US offers Iraq journalists new safeguards
20 March 2006
By Alastair Macdonald
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military is offering new safeguards to journalists in Iraq to prevent a repeat of lengthy detentions suffered by several reporters last year.
Abandoning a policy that denied journalists special status -- and under which three Reuters staff were jailed for up to eight months -- the general in charge of detentions said such arrests would now be treated as "almost unique" cases.
Reports of abuse will also be investigated, including a beating in custody that left a Reuters cameraman unconscious.
Responding to requests from international media, Major General Jack Gardner said the US military would conduct swift, high-level reviews in which news organizations could vouch for any reporter suspected of hostile acts.
Troops should also be given better training -- people acting the roles of journalists should be included in simulated combat exercises soldiers undertake before being sent to Iraq, he said.
"We obviously do not want to discourage the press from being present," Gardner told Reuters in an interview at the weekend. "It helps serve the good purposes" of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
Accepting an argument previously rejected by the military that media personnel need special safeguards against wrongful arrest, Gardner said: "Probably more than most professions, journalists may be on the street" during combat operations.
Troops would now immediately report the arrest of anyone claiming to be a journalist to Gardner personally. He would check with employers and release bona fide reporters rapidly.
"Once a journalist is detained ... it comes to me ... Then we work the process more quickly," he added, citing a target of within 36 hours for addressing doubts over reporters' actions.
"We'll make sure ... we don't hold someone for six or eight months," Gardner said. Watching or filming combat or meeting insurgents were not in themselves grounds for arrest, he added.
Since January, no new detentions of journalists had needed his attention, he said. One reporter for foreign media was still in custody, a cameraman for U.S. network CBS arrested in April.
Reuters Global Managing Editor David Schlesinger said: "I am very encouraged that General Gardner is reflecting on ways the U.S. military can work better with professional journalists doing their jobs under difficult circumstances. Better training and better processes are extremely important first steps."
Media rights groups have complained about detentions by U.S. forces and about killings of journalists. Four Reuters cameramen have been killed in Iraq, at least three by American soldiers.
In all, 67 deaths since the U.S. invasion three years ago have made Iraq the costliest conflict for the media since 1945.
Gardner said rules of engagement made clear troops should not fire on cameramen.
Samir Mohammed Noor, 30, a freelance cameraman for Reuters was arrested at his home by Iraqi and U.S. troops -- and then beaten senseless -- in the northern city of Tal Afar on June 1.
Only in December, after the detentions of Ali al-Mashhadani, 36, on August 8 and Majed Hameed, 23, on September 14, both in the western city of Ramadi, did U.S. officers provide anything more than general comments that the journalists were seen as threats.
Noor and Hameed, who also works for Al-Arabiya television, were denounced by unidentified people as "terrorists", a senior officer said in December. He said troops who arrested Mashhadani alleged he had film showing prior knowledge of a rebel attack -- but that film was "destroyed" before investigators saw it.
All three were freed in January.
The United Nations and others have criticized the military for detaining over 14,000 people in Iraq at present, many for months or even years, saying they lack access to legal process.
Gardner said he would look into Noor's complaint that he was beaten unconscious by a unit including Iraqi and U.S. soldiers, and abusive practices at a jail at Tal Afar. U.S. soldiers made detainees stand on one leg for long periods as a punishment.
Hameed said an interrogator introduced himself as an American journalist. Gardner said this was in breach of policy.
Noor said his worst moment was when an American interrogator told him he would to spend 30 years in Abu Ghraib prison.
Over months at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, during which they had little or no access to lawyers or families, all were angered by their captors' refusal, despite a lack of evidence, to accept they were simply reporters and not working with the guerrillas.
One U.S. interrogator told Hameed: "Every time you film an attack on Americans it's a shot in the arm for the insurgents."
© Reuters 2006