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Toasting the AP’s Terror Photographer By: David Paulin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 12, 2008


It was during Iraq's most savage violence that a former shopkeeper named Bilal Hussein proved an invaluable asset to the Associated Press as one of its hastily trained photographers. His chummy ties to terrorists --“insurgents” as the AP's stories called them – enabled him to produce remarkable close-up photos of them and their grisly handiwork. In 2005, one of Hussein's photos of the Battle of Fallujah helped the AP snag a Pulitzer Prize for a package of Iraq photos in breaking-news photography. Like other Iraqi AP photographers, Hussein had the uncanny ability to show up just as an attack occurred.

As Iraq was gripped by unspeakable atrocities and violence that many likened to a civil war, U.S. military authorities detained Hussein, citing what they described as his troubling links to terrorists and terror-related activities. They called him a “terrorist media operative,” much to the outrage of AP executives and lawyers. What ever became of Hussein?

After two years in prison, he escaped the possibility of a criminal trial when he was freed under a general amnesty that took effect seven months ago. He did not, however, return in disgrace to his old life as a shopkeeper in Fallujah, selling phone cards and computers. Instead, Hussein returned to the AP in good standing, and last week he was honored by an audience of media elites and celebrities at Manhattan's posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Hussein spoke to the captivated audience on a subject dear to his heart – journalism ethics. A few years ago, conservative bloggers reviled the controversial AP photographer as the epitome of media bias in Iraq. But last Tuesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog, honored Hussein with one of its prestigious International Press Freedom Awards. Five others from troubled countries also were honored, but none of their awards had the political overtones implicit in Hussein's press freedom award.

To some, Hussein's photos raised troubling questions about the AP's hiring practices and objectivity. But anti-war liberals and media elites saw things differently. To them, Hussein was a dedicated photojournalist doing his job – getting all sides of a story – only to be unjustly imprisoned without formal charges. One AP lawyer, apparently unaware Iraq was not a peaceful democracy but at war, even complained that Hussein was being denied “due process.”

It was a common complaint among liberals: Hussein had been denied “due process.” But at Tuesday's ceremony, supporters of the AP photographer had the chance to rebuke his conservative critics in high style. On hand for the ceremony and dinner benefit that raised $1.25 million were 800 guests. Among them were media superstars such as NBC's Andrea Mitchell and Watergate reporter and author Carl Bernstein.

Board members of the Committee to Protect Journalists attending the event included some well-known figures, too. Hosting the dinner was Gwen Ifill of PBS's "Washington Week.” Last October, she faced considerable controversy about moderating the vice presidential debate. She denied having a conflict of interest or even appearance of one, despite having written a pro-Obama book scheduled for publication on inauguration day.

Another board member at the event was CNN's left-leaning Christina Amanpour, the cable network's star international reporter. The committee's chairman at the event was Paul Steiger, the retired managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. He claims that “dozens of journalists” from Iraq and Afghanistan are being held in Guantanamo. The dinner's chairman was Harvard-educated Jeff Zucker , former president of The Harvard Crimson. He's the CEO and president of NBC Universal.

During his heyday in Iraq, Hussein, who's in his mid-30s, hobnobbed easily with pro-Saddam loyalists and al-Qaida terrorists. They carried out unspeakable atrocities and killed untold numbers of pro-Western Iraqis and soldiers in the U.S.-led multinational force. But at the award ceremony, Hussein was a model of respectability. Speaking on a video screen from the Middle East, he was the star of the evening, captivating his audience and grabbing the most attention in subsequent news stories. In its own news account of the event, the Committee to Protect Journalists ran a headline that declared: “Spotlighting Imprisonments, CPJ Honors Six Press Leaders,”

Hussein, touching on the subject of journalism ethics, no doubt echoed what his AP mentors taught him when speaking publicly for the first time. In a prepared video clip, he remarked: “A journalist does not take sides. That is why he is the enemy of all.” Two years ago, that's pretty much what AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll said when defending Hussein's ability to move easily among Iraq's terrorist insurgency." Journalists have always had relationships with people that others might find unsavory, she said. “We're not in this to choose sides, we're to report what's going on from all sides."

What a relief that news executives like Carroll weren't around in 1940s, directing coverage of America's war with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. American newspaper readers might have had a hard time time telling the good guys from the bad guys, as reporters endeavored to get all sides of the story -- producing utterly impartial and non-judgmental accounts of the fighting and existential issues underpinning the war.

Today, morally neutral journalism is what's too often found at the AP and other media outlets. It's what might be called post-modern journalism: All sides in a conflict are morally equal. The trend has perhaps been an inevitable consequence of American news outlets going global -- trying to reach an international audience as opposed to a purely American one.

Speaking via a satellite link, Hussein pledged to “forge ahead” with his work, saying: “I will not hesitate to put out the truth.” And just what is the truth in Iraq? Hussein didn't say. But other award winners didn't hesitate to speak bluntly about what was happening in their countries. And unlike Hussein, they didn't hesitate to take sides. They condemned in unambiguous terms the sides they believed, with all their hearts, to be despotic, cruel, and murderous.

Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan editor, said one side in his country embraced “freedom and liberty” while the other fought such things with “arrest, imprisonment, even death.” "No one should think we underestimate the resolve or capacity of the government to harm us,” he remarked.

Afghan journalist Farida Nekzad, a leading female journalist in her war-torn country, resolutely condemned the things tearing apart her country -- war lords, the Taliban, political parties, and clerics, among others. She made no effort to put forth their point of view, explaining it with the impartiality one would expect of a reporter in America covering a debate over a public works project at a city council meeting.

Cuban journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez was the one award recipient who offered no comments. Five years ago, the 65-year-old Gutiérrez was among 28 independent journalists whom Fidel Castro's government imprisoned for their allegedly seditious writing. He's serving a 20-year sentence, and Raul Castro's supposedly reform-minded government has given no indication it will be commuted.

Hussein, during his live comments, also noted that Iraq was one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists. He was certainly right about that. More than 180 Iraqi journalists and media workers have died during the war – many targeted for asking too many questions or simply because they worked for Western news organizations. Obviously, none worked in the risk-free environment that Hussein did.

Two well-respected Iraqis employed by the New York Times were among those killed, even though they apparently were cautious about their comings and goings outside Iraq's "Green Zone" -- the secure area where Western journalists have tended to stay put. To report what was happening, Western journalists had their Iraqi employees do much of the gum-shoes reporting and photography in the "Red Zone." It was the most dangerous area to be as Iraq's security deteriorated, months after Iraqis cheered U.S. soldiers as their tanks rolled into Baghdad.

One American journalist, to be sure, spent considerable time in the Red Zone. He was a freelancer named Steven Vincent, an art critic-turned war reporter. Vincent's journalism was the antithesis of the sort of reporting advocated by Hussein and his employer, not to mention the media elites at the Waldorf-Astoria.

While Hussein provided objectivity, Vincent provided moral clarity. It ran through his magazine articles, blog, and book: “In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq.”

Four years ago, Vincent elaborated on his journalistic philosophy during a lengthy Q&A interview with FrontPage Magazine. Stressing that the proper use of words was just as important as military force in winning the war in Iraq, he decried the mainstream media's “Orwellian distortions of our language.”

He explained:

Words matter. Words convey moral clarity. Without moral clarity, we will not succeed in Iraq. That is why the terms the press uses to cover this conflict are so vital. For example, take the word “guerillas.” As you noted, mainstream media sources like the New York Times often use the terms “insurgents” or “guerillas” to describe the Sunni Triangle gunmen, as if these murderous thugs represented a traditional national liberation movement. But when the Times reports on similar groups of masked reactionary killers operating in Latin American countries, they utilize the phrase “paramilitary death squads.” Same murderers, different designations. Yet of the two, “insurgents” — and especially “guerillas” — has a claim on our sympathies that “paramilitaries” lacks. This is not semantics: imagine if the media routinely called the Sunni Triangle gunmen “right wing paramilitary death squads.” Not only would the description be more accurate, but it would offer the American public a clear idea of the enemy in Iraq. And that, in turn, would bolster public attitudes toward the war.

Vincent and his Iraqi translator, Nour al-Khal, were kidnapped off a Basra street on August 2, 2005. They were bound and gagged, and Vincent was beaten. Hours later, their captors shot them in the backs after telling them to run. Vincent, 49, died instantly. Nour recovered from her wounds.

In July, 2007, Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, brought Nour to New York City to live with her. She was following through on a pledge her husband had made to the aspiring poet; to get her out of Iraq as its security situation deteriorated. Vincent had worried that Nour's association with him had put her in physical danger.

In his book, Vincent wrote that Nour believed in America's promise of democracy in Iraq. There are many Iraqi journalists and media workers like her. It's a shame the Committee to Protect Journalists couldn't have honored one of them with a press freedom award.

David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based free-lance journalist, is a former Caracas-based foreign correspondent.


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