Cover the Insurgents, Go to Prison (or Worse)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders is calling on the U.S. government to release a CBS cameraman it shot last week while he was covering a gunfight in Mosul. When he was shot, the Iraqi freelancer was armed with only his camera.

A U.S. Army statement said the CBS cameraman was being held because be might pose “an imperative threat to the coalition forces.” The U.S. military suspects him of links to the rebels because video footage found in his camera shows he was on the scene of several bombings shortly after they took place.

“We call on the U.S. Army to release him very quickly if no evidence is produced to support his alleged collaboration with the insurgency,” the press freedom organization said.

The CBS cameraman isn’t the only reporter being currently imprisoned in Iraq because of the contents of his camera. Iraqi police continue to imprison a reporter for the satellite news channel al-Arabiya. Correspondent Wael Issam was stopped at Baghdad International Airport on March 28. His tapes were confiscated, and he was taken to prison.

“The station managers and his mother are pleading to the Iraqi government to release him because they haven’t charged him with anything,” the network’s Washington bureau chief Talal al-Haj told me, noting the Dubai-based network has also contacted Iraq’s foreign minister for help.

So why was Wael Issam arrested? It seems that, like the CBS cameraman, he had been covering the resistance. Arabiya’s assignment editor Najib Ben-Shahab said that before his arrest, Issam had been working on a documentary on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where resistance to the occupation is strong and U.S. military assaults have killed hundreds – if not thousands – of civilians.

“Wael went to Fallujah many times, and he filmed a lot of stuff there,” said Najib Ben-Shahab. “He had so much footage of armed groups and the so-called resistance, and he was bringing the material to Dubai to make a short documentary or a piece about Fallujah and the armed groups there.”

These two events together indicate what could be a disturbing amount of press censorship in Iraq. If you are a journalist who wants to cover the U.S. military – fine. But want to learn something about those who are fighting the occupation and broadcast it to the outside world so they can learn something about the fighters? That’s increasingly difficult.

Indeed, beyond the incarcerations are the shootings of journalists. A month before the CBS cameraman was shot, U.S. forces opened fire at a car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. She survived the shooting, but a senior Italian intelligence officer died.

“We just want soldiers to pay more attention – to be more careful,” said Reporters Without Borders Washington representative Lucie Morillon. “In a war zone, you don’t have only people fighting; you also have civilians and journalists covering this, and you have to be careful, you have to pay more attention.”

Lucie Morillon told me the most recent incident is similar to one a year ago where a U.S. soldier shot and killed award-winning Reuters cameraman Mazan Dana as he filmed the families of detainees outside Abu Ghraib prison.

“He was just taking pictures, and a soldier saw him and apparently thought he was having a weapon and shot at him,” Morillon said, adding that as in every other case, the military brass cleared the soldier involved. “They said he had only followed the rules of engagement “

Eight journalists have been killed by U.S. troops in Iraq since the occupation began. No American soldier has ever been punished.