Much has been said about what is and is not being reported in Iraq,
but one thing is clear: Local, front-line journalists are not only risking their
lives, they are risking imprisonment for their work.
Ali Omar Abrahem al-Mashhadani, a 36-year-old freelance cameraman and photographer
who worked for the Reuters news agency in Ramadi, was taken from his home on
August 8 during a general sweep of his neighborhood by U.S. Marines. His family
says the Marines were suspicious of photos he stored in his cameras. He was
sent to Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, held without charge, and denied access
to his family and a lawyer.
U.S. officials refused requests from Reuters to discuss his case, and they
provided no explanation or evidence supporting his detention. In September,
a secret tribunal ordered al-Mashhadani held for up to six months before the
case would be reviewed.
Open-ended and unsubstantiated detentions of journalists in Iraq have undermined
the ability of the press to report on the conflict. The Committee to Protect
Journalists has documented seven cases in 2005 alone in which reporters, photographers,
and camera operators were detained by U.S. forces for prolonged periods without
charge or the disclosure of any supporting evidence. These detentions have involved
journalists working for CBS News, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse,
At least three documented detentions have exceeded 100 days; the others have
spanned many weeks. CPJ has received reports of numerous other detentions that,
because of the secrecy of the proceedings, it has been unable to confirm.
Most of the confirmed detainees are Iraqis - local journalists covering the
conflict in their own country. These journalists are vulnerable because they
are most frequently in the field reporting from places deemed too dangerous
for Western reporters. They are often the first on the scene to report on clashes
or insurgent attacks. In at least five cases documented by CPJ, the detainees
were photojournalists who initially drew the military's attention because of
what they had filmed or photographed.
Despite repeated inquiries over many months, the U.S. military has refused
to provide evidence to support these detentions. Instead, military officials
have made vague and unsubstantiated assertions that these Iraqi journalists
may pose "security risks."
There is no doubt the U.S. military has an urgent need to ensure security,
and journalists are not above scrutiny. But the record of detained journalists
is plain: In each case documented by CPJ over the past two years, journalists
detained on security suspicions were released without charge.
Another August detention, although not as long as others, highlights the secretive
and arbitrary nature of the process. Reuters cameraman Haidar Kadhem was detained
by U.S. troops on August 28, moments after his car came under U.S. fire in Baghdad's
Hay al-Adil neighborhood. A colleague riding in the same car, soundman Walid
Khaled, was killed in the gunfire, Iraqi police reported. Reuters said its news
bureau had dispatched Kadhem and Khaled to the neighborhood after a police source
reported a skirmish involving police and gunmen.
A U.S. military spokesman said Kadhem was detained by U.S. troops and taken
to an undisclosed location. A military spokesman said "inconsistencies
in his story" warranted further questioning. After a public outcry, Kadhem
was freed three days later.
These detentions inhibit front-line journalists from covering a conflict that
is already exceptionally dangerous. CPJ research shows that 56 journalists and
22 media support workers were killed between March 2003, when hostilities began,
and September 2005. A large majority are Iraqis.
The cases also reflect the wider issue of detentions in Iraq. Thousands of
Iraqi citizens have been detained by U.S. forces, many for weeks or months at
a time without charge. The handling of these cases reflects on the leadership
of the U.S. military and is bound to resonate among Iraqis for many years to
Responsiveness and accountability are antidotes. But the Pentagon has instead
displayed a pattern of disregard when confronted with issues involving the security
of Iraqi journalists and citizens.
In June, CPJ and Human Rights Watch wrote to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
to urge the Pentagon to adopt basic safety procedures at military checkpoints.
The recommendations were basic: install signs, speed bumps, lights. In fact,
they had been made by military investigators themselves in the aftermath of
a fatal shooting of an Italian intelligence agent and the wounding of an Italian
reporter in March. Secretary Rumsfeld did not respond, and checkpoints remained
By being unresponsive, the Pentagon gives every impression that it sees no
need to be accountable. That's not a good lesson to pass on to the citizens
of an emerging democracy.