People in the Army have long been wary of journalists, but rarely do soldiers actually kill them. It does happen, though. David Finkel, a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post reporter, describes the killings of two Reuters journalists in Baghdad in 2007 in his new book, The Good Soldiers.
“The Reuters photographer and driver were carrying cameras and walking with a group of Iraqi men, some of whom appeared to be armed, when a U.S. helicopter crew mistook them for insurgents,” wrote Ann Scott Tyson in a Washington Post article about the subject. Reuters has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get documents and images of the killings from the military so they can find out more about the deaths of the two men, a staff photographer named Namir Noor-Eldeen and a driver, Saeed Chmagh. Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told The Washington Post: "We think the safest way to cover these operations is to be embedded with U.S. forces."
It is a sobering reminder for journalists – and for the American public – that the best way to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is to be alongside the troops. Otherwise, you may be mistaken for the enemy, as Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh were, and end up dead. Or, you might be put in prison for two years, as Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein was in Iraq. After he was detained by U.S. forces in April 2006 and put in a prison at Camp Cropper, military investigators claimed that he had links to the insurgency and had been found with bomb-making material, but all of the charges against him were eventually dropped. He was released in April 2008. A Pentagon official told me that Hussein, who had once been part of a Pulitzer-Prize winning news team, was held in detention because a high-ranking Army officer thought that he posed a threat – mainly, the officer believed that Hussein had gotten too close with the insurgents, and so military officials decided to keep him in prison while they sorted things out. The message was clear: If you have an Arabic name, and you stray too far from the troops, you could find yourself in trouble.
So much for freedom of the press or for the notion that reporting on both sides of the story is important. When it’s war, as the U.S. military has shown in Iraq, there is one side that is more powerful. And trying to report on the other side might get you killed.