Gowing originally contributed a chapter, "Aiming to stop the story", in a book entitled Dying to Tell the Story. Here's a lecture he gave at the LSE last year. And here's an article he had published in Gulf News in 2003. See also this.
Let's have a look at the Gulf News piece. It's appalling. Gowing constantly walks the fine line between suggesting very strongly that the US (and Israeli) military is deliberately targetting and killing journalists and cameramen, without actually accusing them outright of doing so.
There is a growing fear that some governments - especially the most militarily sophisticated like the United States and Israel - are sanctioning the active targeting of journalists in war zones. The evidence is that they want to shut down what we are there to do - to bear witness and report.But where is the evidence that Gowing refers to? Apart from a couple of Israeli cases which are perhaps suspicious, all Gowing has from Iraq are cases like that of Reuters TV cameraman Mazen Dana:
The concern is that there is an apparent culture of impunity. This is already encouraging others to believe they can get away with targeting and eliminating journalists, or at least ignoring the issue...
If worst case fears are shown to be justified, then on the political and military side some senior officials seem to view our 24-hour/7 days-a-week presence as a real-time military threat that on some occasions justifies our removal by the application of deadly force. Despite expressions of sympathy, the killing or injury of journalists and technicians appears to be of barely marginal concern.
The growing suspicions suggest a disturbing trend that must be challenged and reversed. At the extreme it is the sanctioning of murder in violation of sovereign, humanitarian and international laws.
The first US military explanation was that a tank crew outside the Abu Ghraib prison had mistaken Dana's camera for a shoulder-fire rocket propelled grenade launcher aiming at them. The camera video showed the tank heading towards Dana before its machine gun starts firing. Yet journalist colleagues at the scene confirmed that Dana had asked US troops to work and film: "They saw us, and they knew about our identities and mission."That's it. That's the evidence. And Gowing immediately undermines whatever force this case had by pointing out that
The incident was a tragic echo of frequent Pentagon warnings in the months before the Iraq conflict. The message to senior news executives was that if a member of the US military had to make a judgement between the possibility of a camera or a shoulder rocket launcher aimed at them then it would be understood officially if the worst was feared. The soldier would have the right to target the suspect and fire.This is how it has to be. In a war zone, or a sensitive military zone, soldiers have to have the ability to react quickly to anything which looks like a threat. Their lives are at risk. They can't stand around saying "Well, we'd better wait and get a better look, it might only be a cameraman", because then they might be dead.
I don't think this principle can be disputed. So if an undoubtedly brave cameraman wanders around such a dangerous area looking like he's got a weapon, then these sorts of things will happen. It's a terrible, awful thing, but that doesn't make it deliberate. And Gowing provides not the slightest bit of evidence to show that this case involved anything more than the result of the sensible, common-sense principle that if you look like the enemy in this sort of area, you're going to be fired on. All he can say is this:
Even in the high emotions and intensity of fighting, such tragedies highlight the continued absence of procedures and mutual awareness. The overwhelming impression is that some at the highest military levels will not brief their officers and troops on the new realities of real-time reporting as part of basic doctrine. Rules of engagement are ambiguous. They should not be.So Gowing has now dropped the claim down to a lack of procedures and mutual awareness. But even this is baloney. The soldiers know that there are media people around. And it's made clear to the media by the military (as Gowing concedes) that this is a war zone, or at least a dangerous, militarily significant area, where they can easily be shot. Any lack of awareness here seems to be on the part of the media (or at least Gowing).
And as for procedures - what is he talking about? The procedures the soldiers are taught are for fighting. Every soldier knows that you can't target journalists, but primarily they're there to fight and kill the enemy. Any journalists who put themselves into military situations and look like combatants have to be assumed to be combatants. There's no real-time procedure you can use here to distinguish combatant from journalist. There isn't time to pop over to Davos for a panel session to decide the issue. If there's any reality that's being denied here, it's on the part of Gowing.
As for ambiguity in the rules - I don't see that there is any. It looks pretty straight-forward to me - if you look like the enemy at some point, you'll be in the firing line. Where's the ambiguity? (I think what Gowing really thinks here is that there is ambiguity in the situation, and that there should be rules that can cope with that. But in fact, the only rule that makes any sense here is the straight-forward one above).
Oh yes. The other "evidence" Gowing has is this:
Official stonewalling and a reluctance to investigate a growing number of unexplained incidents compounds the suspicions. It suggests one of three ominous trends, or some combination:That is, that the military doesn't take his concerns seriously, and doesn't wail in anguish (because a death is not that extraordinary a happening for the military) is itself is a reason to think that they're deliberately killing journalists, and then stonewalling.
Either by default or failure actively to investigate and discipline military personnel, a culture of eliminating the presence of journalists - if necessary using deadly force - is being actively tolerated, perhaps even encouraged.
On the official side, the pattern is of a lack of goodwill. Instead there is routine obfuscation and intolerance. This extends even to a refusal to exercise the basic courtesy of returning phone calls and responding to enquiries. In some cases there has even been a rejection of the principle of investigation.Astonishing logic. The military thinks there's nothing to investigate. Gowing thinks this could mean - "at worst" - that this is because they're covering up the fact that they're going after the journos. At worst, though, Gowing's publishing this piece of nonsense in the Gulf News could means he's an undercover Al Queda agent. But worst-case scenarios don't mean much unless there's some evidence or reason to support them. And you can't use your suspicions to support those very same suspicions.
Whether by design or not, this suggests at best a culture of military indifference and inefficiency in explaining the deaths of media personnel. At worst it indicates a policy of endorsing and covering up firstly the targeting, then either the maiming or killing of people who have the rights of unarmed non-combatants under international law.
Yet this is whole basis of Gowing's piece. There's virtually no evidence, just a lot of suspicions, and nitwit-level speculation:
the regular Pentagon warnings before and during the Iraq war that locations like Baghdad would be a "particularly dangerous place" from which all media should withdraw.So the military tells you - as thousands of years of war has shown us - that these places will be incredibly dangerous. The media decides to stay anyway, and some of them get killed (alongside many soldiers and many of the enemy), and Gowing still insists that the military was just trying to scare them off for their own reasons. "We're going to hang around anyway, and it's up to you to make sure you never shoot us, even if we look like just like the enemy". Yes, the military has a fundamental responsibility not to shoot journalists, but not at any cost. The suspicion that someone who looks like an enemy combatant about to kill you is really a man with a camera is not a reason not to fire at him.
Yet such warnings are surely conscious salving, designed to frighten the media into leaving the theatre of battle. Warnings cannot, and should not, negate any force's more fundamental duties under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions to respect the rights of unarmed non-combatants who choose to remain.
Journalists should also realise that in fact their actions can cost lives. If they demand that the military give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who could possibly be a journalist rather than a combatant, then plenty of soldiers will be killed. I'm sure most war correspondents do realise this. But then I'm sure most think what Gowing is claiming is nonsense. It's a pity none of them are prepared to say so.
Gowing has made some very strong claims. Although he has hedged as much as he can, it's clear that he thinks that the US military has deliberately targetted and killed neutral or even friendly journalists in Iraq. He has provided scant evidence to back this up. The BBC needs to ask him to either back down or produce the goods. They won't, of course.
(Thanks to Ed Thomas at Biased BBC, and the other bloggers mentioned, for the links here).
P.S. There's not much of interest in Gowing's LSE lecture, which is a meandering rant about the effect of new digital technology on the media (from a leftist point of view), that sometimes makes little sense. The main bit of interest is this comment, which is completely unsupported:
An American tank comes along. It's here in slow motion. The machine gunner doesn't like what he sees and kills Mazan Dana. The Americans will not admit responsibility for that.Again, Gowing creates the very strong impression that he is claiming that the Americans deliberately targetted someone who they knew to be a cameraman, because they were a cameraman. But such is the poor quality of Gowing's writing (or speaking - the unstructured quality of this lecture suggests it was delivered off the cuff) that he could perhaps argue that this isn't what he is claiming.
Perhaps he might say that he was just talking about the fact that they killed him, not that they killed him because he was a cameraman. But then why would he say that the Americans won't admit responsibility? As far as I know, the Americans aren't denying they killed him, what they're denying is that they killed him because he was a cameraman. So what Gowing claims only makes sense if he's talking about the klling of this man because he was a cameraman.
Gowing appears to back down in the next paragraph anyway:
We understand that a camera sitting on the right shoulder of a camera man can perhaps sometimes be mistaken by soldiers who are nervous for a rocket system. But this is happening too often.So we've gone from the claim that the Americans killed him because he was a cameraman to just "it's mighty suspicious how often this happening".
This paragraph makes it clear that Gowing really does believe it all, though:
Similar is what happened to this Italian [stills] cameraman in Ramallah. It was two years ago now, but it is very much a leitmotif of many of our fears about why we are being targeted, for what reason as well as what the aspiration is and the military system is that allows this type of thing to take place.Note this comment as well:
we at the BBC and many broadcasters have enormous respect for Al Jazeera.(Cross-posted at Blithering Bunny).