Reporting Under Repression

In a surprisingly candid op-ed (“The News We Kept to Ourselves”) in the April 11, 2003 edition of the New York Times, CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, reveals that due to the real threat of torture and death to his staff and sources, CNN has for years been sanitizing its reporting from Iraq, rarely exposing the severely brutal nature of the Iraqi regime. One wonders, therefore, what was the point of reporting from Hussein’s Iraq? Rarely was information of real value imparted, while misleading propaganda was instead broadcast without appropriate context or commentary.

People who fled Iraq with their families were free to speak the truth, but for the most part the news organizations ignored them. Perhaps news executives feared that critical stories, even if they did not originate from their reporters, would hamper access to the regime, or would even endanger their news staff in Iraq. However, since the sanitized news from Iraq actually had little value, it appears that the presence of reporters there was actually counterproductive to discovering and reporting the truth.

Did CNN and other news networks do more harm than good by allowing themselves to be manipulated by Iraqi thugs? Shouldn’t they have provided the public with at least a broad idea (if not specifics that could have endangered sources) of what was going on? Why were CNN and other news bureaus unwilling to take the obvious option of simply yanking their reporters in protest? Why be at all accommodating to a cruel dictator with a horrendous pattern of human rights abuses? These are issues that should be examined in great depth by the media and public.

Jordan’s Previous Claims
It is also interesting to note that almost six months ago, Eason Jordan had a very different take on self-censorship by CNN reporters in Iraq. In an October 25 interview on NPR’s On the Media, he claimed that CNN “reported forthrightly” from Iraq and he pointed out a few examples of CNN reporting that angered the Iraqis. However, he didn’t give a hint of the physical intimidation his reporters and staff routinely faced, even when asked directly about self-censorship, and he certainly didn’t mention the heinous nature of the regime.

In the past, news organizations have defended their coverage by saying how important it is to be able to hear from the Iraqis, so the world will be able to know how they feel and what they are experiencing. But, as we can now clearly see, in a repressive regime, no one can speak truthfully. So we did not actually learn how the Iraqis felt and received little truthful information about their experiences. This should be remembered when considering the coverage from other repressive regimes, such as the Palestinian Authority and Syria. An editor’s note or anchor’s disclaimer should accompany all stories and photos from areas that are under repression, explaining that citizens are not free to speak their mind, and that journalists and photographers may be threatened or run the risk of being expelled if they displease the authorities.

Eason Jordan is to be commended for finally revealing “the news we kept to ourselves,” but perhaps he would have done more good to publicize Iraq’s despicable intimidation the first time CNN encountered it. If news organizations make it a policy to publicize the threats, and/or to pull reporters, rather than submit to intimidation by self-censoring, they would help make the practice of intimidation ineffective.

Intimidation by the Palestinian Authority
As we have noted in the past ( “Intimidation of Journalists” ), intimidation has also been taking place in the Palestinian Authority. Many Palestinians who were not deemed appropriately “patriotic” have been brutally murdered as “collaborators.” PA thugs threatened journalists and photographers with harm during the lynching of the Israeli reservists at the Ramallah police station, as well as during the widespread celebrations going on in the Palestinian territories shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Cameras were smashed, film taken, and warnings given not to provide anything to their editors that would show the Palestinians in a negative light. In September of 2002, Jerusalem Post reporter Khalid Abu Toameh was repeatedly threatened with physical harm by a PA official. Abu Toameh wrote, “the real danger comes not from the bullets of an M-16 or AK-47 assault rifle. Rather, it comes from attempts by certain elements in the PA to intimidate journalists who are only trying to carry out their jobs in a professional manner…[There are still those in the PA who believe] that a journalist is first to be loyal to the cause…”

For other interesting commentary on Eason Jordan’s op-ed, please see James Taranto’s “Best of the Web.”

The Eason Jordan op-ed appears below.

April 11, 2003

The News We Kept to Ourselves

ATLANTA — Over the last dozen years I made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN’s Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders. Each time I visited, I became more distressed by what I saw and heard — awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff. For example, in the mid-1990’s one of our Iraqi cameramen was abducted. For weeks he was beaten and subjected to electroshock torture in the basement of a secret police headquarters because he refused to confirm the government’s ludicrous suspicion that I was the Central Intelligence Agency’s Iraq station chief. CNN had been in Baghdad long enough to know that telling the world about the torture of one of its employees would almost certainly have gotten him killed and put his family and co-workers at grave risk. Working for a foreign news organization provided Iraqi citizens no protection. The secret police terrorized Iraqis working for international press services who were courageous enough to try to provide accurate reporting. Some vanished, never to be heard from again. Others disappeared and then surfaced later with whispered tales of being hauled off and tortured in unimaginable ways. Obviously, other news organizations were in the same bind we were when it came to reporting on their own workers. We also had to worry that our reporting might endanger Iraqis not on our payroll. I knew that CNN could not report that Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, told me in 1995 that he intended to assassinate two of his brothers-in-law who had defected and also the man giving them asylum, King Hussein of Jordan. If we had gone with the story, I was sure he would have responded by killing the Iraqi translator who was the only other participant in the meeting. After all, secret police thugs brutalized even senior officials of the Information Ministry, just to keep them in line (one such official has long been missing all his fingernails). Still, I felt I had a moral obligation to warn Jordan’s monarch, and I did so the next day. King Hussein dismissed the threat as a madman’s rant. A few months later Uday lured the brothers-in-law back to Baghdad; they were soon killed. I came to know several Iraqi officials well enough that they confided in me that Saddam Hussein was a maniac who had to be removed. One Foreign Ministry officer told me of a colleague who, finding out his brother had been executed by the regime, was forced, as a test of loyalty, to write a letter of congratulations on the act to Saddam Hussein. An aide to Uday once told me why he had no front teeth: henchmen had ripped them out with pliers and told him never to wear dentures, so he would always remember the price to be paid for upsetting his boss. Again, we could not broadcast anything these men said to us. Last December, when I told Information Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf that we intended to send reporters to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, he warned me they would “suffer the severest possible consequences.” CNN went ahead, and in March, Kurdish officials presented us with evidence that they had thwarted an armed attack on our quarters in Erbil. This included videotaped confessions of two men identifying themselves as Iraqi intelligence agents who said their bosses in Baghdad told them the hotel actually housed C.I.A. and Israeli agents. The Kurds offered to let us interview the suspects on camera, but we refused, for fear of endangering our staff in Baghdad. Then there were the events that were not unreported but that nonetheless still haunt me. A 31-year-old Kuwaiti woman, Asrar Qabandi, was captured by Iraqi secret police occupying her country in 1990 for “crimes,” one of which included speaking with CNN on the phone. They beat her daily for two months, forcing her father to watch. In January 1991, on the eve of the American-led offensive, they smashed her skull and tore her body apart limb by limb. A plastic bag containing her body parts was left on the doorstep of her family’s home. I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me. Now that Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone, I suspect we will hear many, many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis about the decades of torment. At last, these stories can be told freely.

Eason Jordan is chief news executive at CNN.

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