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Steve Weissman: Kill the Messenger, Hide the News

Kill the Messenger, Hide the News

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 22 June 2005

When truthout boss Marc Ash asked me earlier this year to look into the Pentagon's killing of journalists, I didn't know what to expect. Many reporters at the time believed that American soldiers were purposely targeting them. But, as I soon found, the crime was larger and more systemic.

The 4-part investigation "Dead Messengers: How the US Military Threatens Journalists" appeared in February and March. Readers responded positively and in overwhelming numbers, and the series won a prestigious award from Project Censored as one of the year's top under covered news stories.

Everyone who worked on the story here was pleased. But none of us celebrated. The Pentagon did not change its policies. Journalists remain at risk. And - no surprise - the mainstream media continues to miss the story.

As far as anyone has yet proved, no US commanding officer ever ordered a subordinate to fire on journalists as such. Not at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel in April 2003. Not at the highway checkpoint where soldiers wounded Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and killed her Secret Service protector in March 2005. And, not anywhere else in Iraq or Afghanistan.

How, then, did the US military end up killing journalists?

It started with a simple decision - the Pentagon's rejection of responsibility for the lives of journalists who choose to work independently rather than embed themselves in a British or American military unit. Despite repeated requests from Reuters and other major news organizations, Pentagon officials still refuse to take a few simple steps needed to reduce the threat to independent journalists.

It's not all that difficult:

  • 1. The entire military must be forced to respect the work that independent journalists do, protect them where possible, and train soldiers to recognize the obvious differences between rocket launchers and TV cameras.

  • 2. Commanders need to pass on information about the whereabouts of journalists, with a direct order not to shoot at them. If commanders fail to do so, the military must punish them.

  • 3. When soldiers do kill a journalist, the Pentagon needs to hold them responsible, something that no military investigation has yet done.

  • 4. And the military must stop forcibly excluding journalists, detaining them, or otherwise preventing them from reporting on its operations, especially in unsavory situations like the destruction of Fallujah.
  • One other problem needs urgent attention. Military intelligence regularly monitors the uplink equipment that reporters use to transmit their stories and communicate by satellite phone. But, as the BBC's Nik Gowing discovered, the electronic intelligence mavens make no effort to distinguish between journalistic communications and those of enemy forces. All the sensing devices do is look for electronic traffic between the monitored uplinks and known enemies.

    In Gowing's view, this led the Americans to order a rocket attack on the Kabul office of the Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera, whose journalists kept regular contact with the Taliban as part of their journalistic coverage.

    No military believes in free speech or a free press. Every general wants to control every possible element of the battlefield, including what the folks back home see and hear about what their troops are doing. To the military, too much honesty quickly becomes "hostile information." No one should expect the generals to change their attitudes.

    Change must start from outside. No country claiming to be a democracy can allow its armed forces to control the flow of information, as the US military now tries to do, even at the cost of killing journalists. If Congress, the media, and the American people allow the Pentagon to prevent "hostile information," we will never get the news we need to evaluate whether a military action like the ongoing occupation of Iraq is truly worth killing, dying, and paying for.


    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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