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Media protest treatment in Iraq

Letter to Pentagon accuses US troops of intimidation

The Associated Press says soldiers in Iraq detained one of its photographers and a driver in late September near the site of the Abu Ghraib prison. Knight Ridder says its photographer at the scene of the Nov. 2 downing of a Chinook helicopter had photographs destroyed by the US military. Reuters, which had a cameraman killed in August in what the US military called an accident, says another photographer was detained last month by Iraqi police alleging to be acting on orders from US forces.

Amid growing reports of journalists being harassed and intimidated by troops policing postwar Iraq, representatives of 30 media organizations, ranging from CNN and ABC to the Newhouse News Service and The Boston Globe, have signed a letter to the Pentagon raising concerns about what they view as an increasingly hostile reporting environment.

Some of the signers say the relationship between the press and the US military in Iraq has worsened since the major combat ended.

The letter, addressed to Larry Di Rita, acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, says the news organizations have "documented numerous examples of US troops physically harassing journalists and, in some cases, confiscating or ruining equipment, digital camera disks, and videotapes." It also states that the actions are in violation of the Pentagon's guidelines that stipulate, among other things, that "media products will not be confiscated or otherwise impounded."

Yesterday, Stuart Wilk, the president of the Associated Press Managing Editors, also sent a letter to Di Rita complaining that troops have been harassing and endangering journalists in Iraq in recent months and asking the Pentagon to "immediately take the steps to end such confrontations."

"It's back to the bad old days where journalists are being treated as adversaries," said Sandy Johnson, the Washington bureau chief for the AP and an organizer of the protest campaign. Johnson said she circulated the letter from the 30 news outlets to express dismay over the "escalating number of these incidents in recent weeks. What we want the Pentagon to tell that military is that this is not acceptable."

ABC's Washington bureau chief, Robin Sproul, added that "we had almost none of these problems" when hundreds of reporters were embedded with units during the height of the fighting. She attributes the recent spate of postwar media/military tensions to "a turnover of personnel, a different sort of operation, a different mission, so to speak."

The subject arose at last week's meeting between the Washington bureau chiefs and Pentagon officials, including Di Rita. According to several participants, Di Rita responded by noting that many US troops now in Iraq are teenagers with little experience in dealing with the media.

Di Rita was out of the country yesterday and could not be reached. A statement issued by a defense official who asked not to be named said, "We have detailed instructions to ensure that journalists in Iraq are treated properly. We're aware of reports asserting that there have been some incidents in which those instructions may not have been followed. We are looking into it and will take appropriate action when appropriate. We remain committed to ensuring that the press is free to report on developments in Iraq."

A number of media outlets contacted for this story indicated they had recently encountered problems covering events in Iraq. Aside from the incidents involving Reuters, the Associated Press, and Knight Ridder, the Agence France-Presse photo organization cited several instances in which its photographers have been detained and disks were confiscated. Boston Globe reporter Charles Sennott said that when he and a group of journalists approached the scene of the Chinook copter wreckage hours after the crash, soldiers fired warning shots at them.

"I think since the embed system broke down . . . trust has broken down," said John Walcott, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief.

Some journalists say the problems are exacerbated by the fact that soldiers are in a defensive, hair-trigger posture trying to guard against the increasing number of deadly attacks by anti-American forces.

"Frankly, I think soldiers are more sensitive when things aren't going too well," Walcott added.

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