Cutting through the bullshit.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

'A dangerous place'

Four years ago tomorrow, on 8 April 2003, a 70 tonne Abrams tank under the command of Sergeant Shawn Gibson fired its 120mm cannon from its position on al-Jumhuriya Bridge into Room 1503 in the Palestine Hotel in Firdos Square, Baghdad, killing Taras Protsyuk of Reuters and Jose Cuoso of the Telecinco network in Spain. Earlier that morning, US jet fighters attacked Al Jazeera’s Baghdad offices, killing journalist Tareq Ayyoub.

On 23 March 2005, Democracy Now! broadcast exerpts from the Spanish documentary, ‘Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness’, produced by Telecinco. Spanish Journalist Jon Sistiaga said,

My opinion is that there was a deliberate intent to fire on the journalists' hotel…First, they get rid of the offices of Al-Jazeera TV, half an hour later, they shoot the offices of Abu Dhabi TV, and half an hour after that, the same tank, why not, shoots at the hotel where other international journalists are staying… And what they did not want under any circumstances was almost 300 journalists, non-American, and not under their control, that is, that would not exercise patriotic self-censorship, ready to cover whatever might happen.

Another Spanish journalist said,

So, they had to know perfectly well where we were, and there was no mistake. There could be no mistake.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed on 2 May that

We knew about the hotel. We knew that it was a hotel where journalists were located, and others, and it is for that reason it was not attacked during any phase of the aerial campaign.

When Spanish Prime Minister Aznar visited the US, a Spanish reporter asked US President Bush, whether he thought Couso’s killing was a mistake and whether he would apologise to Couso’s family for his death, he replied, ‘I think war is a dangerous place.’

And so it is. War is an exceedingly dangerous place, especially if you’re an unembedeed journalist. Since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, at least 196 journalists have been killed, according to the International Federation of Journalists, 23 of them this year alone.

“Four years on still no credible reports have been produced to explain these attacks and no one has been held to account for the killings,” said IFJ General Secretary Aidan White. “The United States must answer questions that are still asked over these deaths and many others at the hands of their troops in Iraq. With the number of media casualties growing daily, impunity becomes intolerable, particularly when it concerns the actions of those who speak in the name of democracy and human rights.”

In December 2006, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1738, a measure championed by the IFJ and its member unions that protects journalists in conflict zones and says killing them can be considered a war crime.

The IFJ has also demanded action over the deaths of British ITN reporter Terry Lloyd and his colleagues Fred Nérac and Hussein Osman, whose bodies are still missing, in a fire fight between US and Iraqi troops near Basra, in March 2003 as the invasion of Iraq gathered pace and has raised questions over the shooting by US soldiers of Reuters cameramen Mazen Dana.

One the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondents, Patrick Cockburn, recently pointed out

The difficulty of reporting Iraq is that it is impossibly dangerous to know what is happening in most of the country outside central Baghdad. Bush and Blair hint that large parts of Iraq are at peace; untrue, but difficult to disprove without getting killed in the attempt.

In the April/May 2007 issue of American Journalism Review, Sherry Ricchiardi observes

The relentless violence in Iraq has seriously compromised coverage of arguably the most important story in the world today. Certain facets of the conflict remain exasperatingly elusive or, at best, thinly reported. The media's vital role as eyewitness has been severely limited; the intimate narrative of victims, survivors and their persecutors is sorely lacking in places like Anbar Province...

And the roster of correspondents seems far too small for the daunting task. Escalating threats to foreigners and astronomical security costs have led media companies to scale back their staffs.

…Correspondents are hamstrung when it comes to independently verifying information from military press briefings or rhetoric from the Pentagon. Without risking their lives, they can't go into the festering city of Fallujah or certain Baghdad neighborhoods to conduct their own investigations. Embedding is an alternative, but it offers a limited view under scrutiny of the military.

…Many operate on the 15-minute rule: They never stay longer in any one place for fear that someone with a cell phone will alert killers that a soft target is in play.

"You cannot move; you cannot go anywhere on your own," says Detroit Free Press photojournalist David Gilkey, who returned from his eighth trip to Iraq in January…"Every time you get out of the vehicle, you are almost paralyzed, with your eyes darting around looking for where the shot might come from. Every time you are riding around it's all you can do to keep from plugging your ears, waiting for the blast to happen," says Gilkey, who survived an IED explosion on his last trip.

All but a handful of media organizations have been driven out by the high cost and risks. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the AP, and the broadcast and cable news networks are among the stalwarts. Even for those willing to bleed dollars for top-line security, newsgathering remains a struggle.

No one knows for certain how many journalists are in Iraq at any given time. The best guess from those on the ground is 50 to 60 on a consistent basis.

New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins…recalls that in the early days, several hundred journalists packed into an auditorium in the Green Zone to attend press conferences. When he left in September, about a half dozen were showing up…Compared with Iraq, "Afghanistan was a tea party," says the correspondent,…"The people there are working incredibly hard and are working heroically, taking increasing risks to stitch [the story] together and get as much as they can. But there's still an awful lot we don't know."

A few days ago, on 26 March, the BBC revealed that, speaking of the results of the joint Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health/Al Mustansiriya University School of Medicine study published in the impeccable peer reviewed British medical journal The Lancet on 11 October,

a memo by the MoD's [Ministry of Defence] Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

But, ‘Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.’ The day the report was released, President Bush told a press conference,

I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials…the methodology was pretty well discredited…I stand by the figure [of 30,000]. A lot of innocent people have lost their life -- 600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just -- it's not credible.

Obviously, there’s no quibbling with ironclad irrefutable presidential reasoning like that. And sure enough, just five days later, Iraq Body Count, the source of President Bush’s figure of 30,000 deaths, issued a lengthy press release entitled, Reality checks: some responses to the latest Lancet estimates, explaining why their counts of Iraqi civilian deaths were superior to the Johns Hopkins study estimate.

In an 18 March press release, however, IBC admits

Iraq Body Count (IBC) compiles data from news reports to provide a baseline number of confirmed fatalities, but it should be noted that many deaths will likely go unreported or unrecorded by officials and media. [my emphasis]

But just two days later, in a letter to the World Socialist Website, drawn to my attention by lenin, they are back to the strident criticism of the Johns Hopkins study.

The study’s central estimate of over 600,000 violent deaths seems exceptionally high. Even its lower bound 95 percent confidence interval of 426,000 violent deaths is shockingly high. It is very unlikely that incidents of this scale would be so consistently discounted by the various media in Iraq.

Not only do they reject the study’s central estimate,

the data presented do not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths. IBC’s work is confined to violent civilian deaths.

As the press release asserted,

Further, IBC statistics refer solely to violent incidents which caused civilian deaths. They do not include violent incidents which produced no casualties or caused only injuries, nor incidents targeting and killing only military or paramilitary personnel.

This insistence on counting only civilian deaths has always annoyed me. As Bill Van Auken of the WSWS editorial board wrote in his reply,

Politically, the deaths—both those of combatants and civilians, not to mention the thousands of young Iraqi conscript soldiers blown to pieces in the initial campaign of “shock and awe” bombardment—all represent the human catastrophe inflicted upon Iraq by the US war.

If there were no occupation, there would be no insurgency. Deaths of combatants are just as tragic and avoidable consequences of the invasion as civilian deaths. The authors of the Johns Hopkins study were quite explicit that

Separation of combatant from non-combatant deaths during interviews was not attempted, since such information would probably be concealed by household informants, and to ask about this could put interviewers at risk.

So how can the IBC be so sure that it is counting only civilian deaths?

The project relies on the professional rigour of the approved reporting agencies. It is assumed that any agency that has attained a respected international status operates its own rigorous checks before publishing items (including, where possible, eye-witness and confidential sources). By requiring that two independent agencies publish a report before we are willing to add it to the count, we are premising our own count on the self-correcting nature of the increasingly inter-connected international media network.

On the day the Lancet report was released, anticipating controversy, I discussed the IBC methodology. It will come as no surprise that I consider it a trifle naïve and gullible to rely on the ‘professional rigour’ of the mainstream media. But it’s not just their standards that are of concern. Now we know that there are only about 60 journalists in that whole country and they are quite justifiably frightened to venture out. When they do, many will not stay in one place for more than fifteen minutes. What would really be surprising under the circumstances would be for them to manage to capture even ten percent of the deaths in a country that size, with 150,000 bloodthirsty US soldiers armed to the teeth rampaging around, their ‘Salvador option’ death squads on the loose, various insurgent groups staging scores of attacks a day, not always as accurately targetted as they might be, and a range of ethnic militia feuding and settling vendettas.

And as for reliably distinguishing civilians from combatants, it hardly seems likely, even in the few cases that reporters witness first hand. Reports from the occupation authorities and the military are likely to claim anyone they kill as a ‘terrorist’. By definition. After all, they are the liberators.

Another factor that needs to be explicit, as Eli Stephens wrote yesterday on Left I on the news

…what you don't see is a phrase like this: "Eight more people died in Iraqi hospitals as a result of wounds inflicted in yesterday's car bombing/last week's IED explosion/last month's market bombing." I don't know about you readers, but I can say honestly I have never seen such a statement in the news, which means that Iraq Body Count, which tallies news reports, can't possibly include such deaths.

As Gilbert Burnham, lead author of the study wrote to WSWS,

Almost everything we know about mortality, disease prevalence, causes of deaths in probably 80 percent of the world’s population is derived from surveys—usually cluster surveys such as the one we carried out in Iraq. How many people died in Darfur? In Kosovo? In Congo? What is the death rate in Uganda, or Cambodia, or Angola? The answer almost without exception comes from cluster surveys.

When there is such vigorous denial of a standard demographic and epidemiological tool as the cluster survey, one needs to look for other reasons why the results are not acceptable.

It’s really a shame that IBC have become so shrill and defensive, as van Aucken wrote,

No doubt, the tallying of media-reported deaths in Iraq served a useful purpose under conditions in which the attitude of the American occupiers was summed up in the remark by Gen. Tommy Franks: “We don’t do body counts.”

Now, however, under conditions in which the governments responsible for this war and the mass media which helped them promote it are utilizing IBC’s figure of 60,000 deaths as a means of covering up the real magnitude of the disaster in Iraq, it seems self-evident that the principal responsibility confronting IBC would be to denounce and expose this misuse of its data, which, as the organization itself acknowledges, leave “most civilian casualties ...unreported.”

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