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Baghdad Press Club: Military Probe Widens
By Rick Jervis and Zaid Sabah, USA TODAY
December 9, 2005

BAGHDAD — A U.S. investigation into allegations that the American military is buying positive coverage in the Iraqi media has expanded to examine a press club founded and financed by the U.S. Army.

The Baghdad Press Club was created last year by the U.S. military as a way to promote progress amid the violence and chaos of Iraq, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman.

The Army acknowledges funding the club and offering "reporter compensation," but insists officers did not demand favorable coverage. "Members are not required nor asked to write favorably," said Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone. "They are simply invited to report on events." He said the military exercised no editorial control over the coverage.

The U.S. military investigation, headed by Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, will look into whether there were efforts to place U.S.-produced stories into the local press without identifying the United States as the source. Paying reporters directly to write positive stories might also violate ethical guidelines.

The administration has expressed concerns about the allegations. Even if reporting is true, "it's got to be done in a way that reinforces a free media, not undermines it," national security adviser Stephen Hadley has said.

Ahmad al-Hamdani, a reporter at Alhurra, an American-funded television station, said press club members were invited to cover U.S.-led reconstruction efforts, such as restored sewage plants and newly-opened schools. The syndicate of 25 to 30 freelance reporters and staff employees for television stations and newspapers were paid about $25 for each story and $45 if the piece ran with photos, al-Hamdani said. Television reporters were paid $50 for pieces, he said. He said he did not participate.

Whetstone would not say how much the U.S. military paid the club, but said the budget included "basic journalism equipment, interpreters, assistant director, office employee, board members and reporter compensation."

It's not uncommon for Iraqi journalists to accept gifts or cash in exchange for favorable stories, said Emad al-Sharr, a reporter for Radio Dijla in Iraq. Cash or gifts such as watches and pens are often handed out following press conferences or on trips with Iraqi officials, he said. "The problem is you have poor journalists who will accept anything: $100, $50, $20 to publish articles under their names," al-Hamdani said. "They don't think it's wrong." Most monthly salaries in Iraq are under $300.

The investigation was launched after allegations surfaced that the U.S. military was paying to place stories and disguise the source. It centered on the Pentagon's contract with the Lincoln Group, a contractor hired to promote positive news about U.S. efforts in Iraq. The role of the Baghdad Press Club was first written about by Knight Ridder news service.

Laurie Adler, a spokeswoman for the Lincoln Group, said the firm "was not involved with the Baghdad Press Club."

Contributing: Mark Memmott in McLean, Va.