Media Bias in Iraq

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By: Greg Mitchell

Andrew Marshall, Reuters’ bureau chief in Baghdad for two years, came to the United States in July, having survived the war, unlike more than 48 other journalists in the past three years, including four from his own news service. Even before arriving in Iraq in 2003, Marshall, 34, who has worked for Reuters since 1994, had seen plenty of bloodshed in East Timor, Afghanistan, and other hot spots. Now he’s en route to what he probably once thought was a peaceful posting–in London.

What does he think about his Baghdad years, now that he has made it out of there in one piece?

“I don’t agree with those who say it is inappropriate to criticize the work of journalists in Iraq — just because we were working in very dangerous conditions does not mean that we should be immune from criticism,” he told me in mid-July. “But I regard the charge that journalists in Iraq are skewing their reporting and focusing ‘too much on bad news’ as ill-informed, and a great insult to the Iraqi people. Many of those who criticize Iraq coverage seem to be suggesting that the media should somehow play down or ignore the fact that so many Iraqi civilians are being killed. It’s an attitude that implies that Iraqis are not entitled to the level of safety and security enjoyed by people elsewhere in the world.

“Of course, some progress is being made in Iraq. Many people in Iraq, including U.S. soldiers, are doing their best to rebuild the country and improve security. But taken in isolation, the renovation of a power plant or the opening of a new school are not a story unless placed in the wider context, and the wider context is that reconstruction is proceeding much more slowly than had been expected. If anybody knows of an example of a ‘positive development’ that has been intentionally underreported or ignored by the international media in Iraq, I’d be very interested to hear it. In the absence of such evidence, complaints about media bias in Iraq do not carry much weight.”

Excerpts from the rest of our interview:

E&P: What do you think about the general level of threat to reporters in Iraq now?

The threat level is as bad as it has ever been. The risk comes from so many sources — you could be targeted by insurgents, captured by kidnappers, shot at by U.S. troops, caught up in a suicide bomb attack or hit by a stray mortar. Too many journalists have already lost their lives in Iraq, and I fear many more will be killed. Foreign journalists travel much less often these days, usually in heavily protected convoys, so most of the risk is faced by Iraqi journalists. In recent months Iraqi journalists have been shot dead by U.S. soldiers, arrested and beaten up by Iraqi security forces, and attacked and threatened by insurgents. It is a tribute to the courage of Iraqi journalists that they are still working. No foreign news organization in Iraq could function without the work of their Iraqi staff.

E&P: Are our Iraqi allies more dangerous to journalists than American soldiers?

Considerably more journalists have been killed or wounded by U.S. troops than by Iraqi security forces over the past two years. But there is an increasing problem of journalists being beaten or detained by Iraqi soldiers and police.

E&P: What do you think of charges that the United States may “target” journalists?

I don’t believe that U.S. forces in Iraq are deliberately targeting journalists. But many journalists, including at least two working for Reuters, have been killed by U.S. troops in Iraq. The issue is part of a wider problem: the killing of civilians by U.S. forces.

A great number of Iraqis have been killed at U.S. checkpoints in Iraq or shot dead by soldiers in the aftermath of roadside bomb explosions or suicide attacks. We do not know the number, as the American military and the Iraqi government do not release figures, and often these incidents go unreported, with journalists never finding out about them. It is only when the victims are foreigners or when they are Iraqis working for foreign organizations such as media companies, that we find out about these incidents. But anecdotal evidence suggests these kinds of incidents are common.

It is easy to understand why U.S. soldiers are sometimes quick to open fire. With suicide attacks extremely common, every approaching vehicle is a potential threat. But the killing of so many civilians has caused anger and resentment amongst Iraqis. The recent killing of the brave Knight Ridder correspondent Yasser Salihee — and the terrible irony that he was killed on his day off — illustrates the problem with tragic clarity. All civilians in Iraq, not just journalists, face the risk of being killed by U.S. troops, along with all the other risks they face.

This is a serious and important issue, and it may be one of the key factors in determining whether the insurgency is defeated over the long term.

E&P: Bring us up to date on the current status of official probes into any of your Reuters people who have been killed, wounded, or abused.

We’re still waiting for the results of the U.S. military investigation into the death of freelance Iraqi cameraman Dhia Najim, shot dead in Ramadi last year. Initial comments from U.S. Marines suggested that they shot Dhia, but the military has since said he may have been shot by insurgents during a firefight. I will be at the Pentagon next week and will try to find out when we can expect the results of the investigation — it is already more than eight months since Dhia was killed.

The military and Pentagon regard all the other probes relating to the death or abuse of Reuters staff in Iraq as closed. Reuters does not agree. In particular, we want the military to conduct a new, objective and thorough investigation into the torture and sexual humiliation of three Iraqis working for Reuters who were detained for three days near Falluja in January 2004. Despite the fact that the initial investigation report was riddled with inconsistencies and was written without the military even bothering to interview the Iraqis, and despite the fact that the abuse they suffered was strikingly similar to abuse uncovered later at Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has repeatedly insisted the investigation was thorough and the matter is closed.

This is simply not good enough, and it is an affront to the principles of the U.S. military. We have requested all military and government documents related to the case under the Freedom of Information Act, and we hope that once we receive these documents they will contain enough material to help us prove that the military investigation was inadequate and needs to be reopened.

E&P: What do you think of overall Iraq coverage in recent months? Is the public getting a real idea of what is going on there, despite the lack of mobility by journos?

I think the outside media in Iraq do a good job considering the extremely hazardous conditions. But of course, we would like to do more. In particular, it would be very useful to travel to more areas of the country — places like Falluja, Najaf, Kerbala, Basra, Kirkuk — to report on what life is like for Iraqis there. Although embedding is an extremely useful aid to reporters in Iraq, and I salute the U.S. military for giving such excellent access to journalists, it is also essential to report independently of the military to get the full picture of what is happening around Iraq.

Reporters are getting around the country to some degree — Reuters recently had a very productive reporting trip to Kirkuk — and all major media organisations also have a network of stringers around the country. But if security allowed it, we would like to send experienced reporters to different parts of the country much more often.

E&P: What is the state of the overall conflict?

The fact the most Sunni Arab groups have reconsidered their boycott of the political process is a very positive development. The main danger is the rise in sectarian tensions, and particularly mistrust between Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs. In my last months in Iraq, sectarian strife became significantly more noticable and more worrying. The threat of civil war is a real concern. But most Iraqis are tired of violence, and determined to promote peaceful cooperation.

E&P: Any suggestions for better coverage?

I think the international media in Iraq may have to examine closer cooperation, to try to overcome the hurdles we face in reporting from Iraq. Already there are several pool arrangements in place that have helped keep journalists as safe as possible while still getting the news. But there are areas where we could cooperate more — for example, chartering helicopters to allow reporters to be more mobile and get around the country with less reliance on the U.S. military. Reporting safely in Iraq is an increasingly costly exercise, and by cooperating and sharing costs, media companies can do more than they could if they were acting alone.

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