Media Footage of Prisoners Stirs Controversy | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.03.2003
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Media Footage of Prisoners Stirs Controversy

Dramatic images of apparent American prisoners of war in Iraq broadcast worldwide on Sunday have outraged the United States and have been condemned by the International Red Cross.


U.S.-led forces have captured thousands of Iraqi soldiers

Footage from the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera showed five frightened and injured captured U.S. soldiers, along with at least four dead bodies and a bloodied American truck. U.S. officials later confirmed that 12 soldiers were missing after Iraqi forces ambushed an army supply convoy around An Nasiriyah, a major crossing point over the Euphrates River northwest of Basra.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera picked up the scenes of the four men and a woman being questioned from state-controlled Iraqi television. The images where then re-broadcast in various forms by news organizations worldwide. Officials from both the U.S. government and the International Committee of the Red Cross said the footage violated the Geneva Convention, which regulates treatment of captured soldiers.

“Prisoners of war cannot be put on public display,” said Red Cross spokesman Florian Westphal in Geneva.

American television has largely refused to show the footage, saying the material was neither newsworthy nor appropriate. However, German and other Western media, including DW-TV, have shown edited versions arguing they were simply documenting what had happened.

“We could have shown everything, but we chose not to,” said DW-TV Editor-in-Chief Dagmar Engel on Monday. She pointed out that U.S. networks had also begun to selectively show small bits of the footage.

“I do believe what Saddam Hussein is doing is against the Geneva Convention, but a lot depends on what you show and how you present it,” she said.

"Editorially Relevant"

Other German news organizations also defended the decision to air parts of Iraqi video. “It’s part of the media reality,” said Bernhard Wabnitz, editor for ARD television. “It’s got to be editorially relevant and without sensationalism,” Wabnitz told the German Press Agency.

“Casualties and prisoners are part of war,” said Markus Föderl, editor-in-chief of news channel n-tv. “It doesn’t all happen in a briefing room where pictures of bombings are shown.”

Media not bound by Geneva convention

The current Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war was adopted on August 12, 1949, at a conference on the protection of war victims. Part of a series of international treaties concluded in Geneva on ameliorating the effects of war on soldiers and civilians dating back to 1864, it applies only to states and is not binding on the media.

Donald Rumsfeld

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said television networks that carried the “humiliating” pictures of the POWs were doing something “unfortunate” and labeled the Iraqi video as propaganda. U.S. President George W. Bush on Sunday warned Iraqis they would be punished as "war criminals" if they mistreated any coalition prisoners.

Despite the controversy over showing pictures of U.S. prisoners, images of Iraqi prisoners have appeared in U.S. and British media in the past days, though some had their faces deliberately blurred.

Jo Groebel, the director of the European Institute for the Media in Düsseldorf, on Monday said that showing the latest Iraqi video in its entirety as Al-Jazeera did clearly cross into a questionable area.

“As an editor you have to realize something coming directly from one of the parties to the war isn’t objective,” he said in a television interview. But Groebel also criticized the coverage coming from journalists “embedded” in coalition combat units: “War generates pictures that can never truly be fair.”