[X]press photographer ordered out of Basra
April 17, 2008 12:13 AM
SF State student James Lee learned of the escalating Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Basra while embedded with Marines in Afghanistan. As a photographer documenting the day-to-day happenings in the war-torn region, he decided the Iraqi city would be his next stop.
Officials from the military public affairs office in Fallujah granted Lee’s request to embed with a Military Transition Team—a core Marine group assisting Iraqi security forces in securing the region. Following a three-day journey from Fallujah via armored vehicle, he arrived in Basra on April 1.
But after just four hours in the city, Marine officers demanded that Lee leave the area.
“The only way a Western journalist can report on Basra is to be embedded, and by denying me my embed, they were denying my ability to report on the area,” said Lee, who maintains he was the only Western journalist among the 150-vehicle convoy that made the trip south. “Basically, by pulling me out [of Basra], you’re creating a media blackout.”
It remains unclear why Lee, whose full name is James Lee Jeffreys, was expelled from Basra, and the Department of Defense declined to provide [X]press with an explanation for his removal.
The Ventura County, Calif., native is a former Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2001 to 2004 until he was injured by friendly fire. He has been a correspondent for [X]press since December 2007, earning credit through a directed study program with the journalism department in exchange for his reportage and photographs from around the world.
Approximately 48 hours before he touched base in Basra, media reports showed more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers in the area refusing to fight and surrendering their positions. This came as U.S. Commanding General David Petraeus was due to brief Congress on the coalition’s progress in Iraq.
Lee suspects these events may have led to his expulsion from Basra.
“I think the real driving factor here is that Petraeus was in Washington, and Basra was not going well,” he said. “He didn’t want to be sitting in front of Congress, and have an image that I took [of Basra] being presented by the press.”
Marines and Iraqis in Basra had told Lee they were not confident about the Iraqis’ ability to maintain control in the area without further U.S. assistance. They claimed the Mahdi army, a Shiite militia, had “more grenades and rockets than we do, and we don’t want to go fight in the city [of Basra],” he said.
“[The U.S. military] realized that there was going to be a loss at such a grand scale that they were not going to risk putting me there,” he said. “I’d proven at that point through all my embeds [that I would] accurately depict what’s going on.”
Lee said it’s unusual for the military to remove a fully authorized embedded journalist—unless there was some sort of violation of guidelines, which he denies.
Deborah Howell, ombudsman for the Washington Post, echoed Lee’s assertion that de-embedding usually occurs when agreed-upon conditions are violated.
“I don’t know how rare [being de-embedded] is,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Usually it’s for doing something that is contrary to the embed agreement, though I have heard that commanding officers will boot a reporter they don’t like or think is compromising security.”
A military public affairs officer in Basra told Lee that Petraeus had banned all western journalists from the area.
But the alleged leave-order from Petraeus baffled Lee because it was contrary to an internal document circulated to military leaders, titled “General Petraeus’ Nine Points,” which details the general’s position on a broad range of issues.
According to the document, military personnel are instructed to “Engage the media. Don’t worry about the overexposure... get on TV... people need to see their leadership talking about your area. Take the media by the hand and lead them. Show them the story.”
Lee said he contacted Petraeus’ office in Baghdad, which told him there had been a misunderstanding and that he could remain in Basra. But when he returned to camp, the order to leave immediately resurfaced —and this time it came from an unidentified, lower-ranking general at Multinational Force-Iraq (MNFI), a U.S.-led coalition that battles Iraqi insurgents.
Lee said the Marines told him, “Hey, it’s not coming from Petraeus now, it’s coming from a two-star Marine general. He just told us that if we don’t have you on that aircraft today, he’s going to have our heads.”
Lee spent two days in Fallujah trying to untangle all that had happened, but came up short of an explanation. He arrived back in the United States on April 9.
In general terms, “the military has wide latitude to give journalists access to cover the war—and it’s special access,” said David Greene, a free-speech lawyer and executive director of the First Amendment Project.
“This idea of embedding journalists with the troops and having the journalists follow the troops is a fairly new concept.”
Having been embedded with the Marines previously in Fallujah, Baghdad and Afghanistan, Lee thought it was odd that the Marines were removing him from working in Basra.
“It wasn’t a security issue, as we’ve had embedded journalists throughout the conflict in situations far more dangerous than Basra,” he said.
Hajar Smouni, head of the North Africa and Middle East desk for Reporters Without Borders, agreed.
“If it was for his safety, they would have said that clearly,” Smouni said. “Since they were not giving him a forward explanation, there must be another reason they don’t want to speak about.”
John Koopman, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who has embedded in Iraq, also said it was strange that he was given no clear explanation. Koopman said he’s never heard of a journalist being denied access without some sort of justification.
“[The military] usually tells you—it’s not usually a big secret,” Koopman said.
He added that the unit Lee embedded with might not have had the authority to grant him protection and access in the Basra region of Iraq.
On Dec. 16, British forces officially transferred control of Basra to the Iraqis; today coalition forces remain in the area primarily to train Iraqi soldiers and policemen.
Lee requested explanations into why he was forced to leave, and was given numerous possible reasons—including that the Iraqi army didn’t want him there.
“That doesn’t make any sense because the Iraqi army doesn’t run what MNFI does,” he said. “I’m embedded with Marines, not with Iraqis. The Iraqis can’t tell the Marines what to do.”
Editors Dan Verel, Christina Nguyen and Jerold Chinn contributed to this report.
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