No Comment — March 24, 2010, 9:41 am

The Trouble With Embeds

Embedded journalists operate under the terms imposed on them by their hosts, which may—for entirely understandable reasons, starting with operational security—restrict their ability to report on certain operations, weapons systems, and intelligence to which they may have unavoidable access. Frequently such journalists face restrictions about when they can file stories on operations that they observed up close. Critics also point to a sort of “bonding” that tends to occur in such circumstances. Embedded journalists rely on the unit that hosts them for their own safety, and they form natural bonds of camaraderie with the soldiers around them. They may be affected emotionally when some of those soldiers are harmed or killed. And they may tend to suppress information that reflects negatively on the soldiers with whom they are embedded. But Jerome Starkey, the Afghanistan correspondent for the Times of London, furnishes an unusual insight into the problems of being “an embed” in a piece he has posted at the Niemann Foundation’s Watchdog website:

“Tied up, gagged and killed” was how NATO described the “gruesome discovery” of three women’s bodies during a night raid in eastern Afghanistan in which several alleged militants were shot dead on Feb. 12. Hours later they revised the number of women “bound and gagged” to two and announced an enquiry. For more than a month they said nothing more on the matter. The implication was clear: The dead militants were probably also guilty of the cold-blooded slaughter of helpless women prisoners. NATO said their intelligence had “confirmed militant activity”. As if to reinforce the point, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, a Canadian, talked in that second press release of “criminals and terrorists who do not care about the life of civilians”. Only that’s not what happened, at all.

The militants weren’t militants, they were loyal government officials. The women, according to dozens of interviews with witnesses at the scene, were killed by the raiders. Two of them were pregnant, one was engaged to be married.The only way I found out NATO had lied — deliberately or otherwise — was because I went to the scene of the raid, in Paktia province, and spent three days interviewing the survivors. In Afghanistan that is quite unusual. NATO is rarely called to account. Their version of events, usually originating from the soldiers involved, is rarely seriously challenged. This particular raid, in the early hours of Feb 12, piqued my interest. I contacted some of the relatives by phone, established it was probably safe enough to visit, and I finally made it to the scene almost a month after unidentified gunmen stormed the remnants of an all-night family party. It’s not the first time I’ve found NATO lying, but this is perhaps the most harrowing instance, and every time I go through the same gamut of emotions. I am shocked and appalled that brave men in uniform misrepresent events. Then I feel naïve.

Starkey reported the events in a feature story for the Times on March 13. In the Watchdog post he details what happens when an embedded reporter reports facts that put his host in a bad light. The quick upshot is that the reporter’s applications for future embeds are declined. But NATO public affairs also fights back, he notes:

They have admitted that the dead women were not bound and gagged, but rather had been wrapped in ritual preparation for burial. But NATO still insits the women were killed before, not during, the firefight. They have also admitted the two dead men were not the intended target of the raid. But they have also tried hard to discredit me, personally, for bringing this to the world’s attention. In an unprecedented response to my original story about the Gardez night raid they named me individually, twice, in their denial of the cover up.

They claimed to have a recording of my conversation which contradicted my shorthand record. When I asked to hear it, they ignored me. When I pressed them, they said there had been a misunderstanding. When they said recording, they meant someone had taken notes. The tapes, they said, do not exist.

Military public affairs officers lying? It’s safe to say many public-affairs officers view aggressive advocacy as part of their mission, and that to that end they adopt a rather free attitude to the truth. But do they get away with it? Only when the media accepts their claims at face value and fails to do appropriate footwork to check them. Starkey seems to think that happens pretty frequently. I’m sure he’s right.

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