Dangerous Assignment  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2006

Dangerous Assignment   

Iraq has proven to be a particularly hazardous posting for journalists. More media workers have been killed there than during the two-decades-long war in Vietnam. And 15 have died at the hands of American forces.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


The desert sun was ablaze late that Sunday afternoon as the veteran Reuters cameraman finished his assignment. He packed up his equipment and climbed into a car outside the notorious Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad.

The next day, Mazen Dana, 41, was planning to return to his wife and four children, who lived in the West Bank town of Hebron, where he'd built his award-winning career. Finally, he would have time to dote on his 1-year-old daughter, Bisan, who barely knew a father whose job took him to the hot zones of the Middle East.

He was about to head back to the Reuters office with his soundman and best friend, Nael Shyoukhi, when, suddenly, tanks rumbled into view near the prison, according to a Reuters account. Instinctively, he leaped out of the vehicle, hoisted his blue, canvas-covered camera to his shoulder and began filming the armored combat patrol. He was standing out in the open, in broad daylight.

Eyewitnesses told the wire service that the Abrams tank was some 50 or so yards away when, without warning, a burst of machine gun fire rang out. There was a scream.

Dana clutched his chest and crumpled to the ground. As Shyoukhi rushed to his fallen colleague, soldiers, their guns raised, surrounded him and ordered him to stand back.

"Please help, please help," he begged, as he watched blood soak through Dana's T-shirt. He remembers shouting, "You killed a journalist!" as the Americans held him at bay. "Mazen took a last breath and died before my eyes," Shyoukhi told reporters after the incident on August 17, 2003.

Dana's wife, Suzanne, grief-stricken and enraged at what she considered a cold-blooded attack, told Reuters: "He was intentionally killed as he was doing his job. I demand that President Bush personally order his soldiers to stop killing journalists."

At the time, Mazen Dana was the 17th journalist to die in the line of duty in Iraq, the fourth killed by American soldiers. News of his death was transmitted around the globe, a grim foreshadowing of what lay ahead.

Two years after Dana's coffin was carried through the streets of Hebron to Martyrs' Cemetery, conditions have deteriorated significantly in Iraq. Increasingly, journalists have encountered arrest, torture, kidnapping, assassination and death from friendly fire.

More media personnel have been killed during the two-and-a-half years of Operation Iraqi Freedom than in the Vietnam War that spanned two decades. American firepower has been the second-leading cause of the fatalities (after death at the hands of the insurgents). The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists lists 13 journalists and two media assistants killed by U.S. forces.

The total number of journalist casualties varies, depending on who is keeping count: the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders lists 74 correspondents and media assistants killed in the field; the International News Safety Institute in Brussels puts the number at 93, including drivers and translators. CPJ counts 80 media staff deaths. Sixty-three is the commonly cited number for journalists killed in Vietnam. That total does not include media staff, but it is generally agreed that far fewer support personnel were deployed in that conflict. The fighting in Iraq has witnessed a heavy dependency on assistants, especially Iraqis and other Arab nationals, who often are on the firing line when it is considered too dangerous for Western correspondents to venture out.

Overall, more of those involved in the newsgathering process have been attacked, wounded and killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom than in any combat situation in recent memory, according to numbers compiled by international media groups.

June to September of this year was a particularly deadly period, with journalists' deaths coming at the hands of American troops and insurgents. On June 24, an American soldier shot and killed Yasser Salihee, a reporter working for Knight Ridder, as he pulled up to a checkpoint on his way to buy gasoline for his car. On August 28, bullets fired by the U.S. military killed Reuters correspondent Waleed Khaled as he drove to check out a confrontation involving police officers and gunmen in western Baghdad. The U.S. military is investigating both incidents.

Insurgents assassinated Khaled Sabih, a producer for Iraq public TV station Al-Iraqiyah, on July 1. Later that month, Adnan Al Bayati, who worked as a producer for the Italian network Rai, was killed in his Baghdad home in front of his wife and daughter. A colleague told the media that he fell victim to a revenge killing by a terrorist group.

Iraqi media workers have suffered the brunt of the violence: Fifty-six are dead, many of them employees of Western news organizations such as Reuters, the New York Times and Knight Ridder. Two Americans, Michael Kelly of The Atlantic Monthly and freelance writer Steven Vincent, have been killed while on assignment.

All of Iraq has become a battle zone as a powerful and fluid insurgency strikes anywhere, anytime. As danger escalates, many Western correspondents have become virtual prisoners behind the walls of secure compounds, depending on Iraqis and other Arab journalists to deliver the news of the day.

There is little surprise that terrorists and criminal gangs would strike at journalists. But no one expected 15 deaths to come at the hands of American troops.

Since the beginning of the war there have been accusations of negligence and brazen hostility on the part of the military toward correspondents operating outside the Pentagon's embedding system. "As far as I am concerned, this is not changing for the better," says Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels.

A September 14 CPJ news alert accused the Pentagon of failing to fully investigate the killing of journalists by its forces and implement its own recommendations to improve media safety on the battlefield, especially for journalists traveling on their own rather than with U.S. forces.

White believes the impulse of the U.S. military to control and manipulate the information process has led to a casual disregard of journalists' rights to work safely and report independently in Iraq. CPJ takes a similar position. "We've written several letters to Secretary of Defense [Donald H.] Rumsfeld; we've had meetings with Pentagon spokespeople, but we've gotten no indication that real steps are being taken to avoid these tragedies," says Joel Campagna, CPJ program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman takes issue with CPJ's numbers, saying he knows of only 10 incidents in which coalition forces "allegedly" were involved with a media death. "These things are taken very seriously by the military," Whitman says. "Nobody wants to see a journalist hurt out there. When U.S. forces are involved, we take the responsibility to investigate."

He points out that terrorists and other enemy forces have caused two-thirds of the media fatalities.

So far, Reuters has been hardest hit among Western news organizations, losing four staffers. Barry Moody, editor in charge for the Middle East and Africa, says the U.S. military has acknowledged killing three. "Soldiers in the field never had it properly inculcated in them that independent, non-embedded journalists have a right to be there and that they have to be careful not to kill them," says Moody, who bristles at what he considers a lack of accountability.

Embedding with coalition troops offers journalists more protection than working on their own but also limits their access. "The military wants all journalists embedded, but we say we can't do that," Moody says. "We can't get a balanced picture by being only on one side." Reuters, like many other news outlets, has both embeds and independent operators in the field.

The U.S. has been the only coalition force involved in shooting journalists. "You have to ask why," says Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, a Brussels-based consortium of media companies and journalism organizations, among them CNN, the BBC, Reuters and CPJ. "It's not good for any army from any democratic country to be seen killing journalists." (U.S. forces make up the lion's share of the coalition forces.)

Pinder like many others interviewed for this story does not allege that American troops are targeting reporters and photographers. "We have no evidence, and we have never said, that U.S. forces in Iraq have deliberately set out to kill journalists," he says. "There's no suggestion of that whatsoever." Instead, critics like Pinder point to what they call the military's indifference toward media safety, especially at volatile checkpoints throughout Iraq.

In a February 28 column, Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org, a media issues Web site, pointed out that the Pentagon issued warnings before the war started, saying it could not guarantee the safety of journalists who were not embedded with assigned U.S. military units. "What they were doing was creating an environment of intimidation and threat," Schechter wrote. "This was part of a larger strategy to keep the media in line."

Speaking of battle zones in general, top BBC anchor Nik Gowing addressed the issue in a May 2004 speech at the London School of Economics: "The trouble is that a lot of the military, particularly the American and the Israeli military, do not want us there. And they make it very uncomfortable for us to work. And I think that this..is leading to security forces, in some instances, feeling it is legitimate to target us with deadly force and with impunity."

Reports from CPJ and IFJ also blame the Pentagon for not doing more to protect the media.

The Pentagon's Whitman strongly disagrees with such allegations, saying that U.S. forces do "everything humanly possible" to avoid killing journalists or other innocent civilians. "That's just the way this military operates," he says.

All of the journalists who have died at the hands of coalition forces have been "unilaterals," the military's term for correspondents working on their own, says Whitman. "We still believe that the best way to cover U.S. military operations is embedding with U.S. military forces," he adds.

A glance at the death toll tells an important aspect of the story: Arabic-sounding names predominate. As risks for Western correspondents intensified, many media outlets turned to Iraqis and other Arab journalists who knew the territory, spoke the language and could melt into a crowd in dangerous places like Basra and Fallujah. But for them, there is another set of obstacles. According to CPJ reports, the locals are vulnerable to being detained, sometimes for weeks or months at a time without charges, by U.S. guards at checkpoints or while on the scene of a breaking story. If they arrive at a suicide bombing or attack against coalition forces too quickly, they are likely to be suspected of knowing about the episode ahead of time, being part of the insurgency or passing intelligence to the enemy. In May 2005, CPJ called on the U.S. military to explain the detentions, noting that there had been no substantiation of claims that Iraqi journalists collaborate with insurgents.

The casualty list also shows that many have been killed in their hometowns by local thugs who took issue with their reporting or sought to punish them for cooperating with foreigners.

Still, it is the shootings by the Americans that have sparked the greatest outcry.

As the media death toll in Iraq mounts, watchdog groups have joined forces, demanding that safeguards be put in place by Iraqi security forces and U.S. military for greater protection. Some, like the International Federation of Journalists, have conducted independent inquiries into attacks by U.S. forces.

As early as October 2003, IFJ called for a "global campaign to expose the secrecy, deceit and arrogance of the United States authorities" surrounding the killing of journalists. IFJ accused military officials of running in-house investigations and exonerating the American soldiers despite eyewitness accounts that differed from their version of the killings.

In April 2004, Reporters Without Borders joined the relatives of six journalists, four dead and two missing, in urging Congress to push for more thorough investigations of the episodes. Their letter condemned "the silence, lack of information and untruths" from the Pentagon. Mazen Dana's wife, Suzanne, was among the signatories.

By August 2005, after losing four staffers, Reuters news managers were adamant in their demand for answers from the American government. Global Managing Editor David Schlesinger used tough language in a September letter to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, charging that American forces' conduct toward journalists is "spiraling out of control" and preventing full coverage of the war. Schlesinger pointed to "a long parade of disturbing incidents whereby professional journalists have been killed, wrongfully detained, and/or illegally abused by U.S. forces in Iraq."

Oddly, as the death toll rises, American news outlets have expressed little outrage. For the most part, it has been organizations like CPJ, Reporters Without Borders and other international groups that have led the charge for more safety measures and an accounting of why journalists are falling like dominoes. Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild-Communication Workers of America, questions why there hasn't been more protest from editors on the home front, especially about U.S. troop involvement in the killings.

"These are matters of life and death and personal safety. Whatever reticence there is should be pushed aside. Except for [British-owned] Reuters, no one has taken a leadership role," says Foley, who also serves as vice president of the International Federation of Journalists, a group in the forefront of lobbying efforts on this subject.

Some news managers say they are simply too busy keeping their own correspondents safe. "Generally we are dealing with so many problems all of the time in Iraq. We tend to be reactive, especially when it comes to dealing with our own," says Marjorie Miller, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. Editors describe a daily struggle that has changed dramatically since rebel factions have become more fierce and unpredictable. In the early going, the focus was on such tactics as locating secure living quarters, barricading windows, traveling in unmarked cars and keeping a low profile. As kidnappings and beheadings became more of a threat, there was a move toward hiring professional security advisers and using armored vehicles and a chase car, one that follows with armed guards when correspondents venture into the field. The Associated Press has been in the vanguard of pushing the case for greater security with military officials in Washington and Baghdad. Has it made inroads? "We are seeing an expressed awareness of the issues by headquarters, but whether that translates to the guys in the field who are in harm's way, I don't know," says Kathleen Carroll, the AP's executive editor and senior vice president. "We understand the challenges soldiers are facing. We just want to keep our folks from being misunderstood as something other than journalists doing their job."

Carroll has high praise for "our brave Iraqi staffers," who toil, along with other AP personnel, in the "most dangerous place on the planet." The AP has suffered one loss from friendly fire. In late April, AP cameraman Saleh Ibrahim, 33, was killed when gunfire broke out after an explosion in Mosul. His brother-in-law, Mohammed Ibrahim, an AP photographer, was wounded but survived. A U.S. military officer told the AP the two were "caught up in the sweep after the situation." The AP vowed to fully investigate the tragedy.

Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt believes media companies must be proactive in keeping their employees safe. His chain maintains a full-time security expert, a former Royal Marine Commando who works with Centurion Risk Assessment Services in Great Britain (see "School for Survival," November 1998). Hoyt credits him with saving journalists from injury by the precautions he has taken, such as covering windows with Mylar blast film to help make them shatterproof.

The security expert provides daily training to Knight Ridder staff in everything from escape and evasion techniques to emergency first aid. He maintains a liaison with the U.S. military and has his own intelligence sources to help determine "no-go" zones on a given day. "It's very, very expensive," Hoyt says. "It's the cost of doing business there."

On September 29, media groups worried about security saw a breakthrough. Sen. Warner requested that the Pentagon address safety concerns of journalists in Iraq. Warner raised the issue with Rumsfeld during a Washington, D.C., hearing after receiving copies of letters that CPJ had written to the secretary, a separate letter from Reuters, and a call from CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.

Some believe battlefield conditions for journalists would improve if the Pentagon simply followed its own recommendations issued as part of its report after the Mazen Dana shooting. At checkpoints, for instance, the use of spike strips, speed bumps and wire could slow down or disable approaching vehicles. Rotating red lights or sirens could help ward off drivers who are lost, confused or frightened.

That same report also suggested improving communication and coordination among U.S. troops regarding the presence of non-embedded journalists in combat zones, conducting weekly security briefings for the media and reviewing the U.S. military's rules of engagement.

Col. Dewey Ford, a public affairs officer in Baghdad, says he organizes quarterly meetings for the city's bureau chiefs to share information about the military and listen to concerns. However, "in an era in which terrorists regularly use suicide bombers and vehicle borne IEDs [improvised explosive devices], our troops must make split-second, life-or-death decisions. This reality does not leave time to check press credentials in most scenarios," Ford wrote in an e-mail to AJR.

The Pentagon's Whitman says recommendations from the Dana investigation went to the coalition forces and "there were things implemented as a result of that... There were further amplificating instructions that went out to commanders."

But CPJ's Campagna says he sees no signs of efforts to improve the situation. "We've gotten no indication from the Pentagon that real steps are being taken to avoid these tragedies, and from the continuing casualties we are seeing, it doesn't appear they have been."

Reuters journalists agree with that assessment. "As far as I know, there has been little effort by the U.S. military to work with the media on safety issues in Iraq. The rules of engagement remain secret," says Alastair Macdonald, Reuters' Iraq bureau chief. "Our soundman Waleed Khaled was shot dead by American soldiers in his car last month [September] in what a U.S. general called 'appropriate' action, although it is unclear to us in what sense it was appropriate." Rules of engagement determine when, where and how force should be used by the armed forces.

Media groups stress that journalists are noncombatants working under the protection of the Geneva Convention, which demands respect for the human rights of the press corps in conflicts. Journalists are classified as civilians, entitled to protection from violence, threats, murder, imprisonment and torture. Some are calling for changes in the international law to strengthen the clause for media workers.

Steven Ratner, an expert in the laws of war, doesn't see a push to strengthen legal protections for journalists in the Geneva Convention as realistic. That, he explains, would take a major diplomatic conference, unlikely to occur any time soon. And if it did, "I don't think the priority would be journalists. It would be to deal with issues like terrorism," the University of Michigan law professor says. Instead, "The trick is to make sure that the protections journalists already are entitled to actually are respected."

That is at the heart of the debate in Iraq.

A U.S. Army report issued seven months after Mazen Dana's death found the U.S. troop commander, who shot from a tank, had "reasonable certainty" that Dana was about to fire a rocket-propelled grenade, having mistaken his camera for a launcher. The death was "justified based on the information available [to the soldier] at the time," the report said.

Reporters Without Borders and others voiced outrage, labeling the investigation a sham and a whitewash. "This casualness, combined with the absence of measures to prevent more tragedies, is an insult to the journalists who have been victims of the U.S. Army's blunders," said Robert Menard, the group's secretary general, in a report. "Investigations are nonexistent or ineffective, since all conclude that the U.S. Army is infallible."

Reuters' own investigation concluded that flaws in the U.S. military system contributed to Dana's death. Its news managers urged the Pentagon to accept independent journalists working outside the embedding process and implement "sensible and prudent" measures to avoid killing them. Dana was among the hundreds of correspondents who have worked on their own in Iraq.

Colleagues describe the tall Palestinian as a gentle bear of a man, a chain-smoker who rarely flinched under fire. In 2001, CPJ honored Dana with its International Press Freedom Award for coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank. He appeared on ABC's "Nightline" and was featured on PBS's "Frontline/World" documentary titled "In the Line of Fire."

When he accepted the CPJ award at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, Dana told the audience: "Words and images are a public trust, and for this reason, I will continue with my work regardless of the hardships and even if it costs me my life."

Until the final seconds of his life, Dana was carrying out that pledge. His video shows two tanks moving toward him; then the sound of gunfire rings out. Suddenly the camera tilts and crashes to the ground.

After his death, that video clip was shown repeatedly by a satellite TV station in Baghdad his work for the day edited and on the air.

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