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Al-Jazeera panel on the rights and safety of journalists

David Marash begins the last panel of the Al Jazeera forum, speaking as he’s striding onstage. The coverage of Somalia in most media shows the effectiveness of American military in keeping wars off the front page. Somalia is a “new paradigm for America fighting future wars,” semi-covert and low-intensity, and critically, “a war without witnesses.” There were very few journalists in Mogadishu, and almost none along the road to the Ethiopian border. When the pursuit of UIC forces moved southeast, there were no embedded reporters involved. And local citizens were warned not to leave their homes after dark, or it would be presumed that they were terrorists. The result is that “there were no professional witnesses, and to a large degree, no citizen witnesses.”

This means that journalists were only able to discover what actually happened after the fact, by consulting with the Navy’s chief of staff. He conceded that US troops had been on the ground in Somalia ahead of the Ethiopian army’s advance, and that “a few private military contractors might have been involved”. US forces acted as trainers for Ethiopian forces, certainly provided targetting information for the Ethiopians, possibly accompanied and maybe led Ethiopian forces into Somalia. This is vital information that the world needs – “forces conspired with considerable success to make this battlefield a complete blank.” (And we can all see how well that particular military operation has gone…)

Future wars, Marash argues, are becoming more hostile to journalistic coverage. His panel is focused on this issue – the obligations the international community has to protect journalists in the course of their work, reporting both from warzones and in peacetime.

Tayssir Alouni, an Al Jazeera reporter and photographer is joining the panel from Spain where he’s under house arrest, serving a seven year sentence for “collaboration with Al-Qaida”. Alouni was the head of AlJ’s Kabul office in 2001 and remained in Afghanistan to cover the US war against the Taliban, before moving to Qatar when Al Jazeera’s Kabul office was destroyed by a US attack. In the weeks after 9/11, Alouni interviewed Osama bin Ladn in Afghanistan. The Spanish government prosecuted him for acting as a financial courier to bin Ladn – Alouni protests that he was doing his job as a journalist in meeting bin Ladn and didn’t act as a courier.

Alouni argues that the targeting of journalists in war zones by the US military is not accidental – it’s intentional. The attacks are specifically targeted at journalists – he references American attacks on Al Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad. (In both cases, the locations of the AlJ offices had been communicated to US forces in advance so they knew not to shell those locations.) Many colleagues, Alouni tells us, have lost their lives, paying the ultimate price for news coverage. “Others remain in heinous prisons,” referencing Sami Al Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman detained in Afghanistan as an enemy combattant, who is on hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay.

Governments – especially the US government – are “preventing journalists through all possible means from accessing the news.” In Afghanistan, NATO forces and the Kharzai government make it extremely difficult for reporters to reach the scene of battles with Taliban. AlJ reporters take an additional risk, he tells us, because they attempt to interview the Taliban as well to have a balanced account of the situations unfolding.

“The life of a journalist only costs a bullet, and ammunition is abundant in Afghanistan.” But it’s important to have seasoned, experienced journalists in these parts of the world because they can tell stories that others miss. Alouni unpacks coverage of the bombing at Baghram Air Force Base. he considers it an attempt on vice-President Cheney’s life, and wonders why media has been so willing to term it a Taliban attack. “It’s not a Taliban area – it’s a Northern Alliance stronghold, it’s Tajik controlled. From my experience, I can say that there is doubt that the attack was Taliban.” With experienced correspondents on the ground, who understand local tribal politics, it’s possible that a more complete account of events could have been offered. But that forward position is very risky for journalists and is likely to be more risky in future wars.

Rodney Pinter, director of International News Safety Institute tries to quantify these dangers for the audience: “Every week, two of our colleagues die.” Only a quarter die in high-conflict countries, on batlefields. The majority die in the course of their ordinary work, reporting local corruption stories in countries where these stories can have dire consequences. Nine-tenths of these murders remain unsolved.

It’s much safer to be an embedded reporter than an independent one – 92% of reporters killed were unembedded. (It’s not clear if this is proportionally true – there’s a much greater number of unembedded than embedded journalists worldwide.) And in Iraq, it’s most dangerous to be an Iraqi journalist – “in the beginning of the war, most of the casualties were foreign – now almost all are local.” 160 Iraqi journalists have died thus far.

The landscape of war reporting has “changed beyond all recognition” since Pinter began reporting in 1967. In many cases, he reminds us, journalists “are all too often the only untrained professionals on the battlefield.” Organizations are finding that they’ve got to provide training before jouralists go into the field and counseling afterwards. And he urges us to “call on all journalists to support one another in hostile environments,” reminding us that “lives get lost by assuming a competence on the behalf of the military that is not there, and that media rights will be respected.”

Aidan White, the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, points to an additional complicating factor: news organizations are relying more heavily on freelancers, and making less investment in training and protecting their staff in the field. “Who is the foreign correspondent of the future? It’s not some group of elites – the majority of people out there are often ignorant of the safety conditions on the ground,” and ill-equipped to deal with crisis and trauma. “They are exploited by media companies who do not care about their safety so long as they do not have a legal issue.” (The Christian Science Monitor’s care to the sitation of Jill Carroll would seem to contradict this statement, at least in that specific case.) “We have to move away from the idea that the only people we care about are journalists” – we need to advocate for the protection of drivvers, fixers and translators. He tells us that a journalist was recently kidnapped and forced to watch the beheading of his driver. The foreign correspondent had a value to the kidnappers – they could negotiate for his release – but the driver’s life wasn’t worth negotiating for.

Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists (my copanelist in DC a few days back) offers a framework for how countries restrict the press. Some, like China and Eritrea, put harsh laws on the books and arrest journalists who cross the line. Others, like Zimbabwe, harrass journalists and making reporting dangerous and difficult. And other countries use violence to silence journalists. Smyth’s current project is to “edify journalists as to who is really at risk.” Three-quarters of journalists who are murdered are journalists working on local stories, in countries like the Phillipines, Bangladesh, Russia and Columbia. In most cases, these journalists are killed in premeditated conspiracies. And the largest group of people responsible for the killing are government actors, larger than insurgent or militia groups.

Smyth acknowledges that there’s an internal debate within CPJ about whether the group should focus their research and advocacy on groups beyond journalists, including fixers, drivers, translators, etc. He mentions that CPL is supporting blogger Josh Wolff’s case and considers him
an improperly imprisoned journalist.

Discussions about the risks to journalists turns to questions about whether Sami Al-Hajj and Tayssir Alouni have been punished in part because of their relationship with Al-Jazeera. Alouni tells us that Sami’s lawyer has told the press that Sami has been offered release several times if he would agree to “spy on” AlJ. “We are scapegoats [for the network, nothing more, nothing less.”

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  1. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Rest in peace, Edward Chikomba.

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