Cox’s Craig Nelson on the Truth From Baghdad

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Craig Nelson, who is at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad reporting for Cox Newspapers Inc., now has the war on his doorstep, but he took time out Thursday to answer a few e-mail questions from E&P Associate Editor Joe Strupp, who was working on a story about how U.S. papers have been covering Iraqi casualties.

Do you feel civilian casualties in Baghdad are getting enough coverage by your news organization and others?

Nelson: I don’t know. I have no access to American newspapers or TV. The [Web] is now inaccessible. I don’t have access to a high-speed “sat” phone line, and the telephone exchanges have been bombed, cutting off all telephone service abroad. The BBC’s World Service, however, gives the issue of civilian casualties extensive and cautiously worded coverage.

Is it difficult to gauge how many civilian casualties there are? Or even see them?

It’s usually difficult to determine the number of dead and wounded. By the time Baghdad-based journalists have been escorted to the scene, the bodies of the dead and wounded have frequently been transferred to the hospital or, in the case of the dead, immediately buried according to Islamic custom.

Any other way to get a definitive report?

“Definitive report”? What’s “definitive”? Under wartime conditions — when both sides have a stake in depicting their cause as just and their efforts as righteous, when nongovernmental organizations and journalists have little or no timely access to the front and to bomb sites — there’s no “definitive report.”

Under enough outside pressure, the Pentagon will sometimes conduct investigations; there were several instances of this recently in Afghanistan. But the Pentagon rarely gives priority to these investigations while prosecuting a war. They require on-site examinations and scrutinizing overhead and satellite imagery. Furthermore, these reports are often issued weeks or months later, sometimes with heavy excisions and classified appendices, sometimes not.

Similarly, the Iraqi government believes it has the right to use the issue of civilian casualties to its benefit, even if it means shading the truth or falsifying it entirely. “We reserve the right to cheat the enemy. They’re invading our country,” Vice President Tariq Aziz told an interviewer here. Until Iraqi civilians can be interviewed without duress to determine the exact circumstances of the attacks and determine what, if any, military purposes certain buildings were being put to, there will be no “definitive” reports.

Do you find it hard to judge how to report all this?

Absolutely. Reporting allegations of civilian casualties is at the extreme of an already difficult continuum: covering a war with vast gaps of information, lack of access to the front, and lack of independent corroboration, and with both sides trying mightily to spin events to their advantage.

We see little other than what the government alleges are civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. Our access to witnesses at the sites is usually monitored by government minders or supporters of the government carrying press credentials. The witnesses who come forward are usually members of the ruling Baath Party or supporters of the government. If they aren’t, they are monitored by Iraqis who are.

The best we can do is report the allegations and the anomalies we observe, look for patterns, and apply our understanding of the Geneva Conventions. Are their military or intelligence facilities in the area? Were the buildings evacuated before the bombing? Were the hospitals, schools, or other … buildings being used by the military before the bombing? Is the damage to buildings, roads, and flesh consistent with the signatures left by a particular kind of weapon?

The Geneva Conventions are very clear. Additional Protocol I of the Conventions says that civilians enjoy immunity insofar as they shall “enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations” and “shall not be the object of attack.” The Protocol also prohibits action whose primary purpose is to spread terror among civilians.

It also prohibits indiscriminate attacks, obliging each party to a conflict under all circumstances to distinguish between combatants and military objectives on the one hand — and civilians and civilian objects on the other.

These provide a good framework within which to view and report what we see. Still, anyone drawing generalizations from any specific incident does so at their peril.

Iraq Body Count (http://www.iraqbody count.net) provides a daily update on reports of civilian casualties throughout Iraq, citing U.S. and foreign journalistic sources and both high and low estimates.

See E&P‘s complete coverage of Iraq and the Press.

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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