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Iraq: Ideologies, Fog Of War Multiply Dangers For Press

The fog of war Journalists have always died in wars. Spears and arrows, bullets and bombs make no distinctions between combatants and scribes. So, in a way, the deaths so far of 26 journalists and their assistants in the current war in Iraq are just a new chapter in an old story.

Prague, 23 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It is difficult to see how Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana could have protected himself any better and still have done his job on the day last August when he died.

With his TV camera on his shoulder, Dana stood near other journalists outside Abu Ghurayb prison in western Baghdad. A veteran war cameraman, he was filming action there in clear view of a number of U.S. soldiers when a newly arrived U.S. tank rumbled around a corner. A soldier on the tank, mistaking Dana's camera for a weapon, shot the journalist dead.

As editor for the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), David Dadge specializes in gathering information about such incidents.

In the famous aphorism of the late Mao Zedong, guerrillas swim among the people as fish swim in the sea.
"If you go back to the Mazen Dana case, a snap decision was made to shoot what appeared to be an insurgent holding a rocket launcher when, in fact, it was a cameraman. And that was from a tank that came around the corner. Well, at the time, Mazen Dana was actually reporting on an attack on a prison and the soldiers around there, the American soldiers, were aware of that situation. But the communication [that reporters were present] was not passed down the line to other soldiers in the area," Dadge says.

So far 26 journalists and their assistants have died in the Iraq war. Some of the deaths were from natural causes or accidents, but at least 15 were combat-related -- and U.S. bullets, bombs, and missiles killed seven.

A number of international press watchdog organizations have been following closely the difficulties and hazards of covering the war in Iraq. They have been slow to assess blame.

"Journalists are having to report in a conflict situation with both sides -- obviously -- fighting. Journalists are trying to report on that situation and they're caught in the middle and mistakes are being made in the fog of war, I suppose," Dadge says.

For Reuters news service, however, Mazen Dana was the second victim of misguided and fatal U.S. fire in Iraq in less than five months. Early in the war, a U.S. tank fired a shell into Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, which was packed with foreign journalists. It killed Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk, as well as Jose Couso, a cameraman working for Spanish TV.

In both cases, Reuters Global Managing Editor David Schlesinger demanded an investigation and explanation of the attacks. After an inquiry into the Palestine Hotel killings, the U.S. military ruled that the tank crew members fired the shot in self-defense because they thought a sniper had shot at them.

But as Schlesinger wrote later, "Taras Protsyk died in part because the U.S. tank crew did not know where journalists were congregated." He ascribed Dana's death, in his words, to "confusion and fear and miscommunication."

Schlesinger says that more than six months after Dana's death the Pentagon reported that the incident was tragic but justified, based on what was known at the time. The Reuters chief remains dissatisfied. In a telephone interview from New York, he tells RFE/RL: "No journalist can accept that the death of a colleague holding a camera is justified."

Some of the journalistic combat deaths in Iraq have been so impersonal that they almost can be listed as accidents. Kurdish translator Kamaran Aburazaq Muhamed died a year ago when a U.S. jet mistakenly bombed a convoy of Kurds and U.S. Special Forces. Some have been highly personal, as when an unknown assailant stepped up to British freelance television cameraman Richard Wild on a Baghdad street last July and shot him at point-blank range.

Sarah de Jong manages the International News Safety Institute (INSI), a newcomer among press watchdogs.

She says she is extremely troubled by incidents like last April's U.S. missile fire on the Baghdad offices of the Al-Jazeera satellite TV network. The strike killed correspondent Tarek Ayoub and infuriated Al-Jazeera, whose offices in Afghanistan had sustained a similar attack.

"What we know is that before this took place, before the war probably even started, it is very clear that there was an established line of communication between Al-Jazeera and the Pentagon. And it is very clear to us and proven that Al-Jazeera has given written notification to the Pentagon with the exact satellite coordinates of their office in Baghdad. So if you then looked at the modern technology and if you then look at the fact [of the missile strike], it's a bit too much of a coincidence that their office gets bombed -- and I have to say 'again' -- as they have also bombed their office back in the war in Afghanistan," de Jong says.

The Pentagon has written to Al-Jazeera saying that it regrets the attack, de Jong says, but it has not made public any kind of comprehensive investigative report.

Guerilla warfare like that in Iraq presents special problems for regular soldiers in their dealings with journalists. In the famous aphorism of the late Mao Zedong, guerrillas swim among the people as fish swim in the sea. Civilian clothing is no guarantee that the wearer is not an armed fighter.

But in Iraq, the problem is multiplied as never before, because these guerillas come attired in a variety of ideologies also. There are Iraqis who remain loyal to the former Saddam Hussein regime, others who have turned against the Western invaders of their land. There are also foreign and indigenous opportunists who are allied with groups like Al-Qaeda, and perhaps still others who simply feel the need to unite with fellow Muslims.

The INSI's de Jong says this mix -- combined with a lack of sympathy for the press freedom views espoused by most of the world's nation states -- makes the combat risks to journalists incalculable.

"It's almost impossible to calculate that kind of risk because you're dealing with groups of people whose thinking is very far away from [journalists'] thinking. That is to say they don't seem to realize that civilians -- any kind of civilians -- have specific rights under international law, that a lot of these civilians have the right to walk around there, and, especially in this case, journalists have the right to do their work," de Jong says.

The press watchdogs and Reuters and other news services have called on military leaders to join in a dialogue about ways to increase the safety of journalists covering wars.

"The International News Safety Institute, for example, is trying to initiate a very concrete and practical dialogue with bodies such as the Pentagon, also for example with NATO, and also with the Ministry of Defense in the UK in order to see if can we have a concrete and practical dialogue about the rules of engagement,” de Jong says. She adds that her group wants to see if there is “anything we can do on both sides where we can try to learn the lessons from these incidents and try to move on from here and have concrete action where this is not going to happen again.”

Reuters' Schlesinger says that the U.S. military has responded to these overtures. He says he hopes that the dialogue will begin next month.

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