Controversy Over Media Coverage of Prisoners of War | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 25.03.2003
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Controversy Over Media Coverage of Prisoners of War

Only days after the start war in Iraq, prisoners of war have been taken on both sides. TV pictures of frightened U.S. soldiers, captured by Iraqi military have been broadcast - and have sparked worldwide debate.


Allied soldiers take prisoners of war in Iraq

The Iraqi state television and the Arab station Al-Jazeera showed video footage of five captured American soldiers – four men and one woman – on Sunday, four days after the beginning of the war in Iraq. The soldiers were interviewed by Iraqi officials and appeared frightened. The footage also included pictures of dead bodies dressed in American uniforms wounded in the head.

On Monday, Iraqi television showed another two American pilots, from a U.S. helicopter lost on Monday during an attack by several of the aircraft on Iraqi Republican Guards near the town of Kerbala.

There is now a total number of seven soldiers listed as missing prisoners of war (POWs) by the Pentagon - a small number compared to the allegedly 2,000 Iraqi prisoners of war captured by the allied forces. Nevertheless, the treatment of the American POWs and the issue of media coverage has led to worldwide concerns and contempt

International reactions

Bush ruft zur humanitären Behandlung Kriegsgefangener auf

George Bush

U.S President George W. Bush and British Premier Tony Blair sharply criticised the exposure of the American POWs on television. However, pictures of Iraqi POWs, captured by the allied forces have been previously shown on television networks all over the world.

In a speech to the UN Human Rights commission on Tuesday, German Foreign minister Joschka Fischer appealed to all warring parties to abide by International Humanitarian Laws. Iraq's Defence Minister, Sultan Hashim Ahmed, said Iraq would "not harm the captured prisoners of war". He added: "It will treat them in accordance with the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war."

The Geneva conventions

The International Red Cross is strongly opposed to showing any prisoners of war on television, stating article 13 of the Geneva Conventions: "Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. (...) Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.

But according to German Red Cross President Knut Ipsen, the media reports on the American soldiers captured in Iraq do not violate the Geneva Conventions. "What I have seen so far, namely 2 captured helicopter pilots and interviews with four U.S. soldiers does not violate the protection against public curiosity" said Ipsen on Tuesday in Bochum. He stated that pictures of POWs are part of the media coverage of the war just like footage of injured people in hospitals.

Both the United States and Iraq have signed the Geneva Conventions that date back to 1949. After World War II, a conference was held in Geneva on the protection of war victims and international humanitarian law. The International Red Cross controls if the parties at war abide by the Geneva Conventions, and has the right to access POWs on both sides, making sure they are treated properly. So far, the Red Cross expects no problems accessing POWs in Iraq.

Personal tragedies shown on TV

American audiences were spared the controversial footage at first or only got access to small snippets. U.S. television networks mainly abided by the government's request not to show the video footage. Short clips of the footage were first shown on CBS, later on CNN and NBC. David Westin, news editor of the TV channel ABC said that pictures of dead American soldiers weren't "newsworthy" and that they had only been filmed to "create anger and disruption among the (American) people."

Army Spc. Joseph Hudson

Joseph Hudson

Indeed, anger and disruption was created among the families of the American POWs. Anicita Hudson, the mother of Joseph Hudson (photo) who was deployed to the Gulf last month, told U.S. journalists that she had seen images of her son on a Philippine channel to which she subcribes. "I was shocked to see my son being interviewed", she said, "all I did was scream and I started crying."

Bad memories come back

British pilot John Nichol knows first hand what it was like to be forced to appear on television after falling into enemy hands. He was a POW in Iraq during the last Gulf War in 1991. "Going on television was a humiliating, degrading, disgusting, despicable experience. I did it under the threat of death," he told BBC radio.

Nichol thinks that Iraqi assurances of treating the American POWs according to the Geneva conventions will bring little comfort to the victims. "It must have been a horrific terrifying experience for the people there and their loved ones watching back home."