New U.S. Military and Iraqi Policies Create Challenges for Journalists Working in War Zone

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Iraqi government recently increased restrictions on reporters and photographers, leading some journalists to question whether the changes were motivated by political pressure to hide gruesome images from the public.

DoD Directive 5122.5

DoD Directive 5122.5 requires that embedded photographers and reporters obtain “prior written consent” to include “[n]ames, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs” of wounded soldiers in their reports. The DoD added the language last year to an agreement journalists must sign before they are embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. The agreement also prohibits release of any image depicting a dead soldier. The new version of the directive dated May 5, 2006 is available at http://www.iraqslogger.com/downloads/mnf_i_media_ground_rules5may06_1.pdf.

Military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Josslyn L. Aberle told David Carr of The New York Times that the new restrictions arose from a desire to increase privacy for military personnel and their families, not to curtail the flow of negative war images back to the states. Carr wrote about the new restrictions in his “Media Equation” column published May 28, 2007.

“The last thing that we want to do is to contribute to the grief and the anguish of the family members,” Aberle said. “We don’t want the last image that the family has of their soldier to be a photo of him dying on a battlefield. You have to ask how much value is added.”

But some journalists say that the requirement of prior consent functions as a complete ban on depictions of wounded service members.

“They are basically asking me to stand in front of a unit before I go out with them and say that in the event that they are wounded, I would like their consent,” veteran photographer Ashley Gilbertson said in The Times column. “We are already viewed by some as bloodsucking vultures, and making that kind of announcement would make you an immediate bad luck charm.”

Gilbertson also told The Times that the ban seems more like a political effort to hide “the reality of war” from the public than a humanitarian effort to protect soldiers and their families. Prior to the change in Directive 5122.5, images of a wounded soldier could be released only after the soldier’s family had been informed of the incident.

In a May 29, 2007 posting on the “Public Eye” blog at cbsnews.com, Brian Montopoli argued that the public’s right to information should be balanced against the soldier’s right to privacy. But even if the new policy is justified, it makes the job of an embedded journalist more difficult.

“Journalists have a responsibility to be sensitive to the privacy and personal concerns of soldiers and their families, but they have an obligation to tell the story of a war that has become increasingly difficult to cover. The military’s guidelines limit journalists’ ability to weigh these two considerations on a case by case basis, making it harder for them to generate the kinds of powerful and enduring images that can become icons of a conflict” Montopoli wrote. The posting is available at http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2007/05/29/publiceye/entry2863489.shtml.

The tighter regulations for embedded journalists comes at a time when their numbers are steadily decreasing. Carr reported in the May 28 column that there were 92 embedded journalists in Iraq in May 2007, compared with 126 the previous month.

New Iraqi government regulation

On May 13, 2007 the Iraqi government banned photographers and reporters from bombing scenes for a one-hour period following explosions.

Iraqi officials say the ban is necessary to preserve evidence at bomb sites, but journalists worry that the ban is an attempt to prevent dissemination of violent images around the world.

“We do not want evidence to be disturbed before the arrival of detectives, the [I]nterior [M]inistry must respect human rights and does not want to expose victims and does not want to give terrorists information that they achieved their goals,” said Brig. Gen. Abdel Karim Khalaf, the director of Iraq’s Interior Ministry, according to a May 14 Agence France-Presse report. “The decision does not imply a curtailment of press freedom, it is a measure followed all over the world.” The report does not indicate whether Khalaf substantiated his claim that similar practices occur “all over the world.”

Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF or Reporters Without Borders), an international free-press advocacy group, said in a May 16 statement that the increasing restrictions imposed by the Iraqi authorities would eventually lead to a complete press blackout.

“It is vital that journalists can report on the security situation throughout the country without it being seen as incitement to violence. When the streets become impassable and the authorities provide no information about the attacks in real time, the role of the reporter becomes essential. Coverage of these attacks allows people to evaluate the security risk and to avoid dangerous areas,” RSF said in the statement.

Photo District News (PDN) reported May 16 that the ban may be related to Iraqi government suspicions that journalists have advance knowledge of bomb attacks. According to the PDN story, photographs of bomb sites are one reason photojournalist Bilal Hussein has been detained by the U.S. military for more than a year. (See “CPJ Urges Defense Department to Release or Charge” in the Winter 2007 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)

Iraqi police enforced the ban on May 15 after a bomb in Baghdad’s Tayaran Square killed seven people and wounded an additional 17. The Associated Press reported in a story printed in the International Herald Tribune that the police officers fired warning shots into the air to disperse reporters and photographers who arrived to cover the incident.

The ban, along with the unusual enforcement method, prompted the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to issue a protest letter addressed to Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki on May 21.

“While we recognize security concerns at scenes of violence, the Interior Ministry’s ban appears to be an attempt to limit press coverage of unwelcome news. Journalists, not governments, should determine whether a story is too dangerous to cover. The ministry’s assertion that perpetrators rely on the media for confirmation of an attack is not supported by any factual evidence and, in any case, is no justification for obstructing the news reporting. Neither does the Interior Ministry offer any evidence supporting its insinuation that journalists tamper with evidence at crime scenes,” Joel Simon, CPJ executive director, wrote in the letter.

– Michael Schoepf, Silha Research Assistant

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on October 21, 2009 2:13 PM.

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