CNN’s Beirut bureau chief, Brent Sadler, told the festival if he had not been accompanied by an armed guard during the war in Iraq “I wouldn’t be here now”.
The question of whether journalists should bear arms in war zones or have armed guards was debated as a panel of war reporters discussed CNN’s actions in Iraq. A security guard travelling with Sadler near Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, Tikrit, returned fire at Iraqi soldiers after they attacked the journalist’s vehicle.
“If he hadn’t done so, I wouldn’t be here now,” the former ITN reporter told the audience at a session entitled “Saddam Hussein: My Part in his Downfall”. He added the precedent for journalists having armed guards had been set in 1993, during the US invasion of Somalia.
However, Channel 4 News anchor Alex Thompson said the fracas in Tikrit sent “a potentially dangerous message”. ITV News’s Juliet Bremner added: “As soon as you take a weapon into your vehicle, the temptation to use it has to be there. I would argue along with Alex that you have no right as a journalist to have arms with you. “I go around the world telling people, ‘This is my press card and it means I’m not armed, I come here as a neutral observer and I want you to treat me with respect as that’.”
Chris Cramer, president of CNN’s international networks, rebuffed the suggestion that the US-based broadcaster had set a dangerous precedent. At the time, Reporters Without Borders said CNN’s hiring of a private armed security firm was “contrary to all the rules of the profession”. But Cramer said: “No lines were crossed. It was a very regrettable incident but if you are saying that Brent Sadler should have taken a bullet for the cause, then forget it.” “We need to spend time today on the question of why are many governments, factions and individuals around the world pursuing us? Why are they seeking to kill us? We need to address that question, because it’s tied up in the same debate. We are seen as extensions of the governments and the countries we live in,” he added.
The debate came a fortnight after the death toll of journalists in Iraq reached 17, with the death of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana.
BBC special correspondent Gavin Hewitt said that bearing arms was the “last thing” journalists should want. “And there is an escalation. I’ve been back to Baghdad in the last few months and there are more and more security advisers carrying guns,” he said. He cited a US newspaper journalist who, while reporting with the US Marines, crossed the boundaries of journalistic endeavour by opening fire on Iraqis using weapons in his vehicle.
“I think these are lines we want to be very careful before we cross. We do still have – and it does seem to be disappearing with each new conflict that comes along – some protection from the fact that we’re there with our cameras and we’re there as reporters. So I would do it with extreme reluctance, but it does appear as if it’s something that’s growing.”