The Digital Journalist
Of Access and Evidence

Why Bilal Hussein's Captivity Endangers
Reporters and Sends a Poor Message
About U.S. Intentions in Iraq
November 2007

by Matthew D. LaPlante
Salt Lake Tribune

I only met Bilal Hussein once, in Ramadi, mid-September of last year, but the story he shared with me as we stood outside the bullet-pocked entryway of the Al Anbar provincial capitol building has stuck with me ever since.

"I've been arrested many times," he said. "Both by the Americans and by the terrorists."

Salt Lake Tribune national security reporter Matthew D. LaPlante, center left, and Iraqi photojournalist Bilal Hussein, center right, converse with other journalists outside the Ramadi Government Center in Iraq in September, 2005. Hussein has been held without charge at a U.S. prison facility in Iraq since April 12, 2006.
(© AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Rick Egan)

Such is life for Iraqi journalists. Spending time with the Americans made him an enemy to the insurgents. Spending time with the insurgents made him an enemy to the Americans.

All things considered, he said, he'd rather be held by the Americans. They didn't beat him or threaten to kill his family. He laughed about this, as I recall.

Perhaps it is ironic, therefore, that it was The Associated Press photographer's contacts with resistance groups that resulted in his being tagged a security threat and incarcerated, without charge, for the past five months.

"The information available establishes that he has relationships with insurgents and is afforded access to insurgent activities outside the normal scope of journalists conducting legitimate activities," Army Maj. Jack Gardner wrote in an e-mail to Associated Press editors.

To be certain, Bilal's relationship with insurgent groups was closer than that of most other journalists. The Fallujah native wouldn't have been able to get the photos he did -- one of which was included in a package of pics that won a Pulitzer Prize -- were it not for his access.

That access not only provided photos of insurgents in action, it opened a small window into a world that America -- and the American military -- does not understand. His photos showed both the humanity and the brutality of insurgent fighters in Al Anbar. As a U.S. commander bragged to me that his forces were taking absolute control of Ramadi, such work showed that security in Anbar was in no way absolute.

But that kind of access also infuriated many of the military officers I met in Ramadi. When an AP photo depicting rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades in Ramadi ran in our newspaper (it is possible that Bilal was the anonymous photographer) officers derided the picture as "insurgent propaganda." We pulled it from our Web site after being told U.S. intelligence officers were certain it had been staged months earlier -- a claim that appears to have been untrue.

In any case, the officers reasoned, any decent person with Bilal's kind of access should turn informant. To that end, several U.S. officers even suggested I tell my Iraqi counterparts that they should help the U.S. ferret out the insurgents they kept as contacts. I declined to do so.

Even if it was naive, the request was understandable. The officers wanted to exploit every opportunity possible to keep their troops from harm. But although that may help explain the U.S. decision to hold Bilal captive, it does not excuse it.

For journalists, especially Iraqi journalists, the precedent being set with Bilal's captivity is exceedingly dangerous. If reporters who associate with insurgent groups are to be treated as insurgents, then what of reporters who do not? Should it be assumed that Iraqi reporters who associate with the U.S. military and Iraqi government -- who risk their lives to bring a democratic perspective to Iraq -- are in alliance with the enemies of the insurgency? And what, then, can we expect will be the response of resistance fighters who have already shown a propensity to behead now and ask questions later?

The relationship Bilal kept with Iraqi insurgents does not appear to be substantially different from the company he and hundreds of other journalists -- many of whom, as embedded reporters, eat, sleep and go on missions with U.S. troops -- have kept with the American military. Associated Press editors, having reviewed Bilal's work, say they have seen nothing that indicates he had inappropriate contact with the rebels.

"We're not in this to choose sides, we're here to report what's going on from all sides," AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said in a story published this week acknowledging Bilal's captivity. Rather than call for his outright release, however, the AP has conceded it might not have all the facts. Its editors have only asked that, if Bilal is not released, he be charged with a crime under Iraqi or international law.

This seems exceedingly reasonable.

I certainly did not get to know Bilal well enough to say whether he crossed over the lines of ethical reporting in a way that gave aid to the insurgency. Did he give away American troop positions to Iraqi insurgents? Did he help plot attacks? Did he stand as a lookout for the rebels as U.S. convoys approached the location of a roadside bomb? If so, was his story about being kidnapped and beaten by insurgents a cover to hide his true motives?

If U.S. or Iraqi officials have evidence supporting the claim that Bilal is a security threat, he should be charged, he should be tried and, if found guilty, he should be punished.

But our nation cannot bring justice to Iraq if we are not willing to practice it ourselves. And holding Bilal on the accusation that he was simply doing his job as a journalist sends the message that this nation does not care to understand, it only cares to silence voices it doesn't like.

© Matthew D. LaPlante

Matthew D. LaPlante writes for the Salt Lake Tribune