Robert Fisk – the Independent April 28, 2007
When did the sands run out for us journalists? When did the moment of immunity pass away? When we took to wearing flak jackets or donned military costumes in the 1990 Gulf War? In Bosnia? In the cancerous, repetitive use of "terrorism, terrorism, terrorism" in our news reports? In Iraq, as we stood in our gated hotels, behind our watchtowers and bodyguards? When we grew used to what Martin Bell calls the "two palm trees", the Monty Python-like shrubbery that stands as a back-lot to almost every BBC report from the roof of its Baghdad office?
How come Alan Johnston can be held for more than six weeks - a first-class reporter, an innocent, honest, decent journalist - with so little result from the demonstrations by journalists demanding his freedom?
For me, it began in September 1983 - 6September, to be precise - when Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut and I were in the smashed town of Bhamdoun in the central Lebanese mountains. US ships were bombarding Druze and Palestinian militiamen as the Americans - yes, here we go again - were supporting the "democratically elected" Lebanese government of Amin Gemayel.
Terry and I had clambered over uprooted trees, across streets carpeted with spent ammunition, when a Palestinian gunman approached us.
He was unkempt, unshaved. He smelled bad. "From where you come?" he asked. "Press," we chorused. "Why are you here?" Terry produced his Lebanese press card. So did I. "America". "America kills Palestinians." I still remember the look on Terry's face. "Journalists," we chanted again. "Sahafa". Reporters.
There were more armed men now, one of them, dressed in black, looking at Terry. "America kills Muslims. Why you want to kill Muslims? Are you a spy?" I had never been treated like this before. Something had gone wrong. For decades, we had travelled around the Middle East with our little press cards, shouting sahafa at every checkpoint and been waved through, grudgingly, perhaps, but always on the basis that we had a job to do, that we didn't work for governments, that we were fair, outside the fight, immune.
That vital connection had now dried up. We were no longer journalists. We were foreigners, ajnabi in Arabic. Eventually we were saved by a young man, a Palestinian, who said that we were journalists doing our dangerous job, that we should be protected. The other gunmen were unmoved and they stared at us distrustfully as we walked away.
Within six weeks, suicide bombers had killed 241 US servicemen in the marine barracks in Beirut and in less than 18 months Terry himself would be kidnapped and held - and remember this as we patiently enter the seventh week of Alan Johnston's kidnapping - for almost seven years.
It is easy to blame ourselves. Our cosy relations with foreign embassies led the enemies of our countries to think we were secret agents. Our donning military costume in 1991 was an act of folly. The infamous "pools" - now replaced by the equally infamous "inbeds" (how did we ever come to accept such outrageous words?) - can have done us no good. But we reporters are clearly now in the firing line.
While I loathe the way in which the TV lads and lasses dress up in spacesuit flak jackets to go on air - have you ever noticed how their acolytes stop anyone without an armoured suit walking past the camera on such occasions, in case the viewer asks why the reporter is dressed in so strange a way? - I have to admit that we are now targets.
We were targets - deliberately so - in Sarajevo. The US military has shot us down. The shameful American response to the death of British reporters outside Basra in 2003 shows how promiscuously "our" side now treats our lives. When a Reuters cameraman was killed by American troops at Abu Ghraib, the soldiers involved simply lied about it. The cameraman was a Palestinian.
Yet our job is now ever more cabin'd, cribbed, confined. And "our" side likes it that way. Neither the Americans nor the British want us scurrying around unsupervised in Iraq, nosing out the lies of our governments, uncovering the dirty deeds of the US air force in Iraq or, for that matter, in Afghanistan.
And so it has come to pass. We cannot move in most of Iraq for fear of being butchered by our countries' enemies. We cannot move in southern Afghanistan. Italian journalists might be ransomed by their governments. Afghan journalists - I am thinking of the reporter/translator of the Italian who was kidnapped - simply have their heads chopped off. Never has reporting been so circumscribed by these terrors. Never have we been so poorly informed.
Now I suppose it could be said that the Second World War wasn't much different. We wore army costumes then. Richard Dimbleby joined the RAF fire storm raid on Hamburg. ("All I can see in front of me is a great white basin of light.") Nazi Germany's reporters went to war with the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. We didn't spend our time moaning about objectivity. When an AP correspondent was dropped with American troops behind enemy lines, the Germans executed him along with their other prisoners. Why should we expect different today?
Well, one reason is because this is not the Second World War. Nor is it - Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, please note - World War Three. We are illegally fighting wars across the Middle East, supporting occupation and - by our frivolous support for the most objectionable governments - killing tens of thousands of innocents.
As journalists we can oppose this. We can raise our voices against these great injustices. But only if we are free. Yes, of course, I add my voice to those demanding the release of Alan Johnston. His imprisonment is a disaster for the Palestinians and for all the Arabs of the Middle East. And as long as he is held, how can we cover the atrocities of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Gaza?
Last updated 01/05/2007