Covering Iraq Too Risky?
In this image provided by Facebook, Facebook founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, center, rings the opening bell of the Nasdaq stock market, Friday, May 18, 2012, from Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. The social media company priced its IPO on Thursday at $38 per share, and beginning Friday regular investors will have a chance to buy shares. (AP Photo/Nasdaq via Facebook, Zef Nikolla) / Zef Nikolla
How bad do things have to get before you decide that covering Iraq is no longer worth the risk to journalists' lives? That's a question that some news organizations are now agonizing over.
One world leader has already made that decision. French President Jacques Chirac warned in a speech at the Elysees Palace: "French authorities formally advise against sending journalists to (Iraq). It's a question of responsibility ... At present, the security of our press correspondents cannot be assured." A French reporter, Florence Aubenas of the daily newspaper "Liberation," had just disappeared. She and her Iraqi interpreter had not been heard from since they left their Baghdad hotel two days earlier.
French reporters used to believe (or hope) they were less likely to be killed or kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents because of the French government's strong opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Now they know their country's foreign policy is not an insurance policy.
France has just lived through the three-months hostage crisis of two other French reporters, who were held by a group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq. After their release, one of the two reporters, Georges Malbrunot, advised other journalists to stay out of Iraq: "It seems to be extremely, extremely risky, especially given the work conditions now. Not going out of a hotel room, is that really getting informed?"
And that is the most troubling part of the equation for organizations which have to assess the risk/results ratio in sending reporters to Iraq. If journalists are too scared, or prudent, to leave their hotels and safe houses in Baghdad to do actual reporting, is it worth endangering their lives to be there?
Most of the American reporting from Iraq these days is done by journalists who hole up in their hotels and find it too risky to venture out much, except to attend press conferences in the heavily protected government "green zone" of Iraq. And even that is dangerous. There is always the risk of a car bomb at the entrance to the zone.
Traveling to hostile towns in Iraq on your own — even with armed guards and an armored vehicle, or disguised as locals in an old car — can be a suicidal mission. So the real choice is to stay in the hotel and rely on local fixers/interpreters/cameraman to go out and do the reporting, or get in bed with the American military.
Embedded journalists, who volunteer to be embedded and are assigned to work with an Army or Marine unit, get a chance to see the insurgency up close and personal. Their reporting of the battle to regain control of Fallujah was dramatic, and often risky. CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer had several close calls.
The drawback for news organizations is that embedded journalists usually see only one side of the story — through a gun sight, so to speak. They rarely see the people on the other side.
What they see are American soldiers and Marines performing courageously in a very difficult mission. What the public back home sometimes misses in their reports are the harrowing consequences for Iraqi civilians who happen to be in the line of fire. In Fallujah, the Marines used the urban warfare technique of entering a suspect house and throwing a hand grenade into each room before checking it out for "unfriendlies."
To borrow Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's famous phrase, in battles "stuff happens."
The question for foreign news organizations in Iraq now is whether half a story is better than none. For the moment, most think it is.
By Tom Fenton