By Anna Nguyen, Silha Research Assistant
CNN footage on April 13, 2003 showed CNN correspondent Brent Sandler and a CNN convoy of SUVs, complete with its own armed guard, approaching Tikrit, Iraq, intending to cover the ef- fects of war in that city. After assessing the damage outside the city, the convoy was stopped at a checkpoint by a group of suspected Saddam Hussein loyalists.
At the checkpoint, the group of men told the convoy to stop filming unless they had permission from the governor's office of the local Baath Party. In addition, they told Sandler that coalition bombings were still occurring and the city was under the control of Saddam Hussein loyalists. Moments after passing through the checkpoint, Sandler reported they were under fire by suspected Saddam Hussein loyalists in the city.
CNN convoy's armed guard pulled his machine gun and returned fire on the loyalists as the convoy exited Tikrit. CNN producer Maria Fleet was hit by flying glass, but was not seriously injured. Newsday reported that CNN said about 100 rounds of gunfire were exchanged. The potential consequence of using an armed guard has drawn concern from news outlets and media groups. The Associated Press reported that the
CNN incident is believed to be the first time an armed guard used a weapon while accompanying a media crew. The Geneva Conventions state that reporters should not carry weapons in war zones, but several news organizations have hired armed guards in dangerous areas.
Barbara Levin, a spokeswoman for NBC, told Newsday that the news organization has hired about a dozen local militia as armed guards in northern Iraq. NBC, like CNN, has also employed British security firms as advisers. "The safety of our journalists, producers and crews is paramount," Levin said. Although many U.S. news organizations forbid their journaists to carry weapons, the policy is not universal. However, embedded journalists cannot carry weapons.
"The reporter in the field is in the best situation to assess the requirements for safety," said Jihad Ballout, a spokesman for Al-Jazeera, told Newsday. However, he added, "I don't think that anybody's safety is enhanced by either carrying guns or hiring armed guards." Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a statement stating that the
practice of hiring a private security firm is "against all the rules of the profession" and sets a "dangerous precedent," according to Agence France Presse. "There is a real risk that combatants will henceforth assume that all press vehicles are armed," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in the statement. "Journalists can and must try to protect themselves by such methods as travelling in bulletproof vehicles and wearing bulletproof vests, but employing private security firms that do not hesitate to use their firearms just increases the confusion between reporters and combatants," said Ménard.
RSF's statement is available online at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=6078.
CNN said although it bars journalists from carrying weapons, providing armed security in the most dangerous situations is appropriate, according to Newsday. Matthew Furman, a CNN spokesman in Atlanta, told Newsday, "Our policy is first and foremost to do what it takes to protect our staff. If that involves having an armed guard, then that's what we will do." He said about 20 armed guards have been stationed at CNN's northern Iraq compound of Erbil since before the war started. "If you did not have an armed guard with you, there would be some situations like Somalia, like Afghanistan and like northern Iraq where it would simply be too unsafe to report," Furman said.
Some media watchdog groups have agreed with CNN. "If the alternative is getting shot by Iraqis, I don't see that that is a very good option," said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, according to Newsday.
Joel Campagna, Mideast program director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told the Associated Press that he could not recall another incident where a reporter's armed bodyguard had to fire his weapon. "Journalists pose the question of whether they should sacrifice their security for the perception of neutrality. I don't know the answer to that," he said.