The news from Gaza that the BBC journalist Alan Johnson has been freed is long overdue and most welcome. Now Mr Johnson is free, it is worth analyzing just how journalists working within a conflict zone, have gone from non combatant status to become regarded by [some] governments and insurgents alike as legitimate targets.
Targeting journalists as if they were combatants and thus legitimate targets is a comparatively new phenomenon, covering wars and insurgencies has always been a dangerous business for the reporters involved, but bar the odd unstable or vengeful combatant, the actual targeting of journalists as part of an over all military strategy was almost unheard of until the late 20th Century. Many people believe that a sea changed occurred when Tony Blair justified the decision to send Nato war planes to bomb Serbia’s State run TV station in 1999, which resulted in the death and injury of many of the stations employees. At the time, international organizations that represented journalists were quick to realize the dangers of such a strategy and publicly condemned both the Nato bombing and Blairs statement that followed it. As they understood only to clearly the decision to attack the Belgrade TV station all but sanctioned in war time attacks on critical media outlets and by so doing made journalists legitimate targets. *
Later in the same year the Russian President Putin sent his armed forces into Chechnya to brutally suppress that countries independence and in the process a number of his critics in the Russian media met brutal deaths. The most recent being Anna Politkovskaya, whose death many people believe can be laid at President Putin’s and his security service goons door.
The US administration of G.W.Bush was next to break the taboo that in a war zone journalists must be regarded as non combatants. When a US war plane dropped a 500 pound bomb on the Kabul offices of the Arab satellite TV station al-Jazeera just prior to the fall of the Afghan Talaban government. Approximately two years later during the US led invasion of Iraq, on March 8 2003 a US missile hit the Baghdad Office of the same TV station killing one reporter and wounding a staffer.**
Thus the agenda having been set by the worlds political princes; and working on the pretext of what the big boys did yesterday the minnows do today. We can see how the disastrous decisions by Bush, Putin and Blair to target in war time critical sections of the media, has been replicated further down the political food chain.
When you add in the Wahabi sectarian creed of islam, which boils down to if you are not with us you are our enemies and less than human at that, you have a recipe for disaster and darkness. For if independent minded journalists are unable to report freely from the worlds trouble spots how can we in the west possible keep track of what our governments do in our name overseas.
If we look at Iraq alone we get an idea of just how dangerous reporting from a conflict zone has become, according to the web site Reporters without Borders,*** between March 2003 and 20 March 2006 191 journalists and media assistants were killed in that brutalized nation. At first the insurgents concentrated on terrorizing western journalist off the streets, eventually making it impossible if not foolhardy for them to do their jobs. All they could do was report from the safety of their hotels or the green zone whilst blood flowed in the Bagdad streets.. To combat this loss of copy, much of the western media started using Iraqi journalists or other arab nationals. If one looks at the names of the majority of those who are on the Reporters without Borders death list, it is clear that being an Iraqi or Arab national is no guarantee at all against the Death Squads.
The end result of this murderous mayhem is that at a time when the US and British forces of occupation in Iraq need to be scrutinized in fine detail, there are few on the ground who are capable or willing to do this vital task. As Fallujah showed, US and Iraqi security forces have been given a free reign to carry out search and destroy mission knowing full well their handy-work will not be reported by the worlds media; and in truth the US/UK tax payer just does not know exactly what their tax pounds/dollars are paying for, nor how many innocent Iraqi people have had their lives stolen at their expense..
The opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam built to a crescendo due to the blanket coverage the US media gave to that foolish military adventure. It became clear during the invasion of Iraq that the US military intended to learn the lessons of Vietnam by keeping the media on a very tight leash, However they themselves must have been surprised that organizations like Al-Qaeda in Iraq did their bidding for them. For by video taping their leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hacking the heads off his terrified and helpless victims he could not but be terrorizing western reporters off the streets and back to gaining their information solely via official US briefings. Whether Zarqawi was a CIA renegade or just another muslim who took the Wahabi creed quite literally we do not know, but we do know that media coverage is one of the few powerful weapons in the arsenal of those suffering under occupation or oppression. Thus it makes no sense for those fighting to end the occupation to destroy the freedom of the press. For in many ways the western media despite all its shortcomings, is the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples best friend, for at its best it is a window through which the world can witness their suffering and the often appalling lives they are forced to endure due to the occupations of their lands.
For when the media has unrestricted access to the worlds trouble spots, no one, whether politician, solder, insurgent or citizen can turn around and say with an honest heart, as millions of people did about the Holocaust, I didn’t know.