Last week it was reported that American soldiers in Afghanistan destroyed photos and videos taken by journalists in the aftermath of a suicide bombing. Witnesses reported that the Americans were firing indiscriminately at pedestrians and vehicles as they rushed from the scene. The photos and videos were said to have documented civilian casualties.
Now the military has responded to inquiries regarding their interference with the local media. Col. Victor Petrenko, chief of staff to the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, said:
“Investigative integrity is one circumstance when civil and military authorities will reluctantly exercise the right to control what a journalist is permitted to document.” […and…] “When untrained people take photographs or video, there is a very real risk that the images or videography will capture visual details that are not as they originally were. If such visual media are subsequently used as part of the public record to document an event like this, then public conclusions about such a serious event can be falsely made.”
The Associated Press, responds on behalf of its reporters, who were amongst those whose work was confiscated:
“That is not a reasonable justification for erasing images from our cameras. AP’s journalists in Afghanistan are trained, accredited professionals working at an appropriate distance from the bombing scene. In democratic societies, legitimate journalists are allowed to work without having their equipment seized and their images deleted.”
The Army’s justification is not just unreasonable, it is entirely devoid of logic. If “investigative integrity” was at issue, the reporter’s visual records would be invaluable. By their actions the soldiers destroyed important and irreplaceable evidence. If the recordings proved to be tainted or unreliable, that could have been ascertained in the course of the investigation. Now, no one will ever know. It is the Army that has degraded investigative integrity and, in the process, trampled on the rights of journalists and citizens and all those who honor a free press. But that’s not how they see it:
“We are completely committed to a free and independent press, and we hope that we can help encourage this tradition in places where new and free governments are taking root. It so happens that on these two recent occasions, military operational or security requirements were compelling interests that overrode the otherwise protected rights of the press.”
So they are completely committed to a free and independent press unless they decide not to be. In which case, destroy all documentary records first so no questions can be asked later. If that’s their idea of encouragement, I’d sure hate to see what repression looks like.