‘Deletion’ of Images in Afghanistan: Attempt to Cover Up Civilian Killings?

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By: Greg Mitchell

In the past day, there has been wide media coverage of an official report on the slaying of Afghan civilians by U.S. forces early last month. The Afghan human rights commission concluded that American marines overreacted to a bomb ambush with excessive force, peppering civilians and vehicles with machine-gun fire in attacks that covered 10 miles of road and left 12 civilians dead, including an infant.

Gaining much less coverage are the report’s comments on a nearly-forgotten aftermath of the apparent crimes, carried by E&P and other media outlets at the time: the U.S. military’s forced “deletion” of images taken by Associated Press cameramen and others. A freelance photographer working for The AP and a cameraman working for AP Television News said then a U.S. soldier deleted their photos and video showing a four-wheel drive vehicle in which three people were shot to death about 100 yards from the suicide bombing. The AP lodged a protest with the American military.

The military defended their action in a letter to the AP later, stating that images gathered by ?untrained people? might ?capture visual details that are not as they originally were.” But the Afghan commission concluded that there were “not sufficient grounds to justify the substantial curtailment of the right to freedom of expression, especially as the loss of information caused by these actions was directly harmful to the successful undertaking of a genuinely impartial investigation.”

Here are those passages from the PDF of the report.
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There are also several reports of journalists being hindered from accessing the area and being forced to delete all pictures and videos already taken. 7 Journalists, representing 8 different media outlets complained that US Marines and Afghan forces confiscated their equipment to delete any images stored and forbid them to continue their work even outside of the security perimeter area around the VBIED site. There is some evidence that two of the journalists breached the security perimeter around the site, but all those interviewed agreed that the interference with the media went far beyond just these two cases.

In several cases, US Marines expressly threatened
journalists, with one cameraman reporting that he was told to ?delete the photographs or we will delete you? (AIHRC interview, 6 March 2007). Another journalist said a soldier told him through a translator that ?if any of this incident is released or shown on any media then the reporter will face the consequences? (AIHRC interview, 5 March 2007).

While in a media release on 11 April 2007 NATO/ ISAF RC(E) spokesman Lt. Col. David Accetta claimed that ISAF?s internal investigation showed that ?the deletion of any film media by ISAF Forces was an isolated event by one soldier,? this account does not match the testimonies taken by the AIHRC.

After the incident, the US military defended the forced deleting of images, arguing that their publication could have compromised an investigation. The Associated Press quotes a letter by Col. Victor Petrenko, chief of staff to the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, in which it
is claimed that ?investigative integrity is one circumstance when civil and military authorities will reluctantly exercise the right to control what a journalist is permitted to document? and that photographs or video taken by ?untrained people? might ?capture visual details that are not as they originally were? (U.S. military defends deleting journalists? footage, Associated Press, 12 March 2007).

NATO/ ISAF?s later press release stated that interference occurred ?to ensure the protection of the SVBIED site for security, force protection and investigational purposes.?
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Both Afghanistan and the United States have ratified the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and are bound by its provisions on freedom of expression.
Article 19(2) of the ICCPR gives everyone the right to freedom of expression. It states that ?this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds??

Article 19(3) provides for certain restrictions on this right but requires these to be provided by law and to be necessary for either ?the respect of the rights or reputations of others? or for ?the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals.?

The forced deleting of images by the US military as well as the refusal to let journalists continue in their work constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of expression as it obstructed the ability of the media present to seek, receive and impart information about the 4 March incident, without falling under the exceptions stipulated by ICCPR art.19(3).

Immediately following the incident the US military relied on the notion of ?investigative integrity? to justify their actions in this regard and in the NATO/ ISAF media release of 11 April 2007 Lt. Col. David Accetta said that the internal investigation showed that ?in this case, the soldier reasonably believed that the restoration of the security cordon and the deletion of the photographs were necessary.?

Arguably these are not sufficient grounds to justify the substantial curtailment of the right to freedom of expression, especially as the loss of information caused by these actions was directly harmful to the successful undertaking of a genuinely impartial investigation.

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