steinman's wife and suffered from complications from the wound until her death last year.

As a new generation of reporters struggles with similar issues in Iraq, Steinman says he still believes passionately that carrying a weapon violates the first rule of journalism--never become part of the story.

"When you carry a weapon," says Steinman, now a New York-based filmmaker and author, "it empowers you in a way that is frightening."


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