By Chris Paterson, author of War Reporters Under Threat: The United States and Media Freedom
‘I could not have known that the inevitable but no less tragic consequences of the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 would become so dramatically manifest this summer as my book is published, and Iraq violently fractures. While my focus is the impact of that invasion on one relatively small group of civilians, the context of the story is the post-2000 election take-over of US foreign policy by right wing ideologues (some would say leading, rather than led by, George W. Bush) who – by some reports – plotted to attack Iraq well before 9/11, and who had little interest in allowing international law, UN weapons inspectors, global opinion, or ideals of free expression to stand in their way.
While many researchers and writers have addressed the complexities, and often, the hypocrisies, of ‘coalition’ interaction with the civilian news media, War Reporters Under Threat challenges policy makers in Western democracies – the US especially – to confront their own track record in permitting and protecting the free flow of journalism about the conflicts in which they are involved. Post-US invasion Iraq has been the most dangerous country in history for representatives of the media, with press freedom organizations chronicling well over 200 deaths of civilian media workers, along with countless – often undocumented – arbitrary detentions, injuries and even cases of torture. Most of the deaths of media workers in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 (for those killed are often those assisting journalists as much as they are journalists themselves) were caused by the various local groups fighting US occupation and each other, some of them seeking to violently coerce media organizations to convey their messages.
But it struck me as remarkable that something over 30 of those media deaths could be attributed – by witnesses and independent investigations – to the US military and those working with it, like the Blackwater mercenary company. In combination with additional media deaths in Afghanistan, and in Serbia in 1999, where 16 employees of the public broadcaster were killed by US missiles, and with attacks by the US military on at least 12 media installations in that period, a pattern of disregard for media safety becomes clear. If the country in question were North Korea – or indeed, even US ally Israel – this would be less than remarkable, but this pattern is important, and worthy of debate, because the aggressor is the United States – the country which, more than any other, ties free expression to its foreign policy, claims to set the global standard for press freedom and which has historically been counted on by the civilian media for protection in conflict zones.
I don’t argue that other countries which consistently persecute journalists should be let off the hook or that their near impunity not be challenged; but that the US and its allies like Israel, with terrible but little discussed press protection records of their own, be more prominently and effectively held to account – that they be put on the hook. So skilled at manipulating local and international media discourse are these countries that few in the commercial media sector, nor among free expression oriented non-governmental organizations which are often funded by that sector, have forcefully and consistently campaigned against the relative impunity these governments enjoy following attacks on media.
The easy acceptance of media deaths caused by the US government seems the consequence of a confluence of factors including the post-9/11 militarization and securtisation of US culture, the erosion of almost all vestiges of a questioning Fourth Estate journalism in the US, and the perception in the inner sanctum of US policy making of the irrelevance and expendability of traditional media; especially when that media distributes versions of news which contradict the preferred narrative. My book does not accuse the US government of assassinating journalists, for there is little supporting evidence for that, but seeks to illuminate a pattern of disregard for the protection of civilian media workers which international law requires along with some prominent cases where media were attacked because of their role in providing a counter-narrative to the world; attacks on the Serbian broadcaster and Al-Jazerra’s Kabul bureau are the prominent examples.
The threat to media workers by the US in Iraq appeared to draw to an end in 2007 with the killing of two Reuters employees by a US helicopter crew (the infamous gun camera video features on the cover of my book). But the US threat to free expression hasn’t diminished. Few concessions to media safety emerged from the US war in Iraq, and a legal and extra-legal challenge to journalism has very much come home to US journalists, as Associated Press journalists who had their phone records seized without warrant last summer discovered. And the incredible success in building a culture of fear and exaggerated threat in the US is being used now to dismiss mass surveillance and the detention of media workers at airports as ‘terrorists’.
It is unthinkable that twenty years ago the response to revelations that every citizen is being monitored would have been to call the editor of the newspaper which revealed this (the Guardian) to explain himself to Parliament as that newspaper’s computers were sledge-hammered by UK officials. As the Snowden revelations came in the US elected officials went on television to speak of frightening new al Qaeda plots and how we are all safer for the NSA’s good work. A compliant US and UK mostly echoed and amplified that message as Snowden, like Assange before him, was labeled a dangerous criminal, and as with Assange, many in the right wing- but very mainstream – US media enthusiastically ruminated over how best to assassinate them. I cite in the book another whistle-blower from the US intelligence world calling what we have now ‘turn-key totalitarianism’ whereby structures of surveillance and control have been built that far exceed anything the Stasi or KGB dreamt of, requiring only the slightest political shift to result in the total, and lasting, loss of the remnants of democracy and civil liberties. We have entered now into a different kind of contest over information –wider, more all encompassing, than the one that used to occupy investigative journalists and the governments which would try to limit what they say. The violent disregard for free expression and the right both to life, and to report, of media workers in the Middle East by the US and its allies is a warning of tougher times to come for journalism – a warning most in the media continue to ignore at their peril.’
Chris Paterson teaches at the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, and is a former television news photographer. He is the author of War Reporters Under Threat: The United States and Media Freedom, The International Television News Agencies (2011), and the the co-editor of Making Online News: Newsroom Ethnographies in the Second Decade of Internet Journalism (2011) and Making Online News: The Ethnography of New Media Production (2008).