The Collateral Damage of WikiLeaks’ Collateral Murder

Millions of people have viewed the now infamous classified video leaked earlier this week by whistleblower website WikiLeaks.org.  Collateral Murder shows an incident in Baghdad in 2007 in which two US Apache helicopters fired on a group of civilians, including two Reuters employees.  The video is highly disturbing and has sparked a valid debate about the Rules of Engagement. It also serves as a cautionary tale for any journalist operating in a hostile environment.  These are important topics that deserve serious discussion. Still, I fear that the way in which they were raised has handed jihadists a major propaganda victory.

While I admire WikiLeaks’ mission to expose government and corporate misconduct, I think it was totally irresponsible for the organization to release Collateral Murder on the internet where anyone can exploit it.    You can bet that fair-minded truth seekers aren’t the only ones pressing play.  Jihadists the world over are probably thinking of ways to harness the video as a recruiting tool – if they haven’t already.   I sincerely doubt WikiLeaks had any intention of bolstering jihadism.  But when material of this nature is released indiscriminately, collateral damage will result.

One group of people I would like to see benefit from watching Collateral Murder is journalists who cover conflicts.  There is a lot to be learned from this tragedy.  WikiLeaks provided graphic inserts to highlight the two Reuters employees killed in the incident.  Some journalists may be tempted to conclude that even without the graphics, the Reuters men were obviously media. That would be a grave mistake.  I’ve watched this video a dozen times and I can easily see how the Apache crews mistook photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver Saeed Chmagh for combatants.  First, you have to consider the context in which the Apaches were operating that morning.  There was a full scale US military operation going on in the area.  Any journalist operating there unilaterally was in danger.  The fact that the Reuters men were in the company of at least two armed men wearing civilian clothing seriously increased their chances of being mistaken for combatants.  Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh were also carrying cameras which when viewed from a distance can look like weapons.  At one point in the video, Noor-Eldeen is in the crosshairs of the Apache as he pokes his long lens around a corner of a building.  One of the Apache crew members declares ‘he’s got an RPG’.  I’ve viewed this segment many, many times and from that angle the lens absolutely resembles an RPG launcher.

There is no denying that what happened to the Reuter’s men was disgraceful and the US military should do everything in its power to make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated.  But in my view, Reuters and other major media organizations should also be doing some soul searching.  By 2007, every major media outlet with operations in Iraq understood the pitfalls of operating unilaterally.  Had Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh  received a full course of hostile environment training before they were sent on assignment in what was at the time the most dangerous city in the world?

No journalist should attempt to cover a conflict – even locals working in their own backyards—without first receiving hostile environment training and a full scenario briefing from their bureau covering all the potential ‘what ifs’.  The onus is on managers to make sure the people they send into warzones have the right skills, equipment and resources to minimize risks.   The terrible events captured in the WikiLeaks video may not change the way the military operates but the media can certainly learn from it.

2 thoughts on “The Collateral Damage of WikiLeaks’ Collateral Murder

  1. Bob – I entirely take your point, but I think there’s an immensely complicated philosophical point about war reporting and the way its changed in the 21st Century. Back when I was in Kosovo, journalists would literally wear vests saying PRESS and could almost move around the place unmolested – that’s not to say movement was free, but the media were not targets. Obviously that’s all changed and there is a resulting problem. Western journalists – especially in Iraq in 2007 – are considered legitimate kills. So how do we report wars? If the Reuters crew had been so clearly marked that the Apache would have realised they were hacks, it’s got to be evens that they’d be picked off by an insurgent. So do we step back – say this just cannot be reported? I’d argue that would be immensely damaging to the information a democracy needs. And I know you feel the same. So what do we do? Given your experience, I’d be very interested in your thoughts.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    Good comment, it’s incredibly difficult now to operate unilaterally in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I firmly believe that there are some scenarios today where only embedding with the military will get you the story with a degree of safety, however as we know even then a journalist becomes a target of the other side. The scenario that we are covering with the Reuters staffers is one such occasion. Walking down the road in broad daylight alongside at least two men with weapons inside a large US military operation is not acceptable in my view. At least one International journalist was already embedded with the US forces on the ground.

    I feel that in a hostile theatre where it’s increasingly difficult to news gather unilaterally, the onus has to be on bureau and HQ managers to take a more active roll in the decision making process for journalists operating on the ground. When journalists are killed, wounded or kidnapped, management should be held accountable.

    Bob Shepherd.

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