Pressing Issues: More Journos Will Die Before It’s Over

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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 experience, 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. But 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 (full version at E&P Online):

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.

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.

What do you think of charges that the United States “targets” 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.

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