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Iraq and the Death Toll for Journalists

The recent shooting of Waleed Khaled, a soundman for Reuters TV, by US military snipers in Iraq is a terrible reminder of how dangerous the war has been not just for military and civilians, but for journalists.

(The cameraman accompanying Khaled, Haider Kadhem, was wounded by US forces and is being held by US forces, who have refused to say where he is being held or what unit is holding him. At present, Reuters is demanding his immediate release.)

Our friends at Reporters Sans Frontières point out that the Iraq war has been the most deadly instrastate conflict for journalists since the Vietnam War: in 29 months, 66 reporters and media assistants have been killed; an additional 29 have been kidnapped. 63 journalists died in Vietnam, but over the course of a twenty year war.

RSF points out that recent conflicts in Algeria and the former Yugoslavia have also been bloody ones for journalists: 49 journalists were killed in Yugoslavia between 1991-5, and 57 journalists and 20 media assistants were slain in Algeria’s civil war (1993-6). The high death tolls of these recent conflicts makes me wonder whether two trends in warfare are likely to make journalist casualties higher in the forseeable future: the targetting of civilians and the 24/7 newsroom.

War has never spared noncombattants, but the conflicts RSF identifies as most deadly for journalists have been especially bloody ones for civilians. Because journalists can be hard to tell from civilians at a distance, and because journalists are interested in documenting war’s impact on civilians, any conflict where one (or more) sides are explicitly targetting civilians is likely to be a deadly one for journalists doing their jobs.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the US public has been taught to expect moment to moment live coverage of wars where US troops are involved. (I can’t recall a day in the past three years where my GAP research scripts turned up a day where Iraq wasn’t the dominant country mentioned – besides the US – in most US media sources…) This constant, close coverage of conflicts the media decides are most relevant (not the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, blamed for over 3 million deaths, for instance) guarantees that numerous journalists will be in harm’s way for the duration of the fighting.

RSF’s page honoring fallen journalists gives a sense for just how many media outlets are covering the conflict in Iraq: Knight Ridder, AP, Reuters, Washington Post, al-Iraqia, al-Sabah, Nikkan Gendai, El Mundo, Al Arabiya and the BBC are just some of the papers or TV stations that have lost reporters.

RSF’s coverage of the murder of Adnan Al Bayati, who worked for Italian TV station TG3, reveals an added dimension to the danger for journalists in Iraq. A devout Shiite, Al Bayati was kidnapped and murdered by Sunni extremists who oppose Iraqis “collaborating” with foreign powers, especially journalists.

Update: Rebecca just reminded me that Eason Jordan – former chief news executive for CNN – ended up resigning over comments he made at the World Economic Forum that suggested that the US government was targetting journalists. Jordan later made it clear that he hadn’t meant to accuse the US government of deliberately targetting journalists, just that he observed that the situation had become extremely dangerous for journalists. Jay Rosen has an excellent summary of the Jordan controversy…

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