What the death of over 100 journalists between 2003 and 2010 reveals about western foreign policy.
In economics, the consequences of an action that are considered side-effects are called externalities. Externalities represent the price tag of the action, and whether or not these are intentional, entirely involuntary, or even unpredictable, often goes unanswered.
These questions arise when external pressure is formed by either the press or as a result of public demands, but without pressure, the accountability of the action is non-existant. In the case of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that the US has been waging for 8 and 10 years, respectively, the invading country must be held to account for the deaths of over 100 journalists. According to internal CIA documents, none were aiding or informing the enemy, whoever the ‘enemy’ has become (the term is generally reflexive) or ever convicted or formally accused of such crimes.
Their deaths imply profound disrespect by the US of the importance of a free media, which is essential to the modern democratic political process. How citizens respond to decision making in foreign affairs and elsewhere depends largely on media information. The incessant externalities of the US wars in the Middle East have left too many reporters dead for the US not to come under both a humanitarian and democratic critique for its actions.
In 2003, US tanks destroyed a “suspicious-looking” hotel that happened to house what Reuters Editor Geert Linnebank called “the main base for almost all foreign journalists in Baghdad.” As a result of the tanks spraying multiple floors of the hotel with bullets, Reuters’ Taras Protsyuk and Telecinco’s Jose Couso perished. A journalist for Al Jazeera, Tareq Ayyoub, whose offices in Kabul were destroyed by US bombers just two years earlier, was also killed by a US warplane while lounging on the roof of the Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau.
Al Jazeera correspondents have been tormented in ways far worse than instant death. Recently freed from the US prison in Guantanamo Bay is Sami al-Haj, who British doctors described late in his 6 year in captivity as in a state of “passive suicide” and “severe depression” while “deteriorating to the point of imminent death.” Shortly after his release, he told Time that ”Ninety percent of my interrogations were about Al Jazeera,” clearly suggesting that the US was concerned about his journalistic record with the organization.
A hideous display of US concern for journalists and innocent life went viral courtesy of WikiLeaks, who leaked a graphic video depicting the deaths of 12 innocent lives. Ten were Iraqis, but two were Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, both journalists for Reuters. The film was shot from the window of an Apache gunship, showing American troops carelessly spraying civilians with competitive zeal.
The most recent journalist to fall victim to US forces in Afghanistan was Ahmed Omed Khpulwak of the BBC, who was killed in late 2011 during a firefight between the Taliban and American troops. The official explanation for Khpulwak’s tragic end was because of “mistaken identity,” according to NATO. This was disputed by Khpulwak’s family, who asked “they thought he was a suicide bomber, but how? He spoke English and would have been showing his press card.”
According to most sources, the death toll for journalists working in Iraq during the US invasion (2003-2009) amounts to 139. Their stories may not all be told, but the act of their killings must come under public scrutiny and held to account. Accountability doen’t mean asking for justification, but rather requiring and demanding it for the sake of justice.
Is the death of 139 total journalists a side effect of war, perhaps? Is war a justification for this externality? It depends on who’s waging it, and who the victim is. The main perspective on the externalities of war often comprises a field of media apologists and intellectual jingoists. But the journalists on the ground see what the rest of us cannot, and are subject to witnessing the most vicious side of the human condition before their eyes. They have become the externalities of the wars on which they heroically reported.
The dangerous underside of the US wars in the Middle East is its documented war on journalists, and it reveals profound questions about western concern for democracy. It’s easy to imagine a totalitarian regime internally killing journalists for political purposes, but the US has achieved a more miserable record of stifling the providers of information internationally than any state-centric tyranny could ever attempt to match. The US has shown that its military reach remains unprecedentedly wide, its imperial strains in tact, and most importantly, that its national economic interest is positioned firmly at the forefront of its international mission.