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Hotel Journalism Gives American Troops A Free Hand

By Robert Fisk

18 January, 2005
The Independent

"Hotel journalism" is the only way to describe it. More and more, Western reporters in Baghdad are reporting from their hotels rather than the streets of Iraq's towns and cities.

Some are accompanied everywhere by hired and heavily armed Western mercenaries. A few live in local offices, from which their editors refuse them permission to leave.

Most use Iraqi "stringers" - part-time correspondents who risk their lives to conduct interviews for American or British journalists - and none can contemplate a journey outside the capital without days of preparation, unless they "embed" themselves with US or British forces.

Rarely, if ever, has a war been covered by reporters in so distant and restricted a way. Several Western journalists simply do not leave their rooms while on station in Baghdad.

So grave are the threats to Western journalists that some television stations are talking of withdrawing their reporters and crews altogether. Amid an insurgency where Westerners - and many Arabs as well as other foreigners - are kidnapped and killed, reporting on this war is becoming close to impossible.

Not many British and American papers still cover stories in Baghdad in person, moving with trepidation through the streets of a city slowly being taken over by insurgents.

In the brutal 1990s war in Algeria, at least 42 local reporters were murdered and a French cameraman was shot to death in the Algiers casbah. But the Algerian security forces could still give a minimum of protection to reporters. In Iraq, they cannot even protect themselves. The police and the Iraqi National Guard - much trumpeted by the Americans as the men who will take over after an American withdrawal - are heavily infiltrated by insurgents.

Checkpoints may be manned by policemen, but it is now unclear just who the cops are working for. US troops operating in and around Baghdad are now avoided by Western journalists, unless they are "embedded", as much as they are by Iraqis, because of the indiscipline with which they open fire on civilians on the least suspicion.

So questions are being asked. What is a reporter's life worth?

Is the story worth the risk?

And, much more seriously from an ethical point of view, why don't more journalists report on the restrictions under which they operate?

During the 2003 US-British invasion, editors often insisted on prefacing journalist's dispatches from Saddam Hussein's Iraq by talking abut the restrictions under which they were operating. But today - when our movements are much more circumscribed - no such "health warning" accompanies their reports. In many cases, viewers and readers are left with the impression that the journalist is free to travel around Iraq. Not so.

"The US military couldn't be happier with this situation," a longtime American correspondent in Baghdad says. "They know that if they bomb a house of innocent people, they can claim it was a 'terrorist' base and get away with it. They don't want us roaming around Iraq, and so the 'terrorist' threat is great news for them. They can claim they've shot 600 or 1 000 insurgents and we have no way of checking because we can't go to the cemetery or visit the hospitals - because we don't want to get kidnapped and have our throats cut."

Thus many reporters are now reduced to telephoning the American military or the Iraqi "interim" government for information from their hotel rooms, receiving "facts" from men and women who are even more isolated from Iraq in the Baghdad Green Zone around Saddam's former palace than are the journalists. Or they take reports from their correspondents "embedded" with American troops and who will, necessarily, get only the American side of the story.

Yes, it is still possible to report from the street in Baghdad. But fewer and fewer of us are doing this, and there may come a time when we have to balance the worth of our reports against the risk to our lives.
We haven't reached that point yet. So far, we still see a little more of Iraq than the people who claim to be running this country.

Copyright The Independent

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