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Cooper: Reporters in Iraq Increasingly in Danger

Interviewer: Lionel Beehner
Interviewee: Ann Cooper
January 20, 2006

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Iraq is the most dangerous conflict for journalists since the Vietnam War. More than seventy reporters and media assistants have been killed since March 2003, according to Reporters Sans Frontiers, some by crossfire, others targeted by insurgents. At least thirty-six have been kidnapped. The latest abduction involves an American 28-year-old contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Jill Carroll, who was kidnapped January 7 by Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad. Many of these episodes end tragically. Last August, for example, a freelance writer from New York City, Steven Vincent, was abducted and killed by a Shiite militia group in the southern city of Basra. Iraq’s postwar environment has grown so perilous that foreign reporters are often unable to leave high-security areas to travel and cover stories. As a result, they must increasingly rely on local Iraqis, who themselves are being targeted by insurgents. As such, most of the journalists killed have been Iraqis. Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), discusses the difficulties of reporting from Iraq, the role governments play when journalists are abducted, and the current status of press freedoms around the globe.

What is the responsibility of governments when journalists are abducted?

Western governments do get involved, but largely behind the scenes, and they generally reveal little in public about their efforts -- such as what the Italian and French governments did last year when they had journalists captured in Iraq, or what the U.S. government's role is currently in the Jill Carroll case. Each kidnapping is different, each has specific characteristics, and a government's actions may vary depending on where the kidnapping takes place, who the journalist is, what their nationality is, who they work for, and what is known about the kidnappers.

In the Iraq situation, if you have an insurgent group kidnapping foreign journalists, is a U.S. government public statement helpful? I'm sure the government would see it as important to express its support if one of its citizens is kidnapped, whether it's a journalist or someone in a different job. It would also be important for any government to work inclose connection with the family of the person who's kidnapped as well as the employer of the person.

Do you think it’s fair or ethical for U.S. journalists in conflict zones like Iraq to essentially outsource their reporting duties to local journalists, particularly given the dangers involved?

This is not a new phenomenon. Western news organizations have always relied on local hires as translators, fixers, or journalists, to help them in their news gathering, especially in ongoing stories like the one in Iraq. The terrible situation that's developed in Iraq is that as this story goes on and becomes more dangerous for foreign correspondents to dotheir reporting, they must increasingly rely on the Iraqis working with them. Those Iraqis are often in a better position to travel about and gather news. But they, too, are running great risks. If you look at statistics gathered by the Committee to Protect Journalists, most of the kidnappings [in Iraq] have been of foreign journalists, while most of the journalists killed have been Iraqis. Insurgents often target Iraqis as "collaborators" because they are working with Western news organizations. Many have been threatened, "If you don't' stop this work, we'll kill you." Some have stopped working. Some have gone into exile. Some have been killed.

Talk about the techniques of journalists. Jill Carroll, for example, had nosecurity detail around her. Do you recommend journalists in conflict areas to “blend in” or to use bodyguards?

The most important thing for journalists covering conflict is to take very seriously their personal security. There are a lot of resources they can turn to now, far more than, say, ten or fifteen years ago. Our organization puts out a security handbook. There are also private security firms that will do training courses for journalists and others, or who will provide security on the ground in conflict zones. And the news organizations that send journalists to cover conflicts have to recognize their responsibility for their employees. They need to talk about security in detail and make sure their journalists are properlytrained and equipped. But on specific questions, like whether to travel with bodyguards or not, there are often different opinions -- and no "right" or "wrong" approach.

Early on in the Iraq conflict, for instance, there was a huge debate among journalists about the use of armed guards. Television journalists, in particular those working for American television companies, were starting to travel with armed guards. Others, including many European television journalists, said, this is the last thing we want to do. Traveling with gunmen, they argued, tainted the image of journalists as neutral observers.

What about the U.S. military treatment of Iraqi journalists? Seven of them were reportedly arrested last year, right?

A number of [Iraqi] journalists have been held for weeks, sometimes months, at a time by the U.S. military and then released without any charge. The same has happened to many other Iraqi civilians. But one group that seems to be particularly vulnerable is Iraqi journalists, especially those working as photographers or cameramen for Western media. They may be out taking pictures in the aftermath of a story, such as a suicide bombing. The situation is often quite tense, and they get picked up by the U.S. military. Sometimes these journalists have been detained after soldiers look at the contents of their digital cameras or some of their video footage and decide these pictures give them reason to suspect the cameramen may be something more than just journalists.

Don't they have press credentials?

There are credentials but the credentialing system [in Iraq] has been fraught with problems. For example, sometimes in the past it's been shut down for months at a time. And credentials or no credentials, the U.S. military often looks upon local Iraqi journalists with great suspicion. Yet we know of no cases where any of the journalists detained by the U.S. military have actually been charged with a crime. What we have said repeatedly to the military is: if you have a reason to hold this person, bring that charge and make it public. If you don't, release them. It's a process that has no due process for detainees. And it's a terrible example that the U.S. is setting, in a country where one of the statedgoals is to establish democracy. One of the fundamental tenets of justice in a democracy is that when people are detained, they're told of the charges against them or they're released. And that's not happening -- not even when the detained journalists are employed by well-established, mainstream media organizations that vouch for them.

Is the U.S. military detaining journalists outside of Iraq as well?

There is one other journalist who's imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. He's Sudanese and was working as an assistant cameraman for al-Jazeera when he was detained in late 2001 while crossing the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also released a report claiming murder is now the leading cause of death for journalists.

That has long been true; it's not a new development.

The report shows fewer overall deaths of journalists in 2005 versus 2004, but a greater percentage of these deaths were a result of murder, correct?

A lot of attention is focused on the dangers of covering conflicts, particularly for foreign correspondents. But in any given year, most of the journalists killed because of their work are local journalists, and most of them are murdered -- meaning someone ordered or hired gunmen to kill that reporter or editor because of his or her journalistic work.

And to reiterate, you’re saying it doesn’t help you as a journalist, if detained, to have a big organization lobbying on your behalf?

It has not in the case of the journalists detained in Iraq. But in other instances, a larger media company may have greater resources to help its journalists, including getting attention to their case. In this country, more attention is paid when an American journalist is in trouble, because that's a "local" story, in effect. But American media also pay considerable attention to press freedom stories in other parts of the world, for example, China's terrible record of imprisoning journalists -- thirty-two imprisoned last month. It's the seventh year in a row that China has been the world's leading jailer of journalists

Does that include murders—that is, does China lead in that category as well?

No. Last year Iraq was the deadliest country for journalists. Twenty-two were killed, almost all of them Iraqis.

What about press freedoms in Russia?

CPJ wrote an article over a year ago saying that with only a handful of exceptions, there is less press freedom today in the countries that made up the Soviet Union than there was in the glasnost years of Soviet power when Mikhail Gorbachev was in office [in the late 1980s]. That would describe the dismal situation for press freedom in Russia as well. Allnational broadcasting is controlled or heavily influenced by the Kremlin now, and only a handful of newspapers, with small circulation, are truly independent.

The U.S. is known around the world as the gold standard for press freedoms, so anytime you see that eroding it sends a negative message to other governments. It makes it harder for journalists in those countries.

What’s the significance of the recent Reporters Without Borders’ 2005 World Press Freedom Indexthat ranks the United Statesforty-fourth out of 167 countries, a drop of about twenty spots from previous years? Doe this hurt our standing in the world?

That is not an index that CPJ compiles. But it is certainly true that restrictions on press freedom in the United States are closely watched around the world. For example, if the U.S. jails a journalist, it sends a message to governments that have much less respect for press freedom and are much more likely to jail journalists. Leaders in those countries can say, "Don't talk to me about press freedoms. Look at the U.S, which has [former New York Times reporter] Judy Miller in prison. The U.S. is known around the world as the gold standard for press freedoms, so anytime you see that eroding it sends a negative message to other governments. It makes it harder for journalists in those countries.

What about bloggers? Are they being harassed or arrested as often as regular journalists abroad?

Definitely. There are countries where the controls on traditional media are very strong, but the Internet has offered new opportunities and ways to get around those controls; China is a great example of that. Many of those thirty-two journalists in prison are people who use the Internet to disseminate information and then ran afoul of the government. There are certainly people you would define as bloggers who we have taken up as cases. Iran is another country where the controls have become so severe that more people are looking toward the Internet and setting up websites or blogs to comment. There have been some arrests in Iran. I can’t remember if there is anybody sitting in prison because of their Internet work, but the government has certainly acted against some of them.

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