In times of war, journalists can serve as
vital witnesses for the people of the world. So
it's especially sinister when governments take
aim at reporters and photographers.
A few weeks ago, when I was talking with a CNN cameraman, he
recalled an overseas stint to cover events in the West Bank. Anger
was evident in his voice: "The Israelis were
shooting at us."
When military forces are assaulting civilians, commanders often try
to prevent media from telling true stories with pictures and words.
Governments that maim and kill civilians are routinely eager to
stop journalists from getting too close to the
action. Those who persist are vulnerable to
For a long time now, the U.S. government has been hostile toward
the Al-Jazeera television network. Widely watched in the Arab
world, Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war on Iraq
has been in sharp contrast to the coverage on
American television. As Time magazine observed: "On U.S.
TV it means press conferences with soldiers who have hand and foot
injuries and interviews with POWs'
families, but little blood. On Arab and Muslim
TV it means dead bodies and mourning."
Back in 2001, with the United States at war in Afghanistan, the
Pentagon bombed Al-Jazeera's bureau in Kabul. This year, during the
lead-up to the war in Iraq, Al-Jazeera repeatedly informed the U.S.
military of the exact coordinates of the network's office in
On April 8, a U.S. missile hit that Al-Jazeera office, taking the
life of Tareq Ayub, a 34-year-old Jordanian journalist. A
coincidence? A mere accident? I don't think so.
The same day, a U.S. tank fired a shell at the Palestine Hotel,
where most foreign journalists have been based lately in Baghdad.
The assault killed Taras Protsyuk of the Reuters
news agency and Jose Couso of the Spanish
Explanations from the Pentagon have not been credible. "U.S.
Central Command first said troops came under fire from the (hotel)
lobby, while the field commander said whatever fire had been headed
toward his troops was wiped out with a single tank round into the
upper floors of the hotel," the AFX news agency
reported. "But after a journalist questioned why
the tank shot the upper floors when fire had
come from the lobby, Central Command issued a revised statement saying
there had been 'significant enemy fire.'"
However, the journalists who were eyewitnesses flatly contradicted
that claim, saying no weapons fire had emanated from the hotel.
"There was no shooting at all," said French TV
cameraman Herve De Ploeg. "Then I saw the turret
turning in our direction and the carriage lifting. It
faced the target." He insisted: "It was not a case of instinctive
The U.S. government's response has been to scold journalists for
trying to do their jobs. "We continue to warn news organizations
about the dangers," said the Pentagon's Victoria
Clarke, who added: "We've had conversations over
the last couple of days, news organizations eager to
get their people unilaterally into Baghdad. We are saying it is not
a safe place, you should not be there."
The key word in Clarke's statement was "unilaterally" -- as opposed
to "embedded" with U.S. troops. Decoding the Pentagon's message to
journalists isn't too difficult: If you don't play by our rules,
you're much more likely to find yourself on a
stretcher -- or dead.
I certainly wouldn't argue with the father of the journalist killed
by the U.S. missile that hit the Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad. "My
son is a martyr who was killed as a result of
America's so-called civilization in an attack on
press freedom," said Naeem Ayub. He added: "They
are attacking journalists to hide the truth."
Civil libertarians in the United States worry aloud that government
pressures and corporate dominance can have a "chilling effect" on
freedom of the press. We should not forget that it can also be
chilling for journalists to see their colleagues
killed as part of a governmental pattern.
The day after Tareq Ayub died, Al-Jazeera moved to evacuate its
employees. "I believe that none of them is safe anymore, whether in
Baghdad or the rest of Iraq," said editor-in-chief Ibrahim Hilal,
"even those who are with American troops."
No doubt the media spinners in Washington look forward to the
departure of Al-Jazeera's journalists from liberated Iraq.
"Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't
Tell You," by Norman Solomon and Reese
Erlich, has just been published as a paperback original by Context
Books. To read The Juicy Cerebellum's
review of the book, click here. For the prologue to the book and
other information, go to: