Friday, July 21, 2006

What the US does not want you to know

July 8, 2006

MODERN IRAQ was always known for repression of media freedoms. Permitting media freedoms meant challenges to the regimes (as in many parts of the world), and Iraq, since its creation in its present territorial shape in the 1920s, was no exception. Local papers, radio and television were state-owned and controlled and they sang the praise of the regime day in and day out. Foreign media working in Iraq were kept under tight check and surveillance throughout, and those present in the country often had to pay the price for critical reports that originated outside but carried by the newspapers or channels that they worked for.
The situation became all the more tight during the 1990s and early 2000s, starting with Saddam Hussein's military invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and all foreign journalists faced stricter restrictions on their movements in the country. It would not be an exaggeration that they were treated like prisoners, but VIP style.
First of all it was very difficult to obtain a visa to enter Iraq. Then journalists had to wait until the Iraqi consulate in Amman decided that it was time for them to enter Iraq.
They had to travel in a convoy from the Jordanian capital Amman and then escorted by Iraqi information ministry and security officials from the Iraqi border point at Trebil to the one and the only hotel designated for journalists — the famous Al Rashid in Baghdad — and back to the frontier when you leave after the assignment (Other hotels were added to the "approved list" in due course, but the rules of the game remained the same).
It was almost impossible for stray away on the trip up and down even if you tried because the convoy, of say 20-25 vehicles, would have several strategically positioned ministry vehicles just to make sure that no one got "lost" along the eight-hour journey and be in a position to talk to anyone or visit any place away from official sights.
And once you checked into Al Rashid, you could not leave the hotel unless accompanied by a "minder" — an Iraqi information ministry official who would keep a close eye on what you do, who you speak to and, more importantly, what you hear. Any time of day and night, there would be at least a dozen ministry officials hanging around in the Al Rashid lobby to intercept any non-Iraqi leaving the hotel. Half the time, you would be discouraged from going places they did not approve. The other half of the time, it would take up to two hours before the ministry officials "arrange" things. These included getting "clearance" for your foray outside the hotel and ensuring that the vehicle that carried you was an Iraqi taxi with and Iraqi driver (and not the Jordanian-licensed car/driver with which/whom you had entered the country), and that the "minder" was in the taxi before it left the hotel compound.
The presence of "minders" was indeed a reminder to any Iraqi that he/she would be immediately reported to the security authorities if he/she dared to criticise the government or say anything to the media that would indicate that the regime was not the most popular in the world. It was anyone's guess what could have happened to those who were reported.
The arrangement was almost water-tight. A few "minders" tended to be more co-operative — in return for a monetary consideration of course — and they deliberately stayed away from earshot when you asked Iraqis how they felt about the regime and other "sensitive" questions, but those "minders" risked being reported themselves by the taxi driver, who inevitably happened to be an informant.
On the other hand, the "minders" encouraged Iraqis to speak about their suffering under the UN sanctions — that were imposed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 — and lambast the US administration.
Today, the "embedded" American journalists are facing a similar situation. Their freedom of movement is curtailed and they are prevented from reporting actualities from the ground in Iraq; they are denied information that could place the US in bad light, but are encouraged to report what a great job the US military is doing in Iraq.
One such account has come from Rod Nordland of Newsweek in an interview published in Foreign Policy.
According to Nordland, the US military — and by extension the Bush administration — has been largely successful in managing the news “to the extent that most Americans are not aware of just how dire it is and how little progress has been made” and revealed that some "embedded" reporters “have been blacklisted because the military wasn’t happy with (their) work.”
Another account has come from Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper's Magazine ( and a former reporter of the Los Angeles Times, who says that "there are significant obstacles for even the best and most determined journalists" while working "embedded" with the US military in Iraq.
Silverstein quotes a former senior television producer for Reuters who worked in Iraq between 2003 and 2004 as recounting her experience of being "embedded" with the US military. Her summary statement: "I was a mouthpiece for the American military."
Her account is largely similar to the experience of foreign journalists in Iraq while the Saddam regime was in power — you were allowed to report on what the regime wanted you to and you were denied access to any information that the regime did not want you to have. Mind you, we are talking about an autocratic regime which believed in summary silencing of its people as one of its tools to ensure its survival. Compare its actions with the US, a democratic regime founded on the noblest principles of personal freedoms and the right to know among other things.
Silverstein writes: "When insurgents attacked civilians, she (the Reuters producer) told me, the American military would rush her to the scene so she could record the carnage and get shots of grieving Iraqis.
"When it came to other stories that were clearly sympathetic to the US side, such as funerals for American soldiers killed in combat, the US military was extremely helpful — indeed, encouraging. In such cases, she was granted full access and allowed to film speeches by officials honouring the dead, the posthumous awarding of medals, and other aspects of the ceremony.
"But when this producer wanted to pursue a story that might have cast the war effort in an unfavourable light, the situation was entirely different. Every few days, she said, she would receive a call from the  Reuters bureau in Baghdad and discover that reporters there had heard, via local news reports or from the bureau's network of Iraqi sources, about civilians being killed or injured by American troops. But when she asked to leave the compound to independently confirm such incidents, her requests were invariably turned down."
“Reuters had an armored car,” she told me, “and we wanted to go out on our own, but I would ask the PIO (public information officer) for permission and he would say he needed to get more information before we could go. Hours would pass, it would get dark — and in the end we were never able to get to the scene.” Even getting an on-camera comment from a military spokesman was impossible in such cases, she said.
No journalist was allowed to pursue any report that was not approved by the US military. "For example, on how the local population viewed the occupation and American troops — because she was not permitted to leave the base on her own. The height of absurdity came when the Tikrit compound came under serious attack one evening and the producer was asked by the Reuters bureau in Baghdad to phone in a report on the situation.
“We couldn't find out anything (from the US military),” she said, so Reuters had to cover the fighting from Baghdad, despite having a television producer and reporter on the ground at the compound in Tikrit.
During her 45 days in Tikrit, she told Silverstein, she didn't file a single story critical of the American project in Iraq. “There was no balance,” she said. “What we were doing wasn't real journalism.”
That could indeed not be the basis for a summary assumption for all journalists on assignments in Iraq. We have seen reports filed by "embedded" journalists that truly revealed the ugly face of the war in Iraq. It was a Time magazine report that exposed the November 2005 massacre in Haditha. Seymour Hersh's exposure of the torture and degrading treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib was based on confidential reports available in Washington, but it was picked up and supported by most American journalists working in Iraq. There have been hundreds of reports that did fair justice to the profession, but fair justice is not enough when it comes to covering war, and that too as ugly as the one going on in Iraq.
What exactly is that Washington does not want the world to know about Iraq?
An intelligent guess, based on independent reports and bloggings from Iraq, would point to some of them, and these include:
— that demoralisation is slowly but surely creeping into the ranks of the American soldiers in Iraq as the insurgency shows no signs of fading away.
— that the actual figures of casualties among US military personnel, except deaths that could not be concealed, are played down.
— that everyone is an "enemy" in Iraq unless proven otherwise, but the followed policy is "shoot first and ask questions later."
— that women and children are no exception to the policy, and that Iraqis are treated worse than animals.
— that the rules of the game are often bent with implicit/explicit endorsement from the top echelons.
— that the insurgency is rooted among Iraqis rather then "international terrorist jihadists."
— that the people of Iraq resent the American military presence and could not wait to see the back of US soldiers.
— that US corporations are making a killing in billions of dollars in the name of the war in Iraq.
— that friends of the US, primarily Israel, are given a free hand in Iraq to realise their interests in the oil-rich country.
— that the US has no plans to leave Iraq since its presence in the country is part of a broader game plan that is part of Washington's global designs drawn up by hawks who believe in America's supremacy on this planet.