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Embedded journalists versus "unilateral" reporters by Paul Workman

Embedded journalists versus "unilateral" reporters
Paul Workman, for CBC News Online | April 7, 2003

Paul Workman is the Paris correspondent for CBC TV's The National.

We approached the Mutlaa Ridge checkpoint for the third time in 24 hours. No amount of persuasion, deceit, trickery or offered cigarettes made any difference. The Kuwaiti soldiers would not let us through, not at four o' clock in the morning, and not a few hours later when the sun was higher and the guards might be a little more distracted. So now, we were back, at two o'clock in the afternoon desperate to get to northern Kuwait and from there, with luck and a little more ingenuity, across the border into southern Iraq. The invasion had started three days earlier; British troops were surrounding Basra, and that's where we wanted to go.

We stopped our vehicle a couple of hundred metres from the checkpoint and waited for a British convoy to come up the road. It was impossible not to look conspicuous. We were driving a Toyota 4x4, laden with 120 extra litres of gasoline, three spare tires, a generator, tents, sleeping bags, three boxes of bottled water. Every centimetre of space inside was crammed with people and TV equipment: four chemical warfare suits, a videotape-editing unit, two satellite telephones, bulletproof vests, gas masks and food for a week. As a long British convoy approached from the rear, we put on our helmets to look at least a bit like soldiers, slipped in between a couple of trucks and drove right on through, daring not to glance at either the waiting soldiers or a couple of television crews that had been stopped and turned back. This time it worked! We were on the way to Iraq, soon driving 140 kilometres an hour, tarpaulin flapping in the wind, trying to get north as quickly as possible. The next three checkpoints proved surprisingly easy; perhaps we looked like American Special Forces or perhaps by that time, the Kuwaitis didn't really give a damn who was going across. We made our way through Safwan, the first Iraqi town on the other side, greeted by rowdy kids begging for money or water, and then drove north in the dwindling daylight towards Basra.

Now, this story is only interesting because we weren't supposed to be there, we weren't supposed to be in Iraq, at least not according to the British and American generals who planned this war. The only journalists they wanted inside the country were those "embedded" with the coalition forces, carefully chosen by the Pentagon and placed with various units on the battlefield. The rest of us, registered as "unilaterals," were to be kept in Kuwait, and taken out on organized day-trips, until they declared the countryside was safe, or to use their expression, until it was "benign." In other words, we were allowed to cover the war from the sanctuary of our hotel rooms and little more. (On my one day-trip with the British, we were taken to the port of Umm Qasr and proudly shown a small electrical generating unit repaired by the Royal Engineers. We heard how grateful the people of the town were to have power, how safe the streets had become since the invasion, how well the British were doing at winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis, but when we asked to actually see an Iraqi turning on his lights or his television, we were told that was impossible. For safety reasons, I believe, though it was never fully explained. I did find out the embedded journalists had been there the day before.

So there you have it. The people who gave us the term "collateral damage" have now added "embedded" to their military lexicon. There is no question the pictures coming out of the war zone are spectacular, the red, swirling sandstorms in the western desert, the tanks and armoured vehicles shooting their way into the heart of Baghdad, but I just can't believe the Pentagon is doing this out of goodwill or genuine commitment to a free press. It is in fact a brilliant, persuasive conspiracy to control the images and the messages coming out of the battlefield and they've succeeded colossally. What editor wouldn't be seduced by the chance to send a correspondent and camera with the Third Infantry Division, or the U.S. Marines, as "their boys" put an end to Saddam Hussein's evil empire. Well, the CBC's editor-in-chief for one, who worried about falling victim to the Pentagon's vast and powerful manipulation machine with its tendency to create American heroes, glorify American military success and present a narrow, one-sided perspective of the war. What I didn't expect, however, is that embedded journalists would be given exclusive access to the war, leaving the rest of us shut out of the battlefield, or even the near-battlefield; what a British officer in the south was soon calling "Free Iraq." Indeed.

By keeping "unilateral" journalists out of Iraq, the Americans have succeeded in reducing independent reporting of the war, and I believe that was exactly their plan from the beginning. I spoke to an old man in the town of Safwan after he'd fought through a crowd to obtain a box of food and water delivered by the Kuwait Red Crescent Society. He was obviously grateful, but distraught at the site of foreign soldiers on his land. "We don't want the British, and we don't want the Americans," he told me. "We don't want to become another Palestine." You're not getting interviews like that from embedded reporters; you're more likely to see a glorified view of American power and morality, in a war that much of the world considers unnecessary, unjustified or plain wrong, and is being covered at every crossroads, at every captured bridge by a press corps that's sleeping with the winner. I received an e-mail from my brother in Ontario whose opinion I value and whose judgment I use to keep in touch with Canadian opinion. The embedded journalists, he wrote, sound like cheerleaders.

We got into southern Iraq three times in the first week of the war but always through sheer luck, good timing or artful persuasion. The Americans had punched holes in the sand berm along the border to let their columns of tanks through, and that's one route some Canadian colleagues used to slip across, just minutes before Kuwaiti bulldozers came to seal them up. We heard that other journalists were offering bribes. Once inside, we spent the first two nights camping in the shelter of a highway cloverleaf, protected by British military police; there was a prisoner-of-war enclosure just a few metres away. By this time, our little band of "unilaterals" had grown to about 60, including correspondents from Newsweek magazine, the BBC and the Washington Post. Some of us put up tents, others slept in their cars, working by flashlight and lanterns to file stories by satellite telephone. On the first night, the British military police assured us we'd be safe, but it soon became clear that the roads weren't secure and we weren't especially welcome. At about 7 o'clock on the second night, the soldiers suddenly took up defensive positions and flares were fired over nearby Safwan. We were told the campsite was under threat of imminent attack and we had to leave immediately. "Get out, and get out now!" was the order and we did, in a panic, forsaking tents and some TV gear, whatever we couldn't jam into the car quickly. We drove north with our lights out and without an escort, until finally, we were able to stop at another intersection, and camp safely for the rest of the night. The next 18 hours were spent driving up and down the highway, past downed electrical cables and ruptured oil pipelines, trying to find a place where we could safely set up camp and cover the war. The British considered us at best a nuisance and at worst a threat to their own security, so by the end of the day we had no choice but to return to northern Kuwait.

I understand and appreciate the argument that the military doesn't want a lot of dead journalists on its hands, or doesn't want to waste valuable time and resources rescuing journalists who might get into trouble. Nobody I know is asking for armed protection, simply the right to be able to cross over on a daily basis, make our reports and then return to Kuwait before nightfall. Even that's been denied. Nor do I fully accept the argument that the roads and streets in the south of the country are still dangerous. I interviewed a British colonel in the town of Umm Qasr who told me he'd be quite willing to walk around town without his helmet, flak jacket or weapon. So, who's telling the truth about the level of danger?

More than a 1,000 reporters, producers and technicians arrived in Kuwait to cover the war; and by sealing the border, restricting our ability to enter Iraq, the media are being effectively censored. An American officer in the public affairs division made his country' s position utterly and maddeningly clear to my producer Ian Kalushner. "I don't give a damn about the unilateral journalists," he said. "We've fulfilled our obligation to the media and if you don't like it, you can go home." That was after telling us the CBC had been listed as a "state" broadcaster, much like the Russians and that we were little more than a mouthpiece for a government that doesn't support the war. In fact, the Americans and the British have admitted there's a policy of favouring journalists from countries who belong to George Bush's "coalition of the willing." Should we have expected less?

It's no longer just a question of stopping people at the border. Coalition forces are now rounding up and expelling journalists who are not officially embedded. I know of a crew from the very respected BBC program "Newsnight" that spent two days finessing their way through to Umm Qasr only to be stopped and expelled by a public affairs officer for the Royal Marines. And more recently, there's a report of a Portuguese television team that made it to the holy city of Najaf, where they say U.S. military police seized their vehicle, handcuffed and roughed them up before bringing them back to Kuwait City. And what's more, the MPs apparently took advantage of the crew's satellite telephone to call their families back home before kicking them out. One of the Portuguese journalists has covered 10 wars in his career, been arrested three times in Africa, and has never, he said, been subjected to the kind of treatment he received at the hands of the Americans. "I believe the reason we were detained is because we are not embedded," he was quoted as saying. "Embedded journalists are escorted by military minders and what they write is controlled, and through them the military feeds its own version of the facts to the world."

My Portuguese colleagues were understandably indignant and outraged, just as I am, sitting in my Kuwait hotel room, watching the war unfold on television. What, I ask, is so different about Saddam Hussein's henchmen expelling journalists from Iraq and American soldiers expelling journalists from Iraq? Nothing. Nor does it correspond to the cherished values of freedom and independence that George Bush wants Iraqis to adopt once their homeland has been "liberated." That's just the humble opinion of one frustrated, "un-embedded" reporter.

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