[News] Robert Fisk: Hotel journalism gives American troops a free hand

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Wed Jan 19 08:51:20 EST 2005

Hotel journalism gives American troops a free hand as the press shelters 

Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent, January 17, 2005


"Hotel journalism" is the only phrase for it. More and more Western 
reporters in Baghdad are reporting from their hotels rather than the 
streets of Iraq's towns and cities. Some are accompanied everywhere by 
hired, heavily armed Western mercenaries. A few live in local offices from 
which their editors refuse them permission to leave. Most use Iraqi 
stringers, part-time correspondents who risk their lives to conduct 
interviews for American or British journalists, and none can contemplate a 
journey outside the capital without days of preparation unless they "embed" 
themselves with American or British forces.

Rarely, if ever, has a war been covered by reporters in so distant and 
restricted a way. The New York Times correspondents live in Baghdad behind 
a massive stockade with four watchtowers, protected by locally hired, 
rifle-toting security men, complete with NYT T‑shirts. America's NBC 
television chain are holed up in a hotel with an iron grille over their 
door, forbidden by their security advisers to visit the swimming pool or 
the restaurant "let alone the rest of Baghdad" lest they be attacked. 
Several Western journalists do not leave their rooms while on station in 

So grave are the threats to Western journalists that some television 
stations are talking of withdrawing their reporters and crews. Amid an 
insurgency where Westerners - and many Arabs as well as other foreigners - 
are kidnapped and killed, reporting this war is becoming close to 
impossible. The murder on videotape of an Italian correspondent, the 
cold-blooded killing of one of Poland's top reporters and his Bulgarian 
cameraman, and the equally bloody assault on a Japanese reporter on the 
notorious Highway 8 south of Baghdad last year have persuaded many 
journalists that a large dose of discretion is the better part of valour.

The Independent, along with several British and American papers, still 
covers stories in Baghdad in person, moving with hesitation - not to 
mention trepidation - through the streets of a city slowly being taken over 
by insurgents. Only six months ago, it was still possible to leave Baghdad 
in the morning, drive to Mosul or Najaf or other major cities to cover a 
story, and return by evening. By August, it was taking me two weeks to 
negotiate my dubious safety for a mere 80-mile journey outside Baghdad.

I found the military checkpoints on the motorways deserted, the roads lined 
with smashed American trucks and burnt-out police vehicles. Today, it is 
almost impossible. Drivers and translators working for newspapers and 
television companies are threatened with death. Several have asked to be 
relieved of their duties on 30 January lest they be recognised on the 
streets during Iraq's elections. In the brutal 1990s war in Algeria, at 
least 42 local reporters were murdered and a French cameraman was shot dead 
in the Algiers Casbah. But the Algerian security forces could still give a 
minimum of protection to reporters. In Iraq, they cannot even protect 

The police and the Iraqi National Guard - much trumpeted by the Americans 
as the men who will take over after an American withdrawal - are heavily 
infiltrated by insurgents. Checkpoints may be manned by policemen, but it 
is now unclear just who the cops are working for. US troops operating in 
and around Baghdad are now avoided by Western journalists, unless they are 
"embedded", as much as they are by Iraqis because of the indiscipline with 
which they open fire on civilians on the least suspicion.

So questions are being asked. What is a reporter's life worth? Is the story 
worth the risk? And, much more seriously from an ethical point of view, why 
do not more journalists report on the restrictions under which they 
operate? During the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, editors often insisted on 
prefacing journalists' dispatches from Saddam's Iraq by talking about the 
restrictions under which they were operating. But today, when our movements 
are much more circumscribed, no such "health warning" accompanies their 
reports. In many cases, viewers and readers are left with the impression 
that the journalist is free to travel around Iraq to check out the stories 
which he or she confidently files each day. Not so.

"The United States military couldn't be happier with this situation," a 
long-time American correspondent in Baghdad says. "They know that if they 
bomb a house of innocent people, they can claim it was a 'terrorist' base 
and get away with it. They don't want us roaming around Iraq and so the 
'terrorist' threat is great news for them.

"They can claim they've shot 600 or 1,000 insurgents and we have no way of 
checking because we can't go to the cemetery or visit the hospitals because 
we don't want to get kidnapped and have our throats cut."

Thus, many reporters are now reduced to telephoning the American military 
or the Iraqi "interim" government for information from their hotel rooms, 
receiving "facts" from men and women who are even more isolated from Iraq 
in the Baghdad Green Zone around Saddam Hussein's former republican palace 
than are the journalists. Or they take reports from their correspondents 
who are embedded with American troops and who will, necessarily, get only 
the American side of the story.

Yes, it is still possible to report from the street in Baghdad. But fewer 
and fewer of us are doing this, and there may come a time when we have to 
balance the worth of our reports against the risk to our lives.

We have not reached that point yet. So far, we still see a little more of 
Iraq than the people who claim to be running this country.

The Freedom Archives
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