Right to report

Of course the soldiers are jumpy. Of course they sometimes open fire unnecessarily. And people certainly ought to ask what went wrong when the innocent get killed...
My head is spinning. Someone wrote me an e-mail the other day asking if I'd rather be stripped and humiliated a la Abu Ghraib or stay fully clothed and have my thumbs cut off a la Saddam Hussein.

To which my reply is, of course, neither, thank you.

I hope the question was rhetorical. It was in the context of a furious response to my recent column about journalists being killed by soldiers. I think the point was that by focusing on the abuse by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, as many Iraqis do and the media is accused of doing to excess, the soldiers are being compared to the man they deposed. I don't really think that's the point. I think the point is that most Iraqis believed they could count on America not to abuse detainees and they have been disappointed, and that is a news story. The US military, and the Bush Administration, apparently agree, since they have put a number of soldiers on trial for their bad behaviour.

It is interesting to note while we are on this subject that one third of Americans believe that it is never justified to torture terrorist suspects to get important information. Fifteen per cent think it is often justified and 28 per cent think it is rarely justified, according to a poll in August by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, I know how they feel, remembering the all-consuming fear I experienced after the September 11 attacks. I imagine I would beat the hell out of someone if I knew for a fact that they had information about an imminent attack that was going to kill people I loved. The trials do not suggest that's what happened here, however. They suggest that a number of people thought they were above the law and acted accordingly.

The reader appears to belong in the 15 per cent category, as he or she suggested that the photographs of the Iraqis being trussed up, forced naked into pyramids with other men while a female soldier brandished a whip nearby or otherwise abused Iraqis at Abu Ghraib looked like an advertisement for Dominatrixes R Us. "Did you ever stop and think that there are thousands of British men who pay good money to have the same (and worse) done to them?"

I suspect that being thrown in jail, stripped and forced to simulate sex acts - or even beaten - against one's will would be a bit much even for the most ardent masochist.

(If said reader would be happier reading an account of the elections, we have covered that story, and my colleague Gerard Baker wrote an excellent column on the subject.)

I couldn't help but notice the parallel when American soldiers fired on an Italian journalist and her liberators the other day. Of course the soldiers are jumpy. Of course they regard every approaching car as a potential killer. Of course they sometimes open fire unnecessarily. And people certainly ought to ask what went wrong when the innocent get killed.

One correspondent suggested that journalists were endangering soldiers with their reporting and slowing the path to freedom in Iraq. I guess it comes down to whether you believe the media has a right to report on events in Iraq at all.

Another, from Illinois, pointed out that I had failed to mention that Eason Jordan had courted controversy in the past by admitting that CNN had not reported the full atrocities of Saddam Hussein in an attempt to protect its employees in Baghdad. This was rather beside the point of my column, but I guess I could have gone down that road. However, if I had, I would have been wrong not to mention that when Western media flee or are ordered out of a dictatorship, it can lead to terrible consequences for the poor sods they leave behind. Not that that justifies failing to report atrocities. But worth mentioning.

For the record, I have immense respect for the Iraqis who went out and voted in droves. But I would defend their right not to be shot at by jumpy soldiers as they go about their business, just as I defend the right of journalists to ask questions about how the rules of engagement affect them in a war zone.

That would seem to be in keeping with the US goal of building a democracy where the rule of law - and, perhaps, even a free media - is paramount. Wouldn't it?

By Elaine Monaghan, Times Online special correspondent

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