Magazine article American Journalism Review

The Ambiguities of War: How Governments Label Prisoners, and Journalists, Affects How They Will Be Treated. (First Amendment Watch)

Magazine article American Journalism Review

The Ambiguities of War: How Governments Label Prisoners, and Journalists, Affects How They Will Be Treated. (First Amendment Watch)

Article excerpt

In March, when images of American prisoners of war held by Iraqi forces aired on Iraqi state television and independent Arab television station Al Jazeera, U.S. government officials immediately cried foul. Lt. Gen. John Abizaid labeled the video "disgusting" and "absolutely unacceptable." Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld cited Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention, which requires signatory nations to protect POWs from "acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity"

Of course, the convention can be violated only by the nations that have signed it, not by media organizations. But that didn't stop NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange from barring Al Jazeera from broadcasting on site, shortly after the station aired the footage (see Free Press, page 16).

Critics suggested that the Bush administration was being a little inconsistent in its invocation of international law on behalf of its own soldiers. What about those al Qaeda and Taliban suspects captured by the U.S. in Afghanistan back in 2001? Military officials had initially allowed photographers and video operators from American news organizations like CNN, CBS and the Army Times to take pictures of those prisoners as they were loaded onto cargo planes before being sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in January 2002. Then, abruptly, officials ordered the journalists not to transmit the images.

"CBS Evening News" defied the ban by airing about 10 seconds of footage. Other media protested, arguing that the military had no authority to censor the photos because they had nothing to do with operational security But the Associated Press also reported that Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley claimed that the International Red Cross had objected to the images on the grounds that "the Geneva Convention prohibits humiliating, debasing photos." (The AP story said that the Red Cross denied contacting the Pentagon about this.)

Whatever the impetus for the order might have been, the Bush administration did an about-face once the prisoners arrived at Camp X-Ray At that point, the media were allowed to take and publish photographs. Why didn't those pictures violate the convention, too?

Simple. The captives in Gitmo aren't POWs at all. The convention doesn't apply to them.

Al Qaeda, the government argued, is an "international terrorist group." And it considers those fighting for the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan at the time of the conflict, to be "unlawful combatants," not "prisoners of war. …

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