War Reporters Under Threat: The United States and Media Freedom
by Chris Paterson
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.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR.