In Iraq, a Journalist in Limbo

A photo taken by Bilal Hussein of insurgents fighting in Fallujah was part of the Associated Press entry that won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize.
A photo taken by Bilal Hussein of insurgents fighting in Fallujah was part of the Associated Press entry that won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize. (Bilal Hussein -- Associated Press)
By Tom Curley
Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi photographer who helped the Associated Press win a Pulitzer Prize last year, is now in his sixth month in a U.S. Army prison in Iraq. He doesn't understand why he's there, and neither do his AP colleagues.

The Army says it thinks Bilal has too many contacts among insurgents. He has taken pictures the Army thinks could have been made only with the connivance of insurgents. So Bilal himself must be one, too, or at least a sympathizer.

It is a measure of just how dangerous and disorienting Iraq has become that suspicions such as these are considered adequate grounds for locking up a man and throwing away the key.

After more than five months of trying to bring Bilal's case into the daylight, AP is now convinced the Army doesn't care whether Bilal is or isn't an insurgent. The Army doesn't have to care. Bilal is off the street, and the military says it doesn't consider itself accountable to any judicial authority that could question his guilt.

But Bilal's incarceration delivers a further bonus. He is no longer free to circulate in his native Fallujah or in Ramadi, taking photographs that coalition commanders would prefer not to see published.

Anbar province is a hot zone in a hot country. Violence and lawlessness there have been a special problem for U.S. forces nearly since they arrived in Iraq, which means the flow of breaking news has been continuous, much of it bad.

U.S. journalists are severely limited in their ability to move safely, make themselves understood and develop sources in such areas. AP has learned to overcome those limitations, using techniques honed over decades of covering sectarian confrontation and bloodshed in the Middle East.

It has long been AP practice to hire and train local people in the agency's permanent international bureaus. Many become highly skilled career journalists who remain with the Associated Press for decades. Several are second-generation staffers. Their work has never been more important to the Associated Press and the global audience that relies on our reporting.

Without their access and insight into what is happening in their countries and communities, our understanding of the history being made there every day would be shallow and one-dimensional. It would also be far more vulnerable to control and spin by "official" sources.

Both official and unofficial parties on every side of a conflict try to discredit or silence news they don't like. That is certainly the case in Iraq, where journalists are routinely harassed, defamed, beaten and kidnapped. At last count, 80 had been killed.

Bilal Hussein is part of the latest generation of Associated Press hires in the Middle East. He was a shopkeeper in Fallujah, selling mobile phones and computers. Although he had a degree from the Baghdad Institute of Technology, it was the best opportunity available in the fractured Iraqi economy.

AP first hired him as a translator and driver. He proved smart and trustworthy, and was already comfortable with the phones, laptops and cameras that are tools of the journalist's trade. Within months, he was taking professional-quality pictures, including one of insurgents engaged with coalition forces that was part of AP's Pulitzer Prize-winning photography entry last year.

Bilal has shared the hardships of all Iraqis in disputed areas -- hardships that are worse for journalists, whose job is to get as close as they can to places where guns and bombs are being used. His home has been riddled with gunfire. His family has fled. At least once he had to ditch his camera equipment to run for his life.

He faces what may be greater dangers now. From prison, he has told his attorneys that he fears he is a marked man among the detainees, who now know he is a journalist working for a Western news service. Meanwhile, agents of the most powerful country on Earth have labeled him an enemy. They say they have evidence to satisfy themselves, and don't need to prove it to anyone else.

As the organization that handed Bilal the camera that helped put him where he is today, the Associated Press cannot turn its back on him. We cannot dismiss Bilal's insistence that he is not an insurgent solely on the strength of the unexamined suspicions offered by the U.S. military.

If Bilal has done something wrong, the Iraqi courts stand ready to try him. Iraqi authorities have asked more than once that he and other Iraqi citizens in prolonged U.S. military custody be turned over to them for due process. We ask the same.

The writer is president and chief executive of the Associated Press.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company