Heat-packing journalists

Thanks to CNN, journalists approaching military checkpoints are now presumed armed -- if not dangerous.

Published April 15, 2003 11:56PM (EDT)

American soldiers staffing military checkpoints now have one more headache, thanks to the top brass at CNN. From now on press vehicles approaching military checkpoints will be presumed armed, if not dangerous. Soldiers will have to quickly determine whether the journalists inside are indeed journalists with armed security guards or terrorists pretending to be armed journalists. Or, in the case of reporter Geraldo Rivera, whether the journalist himself is packing.

Confusing? Absolutely.

CNN has taken the unprecedented step of hiring armed security for its war correspondents after "specific factions in Iraq" reportedly targeted CNN reporters, a network spokeswoman says. News of the network's policy leaked out after a CNN reporter and his news crew came under fire Sunday at an Iraqi checkpoint. A security guard accompanying the crew reportedly returned fire with a machine gun. The CNN spokeswoman credited the armed security guard's actions with saving the lives of the news crew, but insisted that CNN journalists do not carry weapons themselves.

This will be little comfort to other journalists who will now be suspected of traveling in the company of people who carry weapons, if not carrying weapons themselves.

CNN was already under withering criticism in the news profession after its chief news executive, Eason Jordan, revealed in a New York Times Op-Ed piece last Friday that the network had suppressed reports of torture and other atrocities in Iraq in hopes of keeping its sources alive -- and, critics say, in hopes of keeping its Baghdad bureau open. On Monday, the organization Reporters Sans Frontières lambasted CNN's decision to provide armed security for its teams. RSF Secretary General Robert Menard was quoted as saying: "There is a real risk that combatants will henceforth assume that all press vehicles are armed ... Employing private security firms that do not hesitate to use their firearms just increases the confusion between reporters and combatants."

Under the Geneva Conventions journalists are regarded as unarmed civilians, and are generally treated as such. Even so, the profession of war correspondent ranks alongside bomb-squad technician and Alaskan crab fisherman as one of the most hazardous careers. So far in the Iraq war, 12 journalists have died and two are reported missing. But rather than making journalists' jobs safer, CNN's move will likely have the opposite long-term effect.

This is certainly the belief of Alain Modoux, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross's Information Department. "While it is essential that journalists be allowed to report on whether international law is being followed during armed conflicts, journalists are entitled to no greater protection than any civilian while in pursuit of that information," he said. This attitude may strike some as cavalier at a time when most journalists who die in war zones are murdered.

The question then is whether changing circumstances require changing policies. In previous wars, correspondents were most often embedded with troops, wearing the camouflage uniform of their host army. (This began to change during the Vietnam War as journalists sought to distance themselves from the policies of the U.S. government.) Under the Geneva Conventions, captured journalists then as now are legally part of that military entourage. If captured by opposing forces, they can expect to be treated as prisoners of war. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions equate war correspondents with "civilian members of military aircraft crews" and other integral, albeit nonuniformed, participants.

But as the murder of Daniel Pearl showed, times have indeed changed. Journalists seldom cover wars in the traditional sense, but more often cover guerrilla conflicts, where the rules of the Geneva Conventions are unknown or disregarded. Meanwhile Western journalists are seen by many nontraditional fighters as accessible and legitimate targets.

Rather than treading lightly through this new and relatively unknown territory, journalists are taking greater risks than ever, whether their motive is dedication to the story or one-upping the competition. How useful this risk-taking journalism is remains open to debate, as -- in the case of Iraq -- access to information and people has been restricted not just by the government minders who were in almost constant attendance, but also by the fact that before the fall of Saddam, people were afraid to speak freely. Conversely, the handful of reporters who remained in Baghdad were able to groom sources and provide background, color and context unavailable to embedded reporters. Plus, thanks to their coverage, those of us back home were able to get a genuine sense of how out of touch with reality Saddam's regime had become in its final days.

Meanwhile, there is a growing fear among organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists that the policy of arming journalists is gaining momentum worldwide. South American journalists covering the drug-trafficking beat have for a decade carried concealed weapons, and two years ago, following the murder of several prominent Ukrainian journalists, the Ukrainian government passed a decree allowing its journalists to carry weapons that fire rubber bullets. The head of Ukraine's Union of Journalists, Ihor Lubchenko, fired back saying that if a reporter carried a gun, he was even more likely to be shot himself. Even if that gun fired harmless rubber bullets.

"Censorship and secrecy are the main problems we face," Lubchenko said. Not, apparently, bullets.

For the time being, CNN heads remain defiant, claiming that they have not set a precedent in Iraq, and that journalists have used bodyguards in both Afghanistan and Somalia. And then there is the strange case of Peter Arnett, who bragged of being armed throughout the Vietnam War. If that is indeed the case, it might be too late to put the proverbial cat back in the bag, and journalists may as well begin packing heat -- and a lot of it -- because that's what will be expected of them.

By Christopher Orlet

Christopher Orlet’s essays and reportage have appeared in Salon.com, Global Journalist, The Utne Reader, The Guardian, Philosophy Now and CounterPunch.

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