AP Photographer's Detention Spurs Debate

The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 19, 2006; 7:12 PM

-- The U.S. military's imprisonment of an Associated Press photographer in Iraq has spurred a new round of debate about the role of journalists in a war zone, especially those covering insurgents and terrorists.

Internet critics of the news media said the AP's announcement on Sunday that Bilal Hussein, who covered the war in Fallujah and Ramadi, was in a U.S. military prison as a security threat was vindication of their accusations that he was aiding the enemy.

But advocates of the press coverage questioned whether the critics wanted to block any coverage that doesn't portray the U.S. policy in the best light. An independent press must fully and accurately cover a conflict from all sides, they said.

On Tuesday, the international group Reporters Without Borders formally called for the U.S. military to charge Hussein or release him. "We call on the U.S. authorities to put an immediate end to this violation of the rule of law," it said in a statement.

Military officials said Hussein was captured on April 12, 2006 in the company of two alleged insurgents in an apartment where there were bomb-making materials. He was being held indefinitely for "imperative reasons of security" under United Nations resolutions, because of "strong ties" to insurgents that went beyond the role of a journalist, they said.

AP executives, who made public Hussein's detention on Sunday after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, said the news cooperative's review of Hussein's work did not find inappropriate contact with insurgents. They said U.N. resolutions don't allow for indefinite detention. Any evidence against him should be brought to the Iraqi criminal justice system or else he should be released, they said.

In the so-called blogosphere, where there have long been accusations of bias among photographers and reporters covering the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, the news of his arrest spurred a visceral sense of vindication.

"Bilal Hussein is a collaborator at best and a terror press agent in all honesty," wrote James Hanson, who blogs as Uncle Jimbo on Blackfive.net, a blog devoted to military issues. At Powerlineblog.com, John Hinderaker accused the AP of benefiting from felony murder.

Michelle Malkin, a blogger and newspaper columnist who last year posted a lengthy review of Hussein's images that questioned his independence from insurgents, said in a telephone interview that the "mainstream media" is not critical enough of its locally-hired news staff.

"To the jaundiced eye, the skeptical eye of bloggers, the notion that many of these stringers are serving as tools, essentially, to spread insurgent photo propaganda is clear," she said. "All it is, is taking a look at the photographs."

A number of liberal blogs defended the work of these journalists.

"The broader campaign by the right against war coverage has, with a few exceptions, amounted to little more than thuggery designed to get news orgs to think twice before bringing images back to America of the carnage in the Middle East," wrote Greg Sargent at The Horse's Mouth, a blog on reporting and politics, part of The American Prospect's Web site.

The AP on Tuesday issued statements correcting various bloggers who repeated from site to site charges that Hussein had witnessed and photographed executions.

One of Hussein's most controversial pictures _ that of a dead Italian man with two masked insurgents standing over him with guns _ was taken when the man already was dead, it said.

When Hussein photographed Salvatore Santoro, an Italian man, in December 2004, his body was already stiff with rigor mortis. Journalists were taken by insurgents to see the propped-up body. None of the journalists witnessed his death, said Santiago Lyon, AP's director of photography.

A video of the same scene, posted on some Web sites, is a copy of such low quality that it appears that Santoro is moving at one point, Lyon said. But a review of the AP's video of the scene shows he was already dead, Lyon said.

Another accusation _ that Hussein had taken a picture of election workers being executed on a Baghdad street _ was also false, the AP said. Hussein never took photos for the AP in Baghdad, and the AP photographer who took that picture was on the scene because of other events when the shooting unfolded in front of him.

Bilal "was certainly not present, as far as we can determine, at any execution," Lyon said.

© 2006 The Associated Press