Commentary Magazine


The Case of Bilal Hussein

Last week, Associated Press photographer (and alleged insurgent collaborator) Bilal Hussein was released from custody after an Iraqi tribunal decided his case fell under an amnesty law passed earlier in 2008. The United States military had accused Hussein of working with insurgent groups in Anbar Province, in part because of his uncanny ability repeatedly to photograph insurgents in action.

I don’t know if he’s guilty or not, and he deserves the presumption of innocence. Either way, his case brings attention to an issue most consumers of news from Iraq rarely consider: the fact that large media companies–the Associated Press and other news wire agencies and newspapers–work with some sketchy characters in Iraq.

Iraq is full of such sketchy characters, as everyone knows, and large media companies require an enormous staff and network of locals to produce daily news coverage. They can’t cover breaking news every day in a low-intensity war zone without them, especially if violent activity–car bombs, fire fights, assassinations, and the like–are the bulk of what makes up the news. Someone is killed almost every day in Iraq, but the chances that an individual writer or photographer will happen to be present as an eyewitness are minuscule. Reporters who cover breaking daily news spend much of their time on the phone with stringers and sources. They don’t personally investigate every incident in the field. It just isn’t physically possible if they’re required to write every day about what happens in a country the size of California, especially when it can take literally days to travel from one part of Baghdad to another.

I’m sure media companies are careful about who they hire, but it’s hard to make the right call every time in a bewildering and inscrutable place like Iraq. Terrorists and insurgents are and have been supported by a substantial percentage of the local population. It’s nearly impossible to build a firewall thick enough to keep them all out.

Even the U.S. military can’t do it. I spent a week with the 82nd Airborne at a small forward operating base in Baghdad where three thoroughly vetted translators were caught working for the enemy. If such people can infiltrate the Army, how much easier must it be to infiltrate the likes of the Associated Press and Reuters? The military is more motivated and more able to screen its employees than a multinational corporation. Media companies don’t have the same caliber of intelligence assets, nor do newspapers and wire agencies depend on reporters, photographers, and stringers for their own security.

Bilal Hussein is a native of Fallujah. To an extent it made sense to hire him–or at least someone like him. He was “safely” able to work in the city during the heat of battle in 2004 without the protection of American soldiers, something no Western reporter would dare try.

Many Iraqi journalists do terrific work for Western media companies, and they do it bravely: most journalists killed in Iraq are Iraqi. At the same time, though, it’s undoubtedly risky to hire them. Few Fallujans today sympathize with the insurgents. But an enormous number did in 2004. How could the Associated Press possibly know for certain that local employees weren’t pulled from the ranks of insurgents or sympathizers? Even military intelligence officers didn’t know who most of the insurgents were then, and they were there on the ground.

Newspapers and news wire agencies could work around this problem by relying more strictly on eye-witness reports from trusted journalists embedded with combat soldiers. But there are problems with this model, too. Embedded reporters rarely get scoops or breaking news. Their reports are usually more accurate and in-depth, but they’re also hyper-local. Editors would have to change their definition of news, pitch the daily violent factoid reports over the side, accept the fact that they will miss most of the stories, and lay off much of their staff. The problem may not be solvable. But Bilal Hussein’s case, whatever its merits, should force everyone–the AP, the military, and news consumers alike–to re-examine their assumptions and options.

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