Reporters Without Borders today warned US authorities not to obstruct the media in its reporting of the expected imminent war in Iraq.
It expressed concern that the US military might censor journalists officially allowed to work among US forces and that those who opted to work independently would not be protected. It also called on US forces not to destroy Iraqi media facilities.
The press freedom organisation welcomed the US invitation to more than 600 journalists from all over the world to report from inside the military operation. This policy of “embedding,” presented by officials as giving journalists access unprecedented since the Vietnam war, would theoretically provide better coverage than was allowed during the 1991 Gulf War, it said.
But it queried whether the obligatory written promise to obey a strict 50- point “ground rules agreement” would allow these journalists enough freedom and independence in their reporting.
The rules spell out what can or cannot be covered. But the distinction is very vague and commanders of military units are given the final word on whether to allow something to be reported or not.
Reporters Without Borders is also concerned about rule 6, that permits unit commanders to “embargo” news that may damage “operational security.” The range of such news is also poorly defined and the duration of the embargo not stated. Both aspects again depend on the decision of the unit commander.
Rules 40, 41 and 43, which ban pictures of the faces of prisoners of war and soldiers killed in the fighting, undermine the right to inform the public, the organisation said. It was up to journalists, not the US army, to decide what could or could not be shown, according to the journalistic code of conduct.
The organisation said the public had a right to see pictures such as those of the emaciated faces of prisoners in Serbian concentration camps in Bosnia, during the war in Yugoslavia.
It expressed concern at working conditions for journalists who chose not to be officially incorporated into the US military operations and who US officials had several times warned could be in danger.
“If the military says something, I strongly urge all journalists to heed it,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on 28 February. “It is in your own interest and your family’s interest. And I mean that.”
Reporters Without Borders called on the US authorities to :
– Guarantee that journalists “embedded” in the military forces will have the freedom they require to do their job. The rules they are obliged to obey mostly reflect the legitimate concerns of the military but they could be applied too strictly.
– Publicly guarantee that non-“embedded” journalists will be able to do their job freely and with sufficient security and will have adequate access to military information.
– Avoid targeting transmitters of Iraqi radio stations and Iraqi media offices, including those used to put out propaganda. Media property and equipment are civil property protected under international humanitarian law. Propaganda aims to buoy the morale of the population and is a part of all conflicts. The morale of the civilian population must not be a military target.
– Guarantee that the utmost precautions will be taken to avoid injuring or wounding journalists, whose presence in some places is known.
Reporters Without Borders published a report in January this year criticising attacks on press freedom in Iraq, where the authorities have arbitrarily limited issuing visas to the very many foreign journalists asking for them.
Foreign journalists cannot freely work or move around in Iraq. In recent weeks, several have been deported. Canadian Scott Taylor, correspondent for Canada’s Sun newspaper group and editor of the military magazine Esprit de Corps, was expelled on 9 March accused of spying for Israel. Teresa Bo, of the Spanish daily La Razon, was deported on 12 March for not having used the “appropriate” words to describe the Iraqi government. The next day, David Filipov, a reporter for the US daily the Boston Globe, was deported to Jordan for using his sat-phone from his hotel room. Entitled “The Iraqi media:25 years of relentless repression”, the full report is available on the website: www.rsf.org.