Press Freedom Under Fire
by Heather Wokusch

February 10, 2004

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If the first casualty of war is truth, then the War on Terror has dealt a body blow to those trying to get at the bottom of the story: journalists.

The press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has noted a sharp jump in attacks on journalists internationally, and not just in high-profile cases such as the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

In 2002, a full 1,420 journalists were kidnapped, beaten or detained across the globe, and RSF concludes, "The fight against terrorism launched by the United States and its allies after the 11 September attacks damaged freedom of the press. Many governments stepped up and justified their repression of opposition or independent voices using anti-terrorism as an excuse."

In particular, the US military is under fire for its treatment of journalists in Iraq. An RSF report entitled "Two Murders and a Lie" details the April 8 2003 attack by US forces on Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, which left two journalists dead and three injured.

Blaming Iraqi snipers for the Palestine Hotel attack, Pentagon officials said, "this desperate and dying regime will stop at nothing to cling to power." When evidence proved a US tank was in fact responsible, officials claimed the shelling was in response to hostile fire from within the hotel. After that version of events was proven false too, the standard line became soldiers attacked the hotel thinking they "were under direct observation from an enemy hunter/killer team."

The bottom line is the Pentagon knew the hotel had been filled with reporters for three weeks, yet soldiers on the ground had been left uninformed. According to RSF, "the question is whether this information was withheld deliberately, because of misunderstanding or by criminal negligence."

While the Geneva Conventions clearly state that "journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians ... and protected as such," apparently not everyone agrees; in the view of retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, "there's nothing sacrosanct about a hotel with a bunch of journalists in it."

Stateside, a similar attitude can be seen in the language used to describe visa requirements for foreign journalists: "You must apply for a United States visa if you ... Are a professional journalist planning to cover news or informational stories; Have been denied entry on a previous occasion or have been expelled from the USA during the last five years; Have a criminal record or suffer from a serious transmittable disease or mental disorder; Are a drug addict, drug trafficker, or were involved in Nazi persecutions, and if you were or still are a member of a subversive or terrorist organization." In other words, journalists, criminals and terrorists belong in the same category.

At least it's appearing that way to an increasing number of foreign journalists visiting the US. Just last month, Austrian lifestyle-magazine reporter Peter Krobath flew to Los Angeles to interview Ben Affleck about his latest film. Despite having media credentials and a press junket invitation, Krobath was detained at LAX and interrogated for five hours. He was then body-searched, handcuffed, placed in isolation and taken to a downtown prison where he spent the night in a cell with 45 others, including convicted criminals. Only after the Austrian consulate intervened was Krobath released from prison and placed on the first flight back to Vienna.

Krobath's crime? He didn't have a special visa for foreign journalists planning to cover news stories in the States. The catch? No embassies or consulates had been told about this new regulation, so foreign media groups couldn't prepare their staff members.

The War on Terror has no doubt taken its toll on press freedom, but it's hard to see how targeting visiting journalists will make the US safer, promote the image of an open and free America, or make life easier for US journalists abroad.

And it's unacceptable to whitewash a crime such as the Palestine Hotel shelling. The RSF has called for a reopening of the inquiry into the attack: "At the top level, the US government must bear some responsibility ... its top leaders have regularly made statements about the status of war reporters in Iraq that have undermined all media security considerations and set the scene for the tragedy that occurred."

Freedom of the press is crucial to any democracy, and silencing the messenger is no alternative.

Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer with a background in clinical psychology. Her work as been featured in publications and websites internationally. Heather can be contacted via her website: http://www.heatherwokusch.com.

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