BY NEIL HICKEY
Bullets from AK-47 assault rifles smashed into two Toyota Land Cruisers bearing Brent Sadler, a CNN correspondent, and his crew through the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit. Gunmen in a pursuing car aimed their weapons at point-blank range and prepared to fire again. Sadler decided that death “would come in an instant.”
But it did not. The driver of CNN’s vehicle was a hired “security adviser” — a rugged ex-soldier who’d served in Britain’s elite Special Air Service Regiment, the famed SAS. Steering with his left hand, the man grasped a Heckler and Koch MP5 machine pistol with his right, leaned out the car window, and loosed a stream of nine-millimeter bullets at the pursuing brigands, who fell to the rear and disappeared from sight.
Sadler was delighted to have survived, but expected he might be criticized. Had he and his team crossed a line and become combatants, thus possibly endangering other journalists? It’s a question that bedevils news managers, as journalists continue to work in danger zones where hostile fire, kidnapping, thievery, and muggings are part of a day’s work. Under the 1947 Geneva conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols, journalists on the battlefield are considered civilians and cannot be directly targeted — unless they take action that makes them participants rather than witnesses.
But in conflicts of recent decades — Somalia (where seven CNN staff members were killed), Afghanistan, and now, Iraq — some journalists, especially on the television side, have been accompanied by armed security guards authorized to return fire if attacked by an enemy. Those guards are employees of companies that offer the expertise of former commando-type soldiers to news organizations to protect their journalists in the field.
One rationale for the hiring of armed guards is that guerrilla action, of the sort now ongoing in Iraq, draws no distinctions between military and nonmilitary targets, with even the Red Cross and the U.N. coming under attack by insurgents. Western journalists are easily identifiable in Iraq, and there’s a rising apprehension among them that they’re in the crosshairs more than in any previous conflict, despite the capture of Saddam Hussein. At least sixteen news people were killed in Iraq in 2003. On December 10, two Time journalists were wounded by a grenade hurled into their Humvee. (Virtually no print or radio news outlets employ bodyguards.) Some journalists are considering carrying weapons. TV crews, with their cameras and sound gear, are especially vulnerable.
At a broadcast journalists’ conference in Budapest in November, the pros and cons of employing armed guards came in for vigorous discussion. Representatives of some European news organizations argued heatedly that the presence of outside security people in battle zones is unhealthy for the newsgathering process, and in fact endangers all journalists because it blurs the line between reporters and combatants. In the heat of battle, the argument goes, nobody consults a copy of the Geneva conventions.
No consensus emerged from the Budapest talks, according to Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who attended. Vehement views were expressed on both sides. One participant complained that news organizations that hire guards “are making a decision that affects all of us” — empowering hostile forces to conclude that journalists are part of the fray and thus fair game.
Proponents of hiring armed guards insist they understand the hazards and counterarguments. “It does raise the bar when you put armed guards with journalists,” admits Eason Jordan, the CNN executive who runs the network’s scores of overseas bureaus. “In the eyes of the bad guys it can suggest that all journalists are armed.” But there’s little alternative, he believes. Twice in 2002, Saddam Hussein’s minister of information issued threats to CNN’s Jordan: if the network sent news teams to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, those journalists would be assassinated. In March, just before the ground war began, the Kurdish intelligence service in Erbil, a northern city where CNN had a staff of thirty, arrested a hit squad of Iraqis from Baghdad who confessed they’d been sent to murder the CNN team. Jordan is contemptuous of news organizations that say, “We’d hire armed guards, but we can’t afford them.” Those companies, he insists, should not be sending their journalists to risk death in the world’s most perilous regions.
Security forces, say their defenders, are more than hired gunslingers. They assess threat levels day by day, recommend safety measures, and provide survival training for TV crewmembers. The cost of such service, reportedly, is high. Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News, who oversees the network’s worldwide newsgathering operation, says “It’s beyond expensive.” But she adds, “I have sleepless nights” thinking about staff members in Iraq, “and I’m determined to do everything possible to ensure their safety.”
BY NEIL HICKEY