Another Casualty: Coverage of the Iraq War

Editor: Erik Leaver, IPS and John Feffer, IRC

Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Along with names and dates, the Brussels Tribunal has listed the circumstances under which Iraqi media personnel have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This extremely credible report cites 195 as dead. If non-Iraqi media representatives are included, the figure goes beyond 200. Both figures are well in excess of the media fatalities suffered in Vietnam or during World War II.

The primary reason why reporting from Iraq is dangerous for all journalists is the horrific security situation. Iraqi journalists reporting from the streets are in perpetual danger. If any of the countless militias does not want a certain story made public, it will make sure that the journalist has filed his or her last story. Not to mention the scores of reporter deaths which have been the combined handiwork of the Iraqi government, occupation forces and/or criminal gangs.

Despite President Bush’s assertion that life in Iraq is improving, a senior Iraqi journalist was found dead in the capital on March 3, 2007. On the same day the body of the managing editor of Baghdad’s al-Safir newspaper, Jamal al-Zubaidi, was found shot in the head.

The Realities of Repression

The United States continues to claim that its military operations in Iraq bring freedom and democracy. But such freedom apparently doesn’t extend to Iraqi journalists. Several journalists critical of the United States or the U.S.-backed Iraqi government have been killed. For instance, on March 4, 2007 gunmen killed prominent journalist Mohan al Zaher in his home. That Sunday, his column concluded with the lament, “…if this is the democracy that we (Iraqis) dreamt of.” His earlier articles questioned U.S. policies in Iraq.

The U.S. military has also conducted direct raids on media establishments and representatives. During the invasion, on April 8, 2003, a U.S. warplane bombed the al-Jazeera bureau in Baghdad, killing 35-year-old journalist Tareq Ayoub. Britain’s Daily Mirror later cited the “top secret” minutes of a meeting during November 2004 where George W. Bush attempted to get British Prime Minister Tony Blair to consent to the bombing of the al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

More recently, on February 23, 2007, U.S. soldiers raided and ransacked the offices of the Iraq Syndicate of Journalists (ISJ) in central Baghdad. The soldiers arrested ten armed guards and seized ten computers and 15 small electricity generators meant to be donated to families of killed journalists. Youssif al-Tamimi of the ISJ in Baghdad told one of my close colleagues, “The Americans have delivered so many messages to us, but we simply ignored all of them. They killed our colleagues, shut down our newspapers, arrested hundreds of us and now they are shooting at our hearts by raiding our headquarters. This is the freedom of speech we received.” Many Iraqis believe that the U.S. soldiers were conveying from their leadership to Iraqi journalists the message of zero tolerance for criticism of the U.S.-led occupation.

The U.S.-backed Iraqi government also directly controls the media. The Coalition Provisional Authority under the U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, created the Media and Communications Commission as an instrument of control. This commission, incorporated into the Iraqi constitution, regulates licensing, telecommunications, broadcasting, information services, and all other media establishments. Under the authority of this commission, in July 2004, security forces of the interim Iraqi government raided and shut down the Baghdad office of the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera. Initially the network faced a month-long ban on reporting out of Iraq. In November 2004 the Iraqi government announced that any al-Jazeera journalist found reporting in Iraq would be detained. Subsequently the ban was extended indefinitely and continues today.

Another instance of blatant media repression by the Iraqi state took place on November 11, 2004. During the siege of Fallujah when Iraqi journalists along with this writer were reporting the killing of civilians and the use of prohibited weapons like white phosphorous by the U.S. military, Iraq’s Media High Commission issued a warning on the official letter head of the prime minister. The letter instructed reporters to, “Stick to the government line on the U.S. led offensive in Fallujah or face legal action” and also to “set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear.”

The international NGO Reporters Without Borders, which advocates freedom of the press, releases an annual worldwide press freedom index. Countries are ranked on the basis of surveys designed to record any kind of harassment of journalists and state violence against them that forces them to flee or abandon their work. In 2002, under Saddam Hussein and his draconian control of the media, Iraq ranked a dismal 130. In 2006, after three years of U.S. occupation, Iraq fell to 154. The NGO has also declared Iraq to be among the world’s worst hostage market, with 38 journalist kidnappings in three years.

Direct Manipulation

Currently there are two main channels for information on Iraq: the Pentagon and the Iraqi stringers who work for Arab media outlets. For audiences unfamiliar with Arabic or alternative news sources on Iraq, the only available news comes from daily press releases by the U.S. military that are parroted by the establishment media.

Another dubious source of information is the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi television station al-Iraqiyah that began broadcasting in May 2003. In January 2004, the U.S. Defense Department awarded the Florida-based Harris Corporation a 12-month contract to manage the Iraqi Media Network, including al-Iraqiyah, and provided the physical infrastructure for the expansion of the network.

The U.S. military also hired the Washington-based public relations firm Lincoln Group to manipulate Iraqi public opinion in favor of the United States. The group’s covert program, worth millions of dollars, included various media activities that faked independent journalism in order to conceal the fact that it was U.S. state and military propaganda. Former Lincoln Group employees claim that U.S. military officials were aware of payments to Iraqi newspapers to print pro-U.S. articles and editorials.

Such state control has a boomerang effect. False news generated for the Iraqi public in local papers also comes to the United States as “news.” This indirect state-meddling abroad, coupled with direct repression of the media at home, is also reflected in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. In 2002, the United States ranked 17th. In 2006, after six years of Bush administration, the rank has fallen to 56th.

Covering the War at Home

Unlike in Iraq, the problem in the United States began before the 2003 invasion. In the prestigious New York Times, Judith Miller dutifully parroted the propaganda issued by the Bush administration about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction during the lead-up to the invasion. Quoting one anonymous source after another, she became a highly effective vehicle of the Bush administration in disseminating misinformation and lies about Saddam Hussein’s possession of and attempt to acquire WMDs.

Later, during an interview with PBS Frontline conducted on July 13, 2006, in the presence of her lawyer, Miller brazenly defied criticism of her WMD coverage saying, “I didn’t feel that I had anything to apologize for with my WMD coverage.”

Once the invasion was launched, anchorman Tom Brokaw of NBC Nightly News announced to viewers nationwide, “One of the things that we don’t want to do…is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we’re going to own that country.”

The Pentagon’s “embedded” program where mainstream media journalists volunteer to act as propagandists requires a journalist to sign a contract giving the military control over her or his output which amounts to total censorship. Embedding continues to this day, as does corporate ownership of the media. Together they ensure coverage of the occupation that is biased in favor of the state as the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) has exposed.

Corporate ownership of the media has much to do with the transformation of nationally televised news personalities into cheerleaders for war. Take the example of the Associated Press. Its board of directors includes the CEOs and presidents of ABC, McClatchy, Hearst, Tribune, and the Washington Post. Two of the directors belong to extremely conservative policy councils like the Hoover Institute, a Republican policy research center located on the campus of Stanford University and referred to as “Bush’s brain trust.” Douglas McCorkindale, another member of the AP board, is on the board of Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contract company. The board of AP displays a clear tilt toward right-wing conservative views, represented by a huge corporate media network of the largest publishers in the U.S.

Today in the United States, our media is more homogenized than ever. Only six corporations control the major U.S. media: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, General Electric, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, and Bertelsmann. These corporations also happen to be heavy financial supporters of the elite political groups (Republicans and Democrats alike) that control this country. They put politics ahead of responsible journalism.

“As news outlets fall into the hands of large conglomerates with holdings in many industries, conflicts of interest inevitably interfere with news gathering,” according to FAIR. “Independent media are essential to a democratic society, and…aggressive antitrust action must be taken to break up monopolistic media conglomerates.”

Until that happens in the United States, media coverage of Iraq is likely to worsen. As for Iraqi journalists, promises of free speech and freedom of the press–just like the earlier promises of liberation, economic opportunity, and freedom for the Iraqi people–will not materialize before the end of the U.S. occupation of the country.

Dahr Jamail has reported from inside Iraq and is a Middle East expert. He writes for Inter Press Service, The Asia Times, and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.