By Frank Moher
We now know, thanks to WikiLeaks, that the US military lied about the killing of 11 Iraqi civlians, including two Reuters reporters, in 2007. “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” said its spokesman at the time. But the classified video released yesterday by the whistleblowing web organization plainly shows otherwise. No hostile actions by those on the ground; no threat to US forces; just some men walking through a courtyard, one appearing to hold a weapon pointed at the ground, the two journalists carrying cameras that the soldiers in the Apache helicopter overhead mistake for rocket-propelled grenades.
This isn’t shocking (though the video is); armies lie, truth being the first casualty of, well, you know. What’s interesting, though, is to go back and review the way The New York Times reported the story:
BAGHDAD, July 12 — Clashes in a southeastern neighborhood here between the American military and Shiite militias on Thursday left at least 16 people dead, including two Reuters journalists who had driven to the area to cover the turbulence, according to an official at the Interior Ministry.
The American military confirmed that the journalists, Namir Noor-Eldeen, top, and Saeed Chmagh, were killed as American forces battled insurgents in the area.
Every week we read ledes like this from Iraq and Afghanistan, presenting information that is patently unconfirmed, at least by the reporting organization, as “confirmed.” Yes, it’s our job as media literates to remind ourselves that second-hand information isn’t fact, it’s hearsay. But how often do we do so, and how often do we accept what we’ve read as “news” and move on? (The Times has now published a story that revisits the Army’s statements in light of the WikiLeaks video.)
What is appalling, though, is the way, one year later, the reporters’ own employer commemorated the killings. “The deaths of the two men brought an outpouring of tributes,” reported Reuters on the occasion of a memorial tribute held at its Baghdad bureau. “‘Namir was our favourite little brother with a big heart and a great talent who achieved great things in such a short time,’ said former Baghdad bureau chief Alastair Macdonald. Steve Crisp, Middle East Pictures Editor, added: ‘I can still see him walking out of the [Reuters] compound with his cameras slung over his shoulders laughing with Saeed on his way to his last assignment’.”
All well and good. Then this: “That was the morning of Thursday, 12th July 2007, in the fifth year of the U.S. and British led campaign to pacify Iraq and restore democracy after the overthrow and execution of the dictator Saddam Hussein.”
Oh really? That was the reason for the invasion? Not non-existent WMDs? Not phony links to Al-Qaeda? Not geo-political strategy? Not oil? But rather, peace and democracy?
It’s one thing for the Army to lie. It’s quite another for a major news organization to do so, and keep on doing so, five years along. The real way to honour Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh would have been, just once, to tell the truth about the war that killed them — the same truth they were in pursuit of when the US military opened fire.