Uncle Sam wants (to kill) you

A political screed misses the true threat to war correspondents

War Reporters Under Threat: The United States and Media Freedom
by Chris Paterson
Pluto Press
216 pages; $29

I traveled to Iraq for the first time in the winter of 2004. I was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and had volunteered to help out at the Baghdad bureau over Christmas. It was a three-week assignment that ended up lasting nearly three years. Throughout that time, danger and fear were constant companions.

Along with a number of other journalists, I lived at the al-Hamra, a hotel in a residential neighborhood across the Tigris River from the Green Zone. In late 2005, suicide bombers detonated close to a ton of explosives near the entrance, killing at least six Iraqi civilians. Body parts were found floating in the hotel swimming pool.

I was not at the hotel that day. But bombings were part of my everyday calculus in Iraq, whether I was in the streets among civilians or traveling with the military. There was no safe place. And while bombings were scary because of their force and unpredictability, what scared me most was the threat of kidnapping. A few months before I arrived in Baghdad, an Italian reporter named Enzo Baldoni had been killed in front of rolling cameras, and during the time I spent in Iraq two journalists I knew were kidnapped. Thankfully, both survived. Many others weren’t so fortunate, and Iraq remains the deadliest country for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Given my experience in Iraq, I was eager to read Chris Paterson’s new book, War Reporters Under Threat. But Paterson, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, isn’t interested in the actual threats that journalists faced in Iraq and Afghanistan—and continue to face in conflicts around the world. Instead, he argues that the real danger to reporters in war zones is winding up in the crosshairs of the United States government.

The book “sets out to tell a story which many others have only hinted at,” Paterson writes in the preface.

This is the story of a superpower drunk with power and willing, both through willful ignorance and through design, to sacrifice media workers and media independence to military adventures fuelled by a potent mix of Machiavellian strategy and paranoid fantasy, driven with remarkable success by a neoconservative cabal which has come to profoundly infect and affect US society and US foreign policy alike.

Paterson relies on a number of incidents of American troops killing journalists during war—40 since 1991, by his not-quite-clear count—that he seems to have chosen either at random or cynically. He begins, for instance, with the 1999 bombing of the Belgrade headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia that killed 16 Serbian media workers—an attack carried out by NATO, though led by the US. The controversial bombing was later investigated by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which found it “legally acceptable.”

Even if you find the Serbian bombing morally objectionable, it’s an odd place to start in a book mostly devoted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Paterson, though, it’s a handy way to establish intent, since NATO knowingly bombed a media facility.

Taken together, the cases he cites don’t amount to the indictment of the American government that Paterson promises. There is no doubt that jittery and sometimes careless American soldiers killed too many civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of Paterson’s examples—the shelling of the Palestine Hotel in 2003, for instance, and the bombing of the Al Jazeera Kabul office in 2001—should not be forgotten. He is also right to spotlight the treatment of Iraqi journalists by American troops. Even those who worked for international news organizations such as The Associated Press and Reuters were routinely harassed and detained, often for long periods without being charged.

But look closely at the descriptions of how most of the journalists in Paterson’s telltale incidents were killed, and it becomes clear that the vast majority died in tragic accidents, not as the result of a sinister campaign to silence the media.

The British ITN correspondent Terry Lloyd, for example, was caught in crossfire in the early days of the invasion. A translator killed in April 2003 died when a US warplane dropped a bomb on Kurdish soldiers in a “friendly fire” accident. For some reason, Paterson also includes in his appendix an Italian government employee who was killed escorting a journalist to Baghdad International Airport—an incident that, perhaps more than anything, highlights the tragic mistakes of war.

Indeed, few—if any—of the people on the list can be said to have been intended targets. For those interested in taking a more comprehensive look at how journalists have died in Iraq, the Committee to Protect Journalists has the most accurate information.

CPJ compiled a detailed statistical profile of journalists killed in Iraq from 2003 to 2009. Of the 139 journalists killed during the first six years of the war, insurgent or other armed groups were responsible for 105 deaths while “US fire” killed 16, according to the report. At the time, CPJ wrote that though it was still investigating, it had “not found evidence to conclude that US troops targeted journalists in these cases.”

Comparing Paterson’s “study” to CPJ’s, one gets the feeling that rather than arriving at the conclusion after researching the cases at hand, Paterson picked the cases to support what is essentially a political argument about America’s nefarious doings abroad. At one point he writes: “We could speculate that under contemporary US doctrine the response would be to bomb the BBC, rather than to have a debate about the role of the media in times of war.”

Paterson’s attack is weirdly double-barreled; he isn’t sure whether journalists should be pitied or blamed for being targets: “News media collaboration with the process of escalating provocation and violence, which ultimately led to the modern, asymmetrical warfare that has proven so deadly for those in the media and for hundreds of thousands of other civilians, all begin with the central tenet of the Western journalist’s professional identity: the rejection of an analytic role in reporting the foreign policy positions of their own home governments.” One is tempted to say, Tell that to James Risen.

Paterson goes on to suggest, inaccurately, that the American media in toto supported the war in Iraq: “The immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US was described to the US public by a compliant media, seeking favourable media ownership policies from the Bush administration.” Such a reductionist characterization of the press as unthinking cheerleaders feeds Paterson’s argument about the willing handmaidens to “a superpower drunk with power.”

Not surprisingly, Paterson does have one journalist-hero: “One of the keenest critics of a Western press in bed with Western militaries is Robert Fisk of the London newspaper The Independent. He is quoted throughout this book precisely because he is the one reporter from a major Western newspaper who has consistently . . . written about the misrepresentations, obfuscation and press intimidation of Western militaries and the occasional complicity of his media colleagues.”

In the early days of the war in Iraq, Fisk wrote about “hotel journalism,” and how he was among the few reporters who dared venture out into the city. He wrote this while living in the hotel among the rest of us, seeing us come and go each day. About two years into the war, Fisk either lost interest, found other places he’d rather go, or judged it too dangerous an assignment—after August 2005, his Baghdad datelines grew less frequent and covering Iraq for The Independent was left to his insightful colleague, Patrick Cockburn.

From the earliest days, “coalition” journalists, as Paterson derisively refers to US and British correspondents, offered vivid accounts of life in Baghdad, suggesting the invasion was a disastrous mistake in its unleashing of savagely destructive forces. There was televised coverage of the looting in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, and heart-rending dispatches about Iraqi civilian life from reporters such as the late Anthony Shadid, then of The Washington Post, and Alissa Rubin, then of the Los Angeles Times.

Contrary to what Paterson claims, we did try to count the dead. In the summer of 2006, after the fateful bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra that led to the killing of thousands of people, reporters for the Los Angeles Times fanned out across Iraq, trying to establish an accurate tally of civilian deaths. I went to the Baghdad morgue to see the dead with my own eyes, and with the help of our invaluable translators spoke to gravediggers and clerics and so many families who had lost loved ones.

We concluded that, at the time, at least 50,000 people, and possibly many more, had been killed between 2003 and 2006. It was, we noted, a much higher toll than previously acknowledged by the American administration.

A study published in the medical journal The Lancet a few months later had a much higher estimate of civilian deaths, 650,000. Paterson cites the Lancet figure, even though the study’s methodology has since been discredited by peer-reviewed research.

To those of us who were there, though, the Lancet study is hard to believe for the simple reason that it is hard to bury that many people without anyone noticing. As a former cop reporter, I know this much: You can fiddle with statistics, but hiding the bodies is hard.

The biggest problem with War Reporters Under Threat is that it obscures the real dangers that war reporters face. Today, non-state actors in the Middle East, eastern Ukraine, Mexico, and elsewhere are the deadliest threat. Insurgents or gangsters who kidnap reporters for ransom, or to kill them to make a gruesome statement, are menacing in a way that a stray bullet fired by a soldier at war, however tragic, is not.

To make a point about Americans going after Al Jazeera, Paterson cites the courage of the Iraqi television journalist Atwar Bahjat when US forces detained her. Unfortunately, he only mentions her subsequent fate as a throwaway line in a footnote, perhaps because it doesn’t fit his argument. In 2006, Bahjat was murdered by radical militants in Samarra, along with her entire crew, while trying to report on the sectarian war.

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Louise Roug is the global news editor at Mashable. At the Los Angeles Times, she was a finalist, along with her Baghdad colleagues, for a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the war. Follow her @louiseroug. This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR.