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Reuters Still Seeking Answers on Alleged Abuse of 3 Staffers
Editor and Publisher/Reuters
By Allan Wolper
Published: December 05, 2004 5:00 PM ET

NEW YORK  Andrew Marshall, Reuters' chief correspondent in Iraq, is seeking justice for three of his Iraqi news staffers and an NBC cameraman who claim they were severely abused earlier this year at a United States Army base outside of Fallujah.

Marshall, a soft-spoken, short-haired, mirror image of a military officer, lobbies the American media to cover the case (it was first probed by E&P Online in May) while pressuring the Pentagon to reopen its investigation of the incident that was eerily similar in some regards to the military treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

The Reuters staffers and an

NBC newsman who was with them were arrested last Jan. 2 by soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division as they were filming the aftermath of the downing of an American helicopter. The Iraqi staffers say they were handcuffed as one in a press jacket shouted, "Reuters, Reuters, journalist, journalist," in English and were then carted off to the Forward Operating Base Volturno Army camp in a Humvee. (Two of them had active press credentials and a third, whose card had expired, had one waiting for him when he returned to Baghdad.)

The men claim that at Volturno, they were subjected to three days of mental and physical abuse. This included beatings, sexual humiliation, and sleep deprivation.

"We all felt we were going to die," Salem Ureibi, a longtime cameraman for Reuters, told Marshall and Khaled al-Ramahi, the news agency's Baghdad office manager. "They treated us like criminals. They did not let us sleep. During [the first] night, two hooded people and a translator took me for questioning."

Later, he continued, "I cried. I never cried before. Even when my father died, when Saddam killed my brother, I never cried. In this situation, with the Americans, I cried."

Marshall, after learning that the men had been arrested, sent an e-mail to the Army stating that three of them were Reuters staffers and asked when they might be released. They were set free 60 hours later.

The transcript of Ureib's testimony, that of Ahmad Hussein (another Reuters cameraman), and Satar Jabar (a driver for Reuters) — supported by statements from NBC television cameraman Ali Muhammed Hussein Ali al-Badrini — has not moved the Pentagon, which found no fault with their treatment in January, frustrating Marshall. Reuters has been asking since Feb. 3 for the probe to be reopened.

"If an organization with the resources and influence of Reuters finds it hard to get results, one can only assume that the ordinary Iraqis who have been abused will face an impossible task to get their complaints taken seriously," Marshall said in New York in October. He added that the American media ought to devote more coverage to the suffering of Iraqi journalists, noting that they are the ones carrying the true burden of the U.S. media's war coverage.

Climbing a stonewall

Marshall thought he might achieve a breakthrough with the Pentagon after The New York Times on Oct. 14 published an article on the Iraqis' detainment that quoted the Defense Department saying its civilian lawyers "were reviewing the case" to determine if it warranted a follow-up investigation.

Hoping for the best, he rushed to Washington and met with Bryan Whitman, a spokesperson for the Defense Department who had once called the Reuters allegations appalling. But now, in November, back in Baghdad, Marshall is disillusioned, if not deflated.

"My talk really didn't achieve any progress," he said afterward. "I just wanted them to know I wasn't giving up. Our senior management have put their reputations on the line to back up our Iraqi journalists."

Capt. David Romley, an aide to Whitman, confirmed the meeting took place but said that his boss was bogged down in handling press briefings on the current situation in Fallujah and would try to get back to me. He never did.

Marshall should not have been surprised. He had been warned in August by U.S. Rear Admiral Gregory J. Slavonic at a meeting in Baghdad not to expect too much from a Defense Department review.

"He told me that a new investigation might be very difficult because so much time had passed since the incident and because it might be hard tracking down the soldiers involved," Marshall said in an e-mail to E&P. "He said that this might mean an investigation could drag on for months or even over a year. I told him I had no problem with that, as long as the investigation was thorough and impartial."

Slavonic might be right, but the transcript describing Ureibi's ordeal provided some slight clues to the identity of the interrogators. Ureibi complained about a "black" soldier who threatened to "put a pen up his nose" and a white officer, identified only as "Jerry," who was kind to him.

No questions asked

Reuters officials have decried the manner in which the Army dismissed their complaints. In January, the Army claimed the Iraqis were picked up because of reports that "enemy personnel" were posing as journalists, and then declared the case closed without interviewing the alleged victims.

Marshall wrote in a report (obtained by E&P) at that time, "It should be noted that the bulk of their mistreatment — including their humiliating interrogations and the mental and physical torment of the first night which all agreed was the worst part of their ordeal — occurred several hours after I had informed the 82nd Airborne Division that they were Reuters staff."

He tried to persuade American journalists to join his crusade, sending e-mails to Baghdad-based journalists, gently prodding reporters whenever possible, and giving brief statements on the case. But it never did much good.

"I was at a news conference after our [Iraqi news staffers] were released, and I was hoping that someone would ask about them," Marshall recalled. "But no one did. So I had to. It was distressing. If the journalists had been American, I think it would have been different."

After Abu Ghraib exploded onto the American front pages last April, the Iraqi journalists, seeing the abuses there as similar to what they had gone through, gave Marshall permission to go public with their private testimony. A story Marshall wrote for Reuters on May 18, based on the testimony of the Iraqis and followed by release of extensive supporting materials to E&P (quoted at length at E&P Online), did not attract American attention.

Marshall's account was published in much briefer form in the New York Times and The Washington Post as well as many other papers, but no one devoted their own resources to exploring the incident further.

"I knew that the story needed a lot of work," he said. "I knew that it needed reporters in the states to work on it because of the Defense-Department angle. We knew we needed an independent investigation by another media outlet."

In September, disgusted by the lack of interest by the American press corps, Marshall sought out New York Times foreign correspondent John Burns — a friend and fellow Brit — to investigate the story. "I knew we needed a big player in the American media," Marshall said. "It was going to have to be either the Times or the Washington Post.

"I knew John, so I went to see John and he assigned two of his reporters, Norimitsu Onishi and later, Eric Schmitt, to the story," he recalls. "If John had turned me down, I would have called Seymour Hersh."

But even though Marshall was grateful to the Times for its story, he was disappointed it took so long to get an American news organization to use its own reporters to investigate what had happened. "U.S. media attention is crucial if we are going to force the Pentagon to ensure that justice is done," he said.

According to Paul Holmes, Reuters' political and general news editor, no one in the press outside of CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr did anything with the story until Burns assigned his two reporters to it. Marshall said, "I have long been baffled about why the U.S. media showed so little interest in the case ... until [the Times story], no major media organization had shown much interest in it, despite the fact that Reuters was regularly putting out stories and statements."

Iraqi stringers carry the ball

The Iraqi staffers are no longer shy about speaking out, but they won't allow E&P to publish pictures of them because they fear that some soldiers — especially in the 82nd Airborne — might then be motivated to hunt them down.

Their concern is twofold: A defense attorney for one of the soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib case wants them as witnesses as proof that the military misbehavior was the result of White House policy and not the work of individual soldiers.

Marshall said he provided the attorney with information, adding, "There has been no formal move to subpoena anybody so far, but Reuters would cooperate with any reasonable request."

Reuters received another blow in early November when the U.S military announced that a Marine sniper had killed an individual who was carrying a video camera during heavy fighting between Americans and insurgents in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. The victim turned out to be Dhia Najim, a Reuters cameraman.

The news agency again expressed its outrage. "We reject the clear implication in the Marines statement that Dhia was part of an insurgent group," said Reuters Global Managing Editor David Schlesinger. "This claim was not supported by available evidence. I strongly urge the U.S. military to conduct a proper investigation into this tragic event."

This becomes all the more just, with American reporters increasingly hunkered down in Baghdad while native Iraqis venture into danger. "We all need them, so we ought to take care of them," said Marshall, who noted that Reuters regularly gives credit to its Iraqi stringers and staff people. The military has also denied any wrongdoing in the killing of two journalists, including another Reuters cameraman, in Baghdad in April 2003.

"Previously journalists were seen as non-combatants," Marshall said. "Now journalists are targets and always under suspicion. In Iraq, especially, the people are not used to being covered by mass media. They are used to being tightly controlled by Saddam. But those days are over. Journalists will never be safe again in most of the world."
Allan Wolper (letters@editorandpublisher.com)