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International Media Coverage of the War in Iraq

The Press Goes to War

Essays by World Press Review correspondents in Norway, Serbia and Montenegro, New Zealand, Scotland, Singapore, and Lithuania, March 1, 2003

A photojournalist gets a shot as a bus full of international journalists leaves Kuwait City en route to Iraq on March 11, 2003. (Photo: AFP)
Norway: Straight Reporting

In the build-up to a war in Iraq, the Norwegian Ministry of Defense arranged a course on how journalists can protect themselves from atomic, biological, and chemical weapons when covering a conflict. Several newspapers planning to send journalists close to Iraq had previously contacted the Ministry of Defense, and sent their correspondents to the open-air course at a military base near Oslo.

As part of the course, journalists donned gas masks and protective clothing, and received instruction in first-aid. They were also given the opportunity to purchase protective gear and Atropine, a drug that combats nerve gas. Aftenposten, a leading Oslo daily, said that it would supply its journalists with protective gear since missiles could send chemical and biological weapons well beyond the front lines. “If we are in Kuwait covering the war, an attack could affect us. Then we need protective gear,” said the head of the paper’s foreign desk.

But Scandinavia's best-known war correspondent has already left Iraq after reporting from there for six weeks. Norwegian Åsne Seierstad, whose articles are syndicated from Aftenposten to Sweden's Dagens Nyheter, Denmark's Politiken and a Finnish, German, and Dutch paper, had to pay US$7000 to the Iraqi Ministry of Information because her visa had expired. Other costs she incurred included US$225 daily for a guide, interpreter, and transport. “The total bill for six weeks was US$9200. We'll see if I return,” she was quoted as saying in an article by Harald Berg Sævereid in Verdens Gang (March 5).

Meanwhile Anne Thurmann-Nielsen, a former U.S. correspondent for Norway's Dagbladet, asks in the latest issue of the Norwegian Journalist Union’s monthly publication Journalisten: “How many [celebrities like Dan Rather] will be flown near to the war zone and stand there in suits before they head home to be interviewed by other celebrity journalists?” She calls for straight reporting, which is “more important than ever.”

—Ross Brown, WPR correspondent, Oslo, Norway

 

Serbia and Montenegro: War-Shy

Having covered a series of wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1990s during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, their former country, experienced Serbian war reporters are likely to shy away from another war zone. Slobodan Milosevic's rule impoverished the country, including its news organizations. As a result, few can afford to send reporters to cover what is undoubtedly the biggest news story of the year first-hand. Instead, the press in Serbia and Montenegro will cover the war in Iraq mainly by publishing wire reports from U.S. news agencies, though some papers may also ask Serb journalists working in the foreign media to file reports from Iraq.

But unlike their colleagues from Western countries, journalists of Serbian origin have the advantage that they do not need a visa for Iraq, thanks to decades of close ties between Belgrade and Baghdad that began during Marshall Josip Broz Tito's regime and continued during Milosevic's. Consequently, many Serb journalists who joined foreign media outlets during the wars in the Balkans, or who made their name as freelancers, are being sent to Baghdad. Their experience covering the recent dangerous wars in the Balkans is also considered an asset.

Recently, Serbian readers have been able to read reports from both sides of the front lines, including articles (in NIN weekly) from Baghdad by American journalist Jeremy Scahill, who married a Serbian woman and settled in Belgrade after covering the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999. Scahill subsequently learned Serbian, which has helped him file reports from Iraq, since many Iraqis studied in Serbia and learned the language during the Tito era. Since the former Yugoslavia was a leader of the Nonaligned Movement [an international organization of states that considered themselves not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc, formed in 1961—WPR] many Iraqis were also able to study in Belgrade under reciprocal agreements. In one of his reports, Scahill tells of his visit to an Iraqi hospital where an Iraqi doctor who spoke Serbian told him, “If it was not for Tito, I would never have been a doctor.”

—Katarina Subasic, WPR correspondent, Belgrade, Serbia



New Zealand: Tapping the Wires

Unlike Australia, New Zealand decided not to send troops to fight in a war in Iraq. This appears to have influenced the attitude of New Zealand’s newspapers in planning news coverage of the conflict: Most decided that they would not send journalists to Iraq.

Gavin Ellis, editor of the country’s largest newspaper, The New Zealand Herald in Auckland, said: “We would only send a journalist to Iraq if troops from New Zealand are directly involved.” But he did add that the Herald staff included a reporter who had completed a combat environment course in the United Kingdom. Irish tycoon Anthony O'Reilly owns the Herald.

Christchurch's The Press, the largest paper in the New Zealand stable of Rupert Murdoch’s company Independent Newspapers Ltd., arranged for war coverage from the Sydney Morning Herald's correspondent, Paul McGeough, who was already in Baghdad.

The New Zealand Press Association, a cooperative owned by the country’s press, planned to distribute Iraqi war coverage from wire services including the Associated Press, AFP, Reuters, the Australian Associated Press, Knight-Ridder, and a German service. News editor Nick Brown noted that a Navy frigate from New Zealand is currently in the Gulf, and said any involvement of this country during and after the war would receive coverage.

New Zealand's only major independent newspaper, The Otago Daily Times, in the southern city of Dunedin, planned war coverage from a range of agencies and well-informed commentators. “We plan a wide and independent news cover and informed comment from authoritative sources,” said assistant editor Tony Harris.

—Ken Coates, WPR correspondent, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

Scotland: Low-Key Coverage

In Scotland, most war coverage will come from U.K. Press Association reports. The papers generally don’t have the resources to send high-profile reporters to the scene to report directly. One exception is the Sunday Herald's foreign editor, David Pratt, who has prior experience in Afghanistan and who will probably travel to Baghdad or somewhere near the front to report. Additionally, the Herald often publishes commentary by Colonel Bob Stewart, who was a commander of the British U.N. forces in Bosnia and who is "cautiously optimistic" about what U.S. and British forces might be able to achieve in Iraq.

But most of the reporting in the lead-up to war has actually come from New York, where stringers and feature writers have been closely following developments in the United Nations. Generally speaking, the discomfort with the war among the population here has affected coverage: Papers don't want to alienate their readerships, and there is little gung-ho, military-led reportage. This will change once war begins, as the defense department begins to set the agenda and control the news with professional briefings.

—Barry Shelby, WPR correspondent, Glasgow, Scotland



Singapore: Sights on Saddam

Singapore’s most influential paper, The Straits Times, has created a special section called "Iraq, the Looming War," which covers all issues relating to current events in the pending war against Iraq. When the war starts the title of this section will probably be changed accordingly and it will carry the highlights of the war.

On The Straits Times’s Web site, the current section "Sights on Saddam" will cover all the latest and essential news on what is happening in Iraq and the United States. Since the Web site enables the paper to feature breaking news, it will be constantly updated. Once the war starts, there may be new sections on the Web site featuring war highlights.

In preparation for war, the paper has sent a line-up of journalists to Kuwait, U.N. headquarters, Washington, D.C., and other parts of the world. Reporters based in these locations will be able to give a good insight into the events on the ground. The paper feels that on-the-scene reportage is important, though it has also made room for local analysis. The Singapore based columnist from Straits Times Singapore, Janadas Devan, has been writing commentary articles on the pending war in which he questions whether the United States will be able to maintain peace in the postwar period. As of this writing, Devan is the only columnist giving his views on the war.

—Anusuya Vethanayagam, WPR correspondent, Singapore, Singapore

 

Lithuania: Seven Seas and Seven Oceans

In Lithuania, many folks tales begin with the phrase, “Seven seas and seven oceans from here,” and for the majority of Lithuanians, that is how far away the war in Iraq seems. Nevertheless, the issue of war in Iraq has exposed deep differences between Europe and the United States, and between Eastern Europe and Western Europe. These rifts are more interesting to Lithuanians than the question of war and peace in Iraq itself. The domestic media has been concentrating on these aspects of the possible war in Iraq rather than on the war itself.

In this context, antiwar sentiment has sometimes been dismissed as indulgent or irrelevant. On March 5, the independent English-language weekly The Baltic Times observed that opposition to America’s position in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia “is concentrated within alternative, non-formal and ad hoc movements of musicians and other bohemian elements. These movements often alienate middle-class citizens with their wild protests.” However, the same paper went on to state, “The maturity of a civil society may, among other things, be gauged by the presence or absence of a culture of criticism. A critical view of social, economic, and political processes is an indispensable part of Western civilization’s political culture.”

For philosopher Leonidas Donskis, the fact that criticism was crystallizing around anti-Americanism was a potential problem. In a March 3 article in the independent online journal Omni Laikas, Donskis commented that “the strange identity model of European intellectuals is developing on a basis of anti-American sentiments. If we eliminate the anti-American sentiment, it is not clear what is uniting Europe today.”

On balance, though, for Lithuanians Iraq remains a country from a fairy tale, and dictator Saddam Hussein, according to the conservative paper Atgimimas (March 4), is like the Lord of the Rings. No big changes are expected in this attitude.

—Giedrius Blagnys, WPR correspondent, Vilnius, Lithuania

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