Coverage falls victim to danger, journalists say

Published January 21, 2006

He has covered riots in India, neo-Nazis in East Germany and the war in Iraq.

And amid reports of desperate efforts to secure the release of kidnapped American journalist Jill Carroll, British journalist Luke Harding has come to a sad conclusion.

It's time for Western journalists to stop reporting from Iraq, at least for a while.

"The story has become impossible to report properly because of the danger," said Harding, a correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian and based in Berlin. "Iraq is the most important story there is. But ... anyone who goes to Baghdad now, knows they may not come back."

The discussion of journalists' safety in Iraq has emerged again because of Carroll, a 28-year-old freelance journalist working for the Christian Science Monitor who was kidnapped Jan. 7. Her captors said Carroll would be killed on Friday unless all female detainees in the country were released, but there has been no news of her fate as of press time.

Working as a freelancer clothed in traditional garb, without an armored car or an accompanying "chase car" following her in case of an incident, she may have seemed particularly vulnerable.

But Harding said many reporters prefer to remain "under the radar" while reporting abroad, hoping to observe events and report without interference. Still, for Western journalists, the danger of kidnapping or attack keeps many from the kind of boots-on-the-ground reporting foreign correspondents traditionally undertake.

"You spend six to eight weeks sitting in a hotel and you have your local (translators) ... your fixers, who go out and talk to people for you," said Harding, who spent much of 2004 reporting in Iraq. "The story has a Baghdad dateline and it looks okay ... but it's not good journalism. And it's not the journalists' fault."

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 60 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003 (including 41 Iraqis and two Americans). Thirty-six journalists have been kidnapped during the war, including five Americans. Criminal gangs kidnap Westerners and sell them to insurgent groups.

The danger has increased so much that some journalists who once insisted that reporters should travel without armed guards to preserve their neutrality have begun to rethink their positions, said the committee's executive director, Ann Cooper.

"There were European journalists who said, "Once you start traveling with armed guards, what does that make you look like?"' Cooper said. "And still, there are news organizations who say, "We don't want to be perceived that way."'

One of those organizations is National Public Radio, where senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins said reporters travel in an armored car, but without armed guards (there are, however, armed guards where reporters live).

Jenkins, who was the head of Newsweek's Saigon, Vietnam, bureau during the fall of the city and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for his reporting for the Washington Post from Lebanon, says he has never seen a more dangerous reporting situation than Iraq.

But ask if U.S. journalists should leave the country, and his response is immediate: No way.

"Iraq is our war, our U.S. policy, our people (fighting) there ... it reflects the whole politics of what's going on in this country," Jenkins said. "We don't have a choice. We wouldn't be a significant news organization if we weren't reporting from there."

The St. Petersburg Times currently has no reporters in Iraq, because editors believe the paper's foreign correspondent can be more effective elsewhere, said executive editor Neil Brown.

Jenkins' stay-the-course comments were echoed by Pam Constable, a deputy foreign editor at the Washington Post who has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan. But she admitted the days of reporters feeling as if they are present for a pivotal moment in history are long gone.

"There was a certain excitement to being witness to a great social change," Constable said. "That's not what's happening in Iraq now. There's nothing that catches you up in the spirit."

Some have said Carroll's plight has received such intense media coverage, in part, because she is a photogenic young female - noting that the kidnapping and killing of freelance American journalist Steven Vincent in August didn't receive nearly as much coverage.

It's a point that resonates with NPR correspondent Anne Garrels, who wrote of her experiences as one of 16 U.S. journalists who stayed in Baghdad for the invasion of Iraq in the book Naked in Baghdad.

"I spent a long time looking at (Carroll's) photograph trying to judge ... is she bruised? What was she trying to tell us?" said Garrels, noting that many wealthy Iraqis have also been kidnap targets. "If this puts a face on it, that may be good."

Reporting from Iraq in two-month-on, two-month-off shifts, Garrels remembered a time through much of 2003 when she could travel openly almost anywhere and get to know her neighbors. Now she lives secretly, traveling straight to and from interviews - afraid to stop and buy a soda for fear a sympathizer might call an insurgent group.

"Every morning we wake up with all the right questions and no good answers to the security conundrums," said Garrels, who returns to Iraq in February. "But if (the press) didn't ask good questions going into this war, we damn well better ask now ... and that means being there."