U.S. Military Censors Journalists in Afghanistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

On Sunday, a Taliban ambush on a U.S. convoy in Afghanistan left approximately 10 civilians dead and dozens wounded. It is unclear who is responsible for many of the deaths — and not surprisingly, the U.S military and witnesses are giving very different accounts of the incident:

A suicide attacker detonated an explosives-filled minivan as the American convoy approached, then militant gunmen fired on the troops, who returned fire, the US military said.

As the Americans sped away, they treated every car and person along the highway as a potential attacker, said Mohammad Khan Katawazi, the district chief of Shinwar. However, Major William Mitchell, a US military spokesman, said those killed and injured may have been shot by the militants.

At least six Afghans recuperating from bullet wounds said the US forces fired indiscriminately along a six-mile stretch of one of eastern Afghanistan’s busiest roads – often filled not only with cars and lorries, but with Afghans on foot or on bicycles.

“They were firing everywhere, and they even opened fire on 14 to 15 vehicles passing on the highway,” said Tur Gul, 38, who was standing beside a petrol station and was shot twice in his right hand. “They opened fire on everybody, the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot.”


The military said it was investigating. “We certainly believe it’s possible that the incoming fire from the ambush was wholly or partly responsible for the civilian casualties,” Mitchell said.

The different accounts are not surprising. What is surprising — and more than a little disturbing — is that shortly after the attack, the U.S. military forced international and Afghani journalists to delete photographs and video they took of the scene. The military does not dispute that fact, but insists that it acted appropriately:

The US military in Afghanistan Monday defended the erasing of media photographs and video after an incident which left up to 10 civilians dead, saying this was allowed in “extreme circumstances.”

Photographers and cameramen working for international and Afghan media said soldiers deleted footage of a site in eastern Nangarhar province where US troops opened fire after an ambush.


A media spokesman for the US-led coalition admitted some pictures of the scene may have been erased.

“Some of those facts may be accurate but there is some context that is due,” Mitchell told AFP.

The journalists had gone beyond a security perimeter and had been asked to remove their images to “protect the integrity of the investigation,” he said, adding that the scene may have been altered before they arrived.

The concern had been that the “photographers would not accurately represent what the scene looked like immediately after the ambush,” Mitchell said.

“In this case we give a lot of deference to the commanders at the site conducting the investigation,” he said.

However, “we have reminded our forces in the area that only in extreme circumstances is this practice condoned,” Mitchell added.

The military certainly has an interesting — and convenient — definition of “extreme circumstances.” How often are journalists present at the scene of an attack so quickly that the scene could not have been altered before they arrived? (And let’s not forget that when they do manage to capture images of attacks in progress, the Right immediately claims that they are in league with the terrorists.) Do they often arrive after military investigators? And how does “deference” to investigators justify deleting photos and videos of the scene? (The military has not produced any evidence that the scene was altered.)

We know, of course, what is really going on here. The shibboleth is true: a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s why Laura Bush (echoing her husband, echoing Cheney, echoing Rumsfeld, echoing Nixon…) blames the media for the unpopularity of the Iraq War: thanks to intrepid journalists like the ones in Afghanistan, Americans get to see what their $500 billion is paying for. The U.S. military isn’t protecting the “integrity of the investigation” by censoring the journalists — it’s protecting its own rapidly-deteriorating reputation.

The irony, of course, is that the civilian deaths may indeed have resulted from the ambush. Witnesses to attacks have certainly been known to lie to make the U.S. military look bad. The military’s heavy-handed tactics, however, simply ensure that its denials will be met with skepticism — and rightfully so. Covering up evidence of a crime is the best way imaginable to ensure that you are viewed as a suspect.


One Response

  1. ‘Winning hearts and minds’, eh? Someone clearly doesn’t have the first idea as to what that means.

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