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Dead Messengers: Targeting Media The American Way

Dead Messengers: How the U.S. Military Threatens Journalists (Part 3 Of 4)
Targeting the Media the American Way

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Investigation
Sunday 06 March 2005

See also…
PART 1: Hearing What Eason Jordan Said
PART 2: Army Failed to Probe Its Attack on Palestine Hotel
Exhibit A - Reporters Without Borders: Two Murders and a Lie

Words and images are a public trust and for this reason I will continue with my work regardless of the hardships and even if it costs me my life.
Mazen Dana on receiving an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Mazen Dana lived a charmed life, or so it seemed. A Palestinian from the West Bank city of Hebron, he worked as a television cameraman for the British news agency Reuters and was one of their most experienced conflict journalists.

A towering, chain-smoking bear of a man with a ruddy complexion, as a colleague described him, the 43-year-old Dana had paid a price. Israeli soldiers and settlers beat him unconscious on more than one occasion. The soldiers also broke his hands twice and shot him dozens of times with rubber bullets and live ammunition. He had the scars - and video - to prove it. Yet, he always managed to pull through and - almost as important to those of us in this crazy business - he usually came away with the story.

Far beyond the West Bank, his peers recognized Mazen Dana's courage and the worth of what he did. In November 2001, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) honored him with an International Press Freedom Award for his coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Ted Koppel's Nightline interviewed him at length. In March 2003, PBS's Frontline/World featured him in its documentary "In the Line of Fire."

Flash forward to Sunday afternoon, August 17, 2003. Sent to cover the war in Iraq, Mazen was filming outside Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad. According to American claims at the time, rebels had staged a deadly mortar bomb or grenade attack on the prison the day before, and several journalists went to report the story. They identified themselves to U.S. troops guarding the perimeter of the prison and got permission to film from a nearby bridge.

Mazen took the footage he wanted and got back into the car with his soundman and best friend Nael al-Shyouki. At that moment, a military convoy drove up. According to al-Shyouki, Mazen got out of the car with his camera and began filming. Al-Shyouki followed three or four meters behind. They were standing in the open in the middle of the road. Everything around seemed peaceful and matter of fact.

The lead tank was at most 100 meters away, or as close as 50 meters, witnesses differ. Without warning, a soldier on the tank began firing. Mazen screamed, clutching his chest. His camera tilted forward, then fell to the ground. Mazen had filmed the story.

"You just killed a journalist!" Al-Shyouki shouted.

The soldiers yelled at him to step back. They were very tense, said Stephan Breitner, of France 2 TV. They were crazy.

Nervously, the soldiers got down from the tank, and tried to give first aid to the man they had just shot. He was bleeding heavily. Then he was gone.

CPJ, Reporters Without Frontiers, the International Federation of Journalists, and Reuters all protested to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, demanding a serious investigation. American officials quickly apologized and expressed their sorrow for the "terrible tragedy." But the Army's official judgment, made public within 5 weeks, echoed the Commander's Inquiry on the April 8 shooting at the Palestine Hotel, which took the lives of Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Telecinco's Jose Couzo.

The Rules of Engagement required no warning, said the Army. And the tank crew were justified in shooting Mazen Dana, seeing his TV camera as a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or RPG.

Look at the picture of the RPG-7 on this page and compare it to the photo of Dana with his camera. No matter how young, inexperienced, and terrified the soldiers were, proper training should have kept them from mistaking the camera for anything else. But this would require making a priority of protecting journalists and other civilians, which the Bush Administration refuses to do.

In reality, the repeated whitewashing of these killings gives U.S. troops a very different message: Shoot first, ask questions later, and let the journalists steer clear.

Making the Message Unmistakable

January 2, 2004. Rebels shoot down an American OH-58 Kiowa helicopter near Fallujah, killing one soldier. Journalists rush to the crash site, among them three Iraqis working for Reuters - Salem Ureibi and Ahmad Mohammad Hussein al-Badrani, both journalists, and their driver Sattar Jabar al-Badrani.

All we know about what happened next comes from the three, taken from separate interviews conducted by their employer, Reuters. Even a year ago, the average American would likely have dismissed what they said about how U.S. soldiers treated them. Our men and women would never do such things. Then we saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib and heard the revelations from Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

The story of the Reuters 3 is far less dramatic, far more ordinary. In many ways, this makes it even more alarming.

According to the three Iraqis, the Americans approached them in the general area of the crash sites. The three shouted "Reuters, Reuters, journalist, journalist." The soldiers looked in the car and saw the TV cameras and photographic equipment.

The soldiers handcuffed the three, took their shoes, wallets, and money, and forced them onto the floor of a Humvee, along with a stringer for NBC. The driver repeatedly raced ahead and then braked suddenly. The soldiers then transferred the Iraqis to a tank or armored personnel carrier, put bags on their heads, and stuffed Ahmad and Sattar under a seat. Salem, a large man, was forced to sit on top of them.

Finally, the men arrived at a makeshift American base, where the soldiers kept them for 72 hours, much of the time in a cold room where they were not allowed to sleep. According to the Iraqis, the Americans forced them to assume stress positions. beat them, and threatened them with rape.

"They took me to a kind of caravan where there was one Lebanese and two Americans for interrogation," recalled Sattar. They took his clothes and made him kneel on his knees with his hands in the air.

"Are you a woman?" the Lebanese translator asked.

"He asked me to pick up a shoe, took it and beat me on the face with it. Then he made me take the shoe in my mouth. He made me put my finger in my anus then he made me smell my hand and put it in my nose."

Ahmad told a similar story: "They told me to stick my middle finger in my anus and then lick it."

Defending the detention of the three Iraqis, the Army claimed with that "enemy personnel posing as media" had fired on U.S. forces. The Army offered no evidence, but their unsubstantiated claim greatly increased the risk to journalists working in Iraq.

Next time, Part IV: But What About Al-Jazeera?


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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