Shocking video footage of U.S. helicopter gunships killing a dozen people, including two Reuters staff, in Iraq in 2007 has caused global outrage. So has the Pentagon’s shameless response: a tepid expression of regret, followed by a war-is-hell shrug.
But outrage was conspicuously lacking from a statement issued by Reuters chief David Schlesinger. I asked a Reuters journalist who has extensive experience of working in Iraq and other war zones, and who has direct knowledge of the case, why the company appeared to be giving the Pentagon such an easy ride.
Saeed and Namir were scythed down by U.S. helicopters while reporting a story about weightlifters. Saeed survived the first hail of bullets, although one of his legs was almost sheared off at the calf. The video shows him crawling away, trying to stand. Then the pilots finish him off, opening fire again not just on an injured, unarmed man, but on the people (including children) who arrive in a minivan to help him.
Meanwhile, the pilots keep up a chilling commentary. Light ‘em all up. Come on, fire. Good shootin’. Look at those dead bastards.
Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith of Reprieve is among those who think a war crime has been committed. “I don’t think there’s any question that this is a violation of the Geneva Conventions,” he said in a Reuters news story that Schlesinger decided not to publish.
What did Schlesinger think? That the murder of Namir and Saeed was “tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones.” His statement went on: “The video released today via WikiLeaks is graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result.”
An email sent by Schlesinger to all editorial staff two days ago was equally feeble. “I believe that we as an organisation and I as an individual must fight for journalists’ safety,” he wrote. “In this particular case, Tom Glocer [CEO of Thomson Reuters] and I want to meet with the Pentagon to press the need to learn lessons from this tragedy.” Schlesinger concludes: “What matters in the end is not how we as colleagues and friends feel; what matters is the wider public debate that our stories and this video provoke.”
Really? This is how the Reuters journalist I contacted feels: furious. “Schlesinger is basically saying that we are going to do fuck all about it,” says the journalist, who requested anonymity. “Meeting Pentagon officials is a total waste of time unless you go in with some leverage. If Reuters is not even making critical public comments about how the U.S. military behaved, and taking a lead in channelling worldwide anger about the video into efforts for concrete change, then why would the Pentagon take us seriously? They can already see from Schlesinger’s toothless quotes that they have nothing to fear from us.”
So when exactly did Reuters management become so toothless? Could it have anything to do with Thomson’s takeover two years ago?
Headquartered in New York, and with the Americas providing 59 percent of its $12.9 billion in revenues in 2009, Thomson Reuters earns most of its money from non-news businesses which include sales and trading, legal services, healthcare and science. “Those of us in the media know the importance of standing up to any government if necessary,” says the journalist. “Thomson is not really a media company and they don’t understand why this needs to be done.”
Perhaps Thomson Reuters is also aware that challenging the military of a patriotic country during wartime is very bad for business. “I assume management has basically told Schlesinger not to rock the boat, and he is following their wishes.”
Previous Reuters disputes with the Pentagon have gone nowhere. Besides Namir and Saeed, four other Reuters staff have been killed by the U.S. military in Iraq. Three Iraqi staff were picked up the 82nd Airborne Division near Falluja in January 2004, then tortured and sexually abused for three days. But even after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, says the journalist, the military claimed the Reuters staff had fabricated their stories.
This time, however, there is video evidence.
“Even if we just get the military to state that firing on unarmed people trying to evacuate a grievously wounded man will no longer be considered acceptable under their rules of engagement, that would be a great achievement,” the journalist says. At least one person in the U.S. military probably thinks the same: whoever leaked the video to WikiLeaks. “It’s kind of astonishing that somebody thought this video troubling enough to risk their military career by leaking it, while the public reaction of Reuters is not even to express any outrage.”