Guns under Fire: Though Some War Correspondents Say Having Weapons on the Job Saved Their Lives, Most Journalists Are Still against Carrying Them

Article excerpt

CNN correspondent Michael Holmes was heading back to Baghdad with his crew after an assignment in southern Iraq early this year when a rust-colored Opel pulled up behind their two-car convoy.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Without warning, a gunman armed with an AK-47 popped up through the sunroof and began firing at the CNN crew. The journalists' hired security guard fired back.

After a brief battle, two CNN employees, producer Duraid Isa Mohammed and driver Yasser Khatab, were dead. A bullet grazed a third, cameraman Scott McWhinnie, on the head.

Holmes, a veteran anchor and war correspondent, knew why he and the rest of the CNN crew survived. "There is no doubt in my mind that if our security adviser had not returned fire, everyone in our vehicle would have been killed," Holmes said in a CNN broadcast. "This was not an attempted robbery; they were clearly trying to take us out."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

With the volatile situation in Iraq, the rules are blurring on when and how journalists should protect themselves. Though more than a dozen reporters died in Iraq over the last year, journalistic tradition says reporters should never carry guns, even in the most dangerous war zone. A journalist with a weapon could be mistaken for a soldier or a spy and muddy the understanding of reporters as neutral observers outside the fray.

But, in an era when journalists are targets and enemies look like a civilians, is it time to change the rules? If journalists are fair game, how far should they go to protect themselves? And is there really a difference between traveling with armed guards and slipping a handgun into your bag beside your reporter's notebook?

New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins helped fuel the debate late last year when the Wall Street Journal reported he had been carrying a gun while on assignment in Baghdad. Filkins' practice led to friction within the Times' Baghdad office, where his bureau chief questioned whether arming reporters crossed the line.

A few weeks later, Times editors in New York released a new policy following a "comprehensive evaluation of our security measures in Baghdad," says Catherine Mathis, the New York Times' vice president for corporate communications.

Firearms were off-limits, no matter how dangerous the assignment.

"Reporters, photographers and other editorial personnel on assignment from the Times to cover a war or civil conflict must never carry a weapon, openly or concealed on their person or in their vehicle," the policy states. "While the Times acknowledges that its journalists do find themselves in harm's way, the newspaper believes it is imperative that they be perceived always as neutral observers. The carrying of a weapon, for whatever reason, jeopardizes a journalist's status as a neutral."

The newspaper is less strict on the increasingly common practice of hiring armed security guards to accompany reporters and photographers on assignments. Those decisions "should be handled on a case-by-case basis between the ranking Times journalist on the scene and senior editors in New York," according to the new policy.

Other news organizations have similar philosophies. CNN allows armed security teams to accompany news crews, says CNN spokes-woman Christa Robinson. Such guards intervened both in January's ambush of the CNN crew outside Baghdad and a similar roadside attack of network staffers in Tikrit last spring.

However, the network's employees are still forbidden from carrying weapons themselves, Robinson adds.

"CNN's journalists are deployed in many of the world's most dangerous places. …