May 12, 2006 - On Wednesday I sat in a darkened room at the Kennedy Library in Boston watching photos from Iraq projected on a wall screen as an Associated Press photographer talked about covering the anguish of war. She has produced Pulitzer Prize-winning work, her camera capturing images of bodies piled in a heap, anguished mothers and terrified children, victims of the U.S.-led invasion. But inside, she always wondered if she was in the wrong profession. "Is it more important to take pictures," she would ask herself, "or to give medical help?"
That question still haunts German-born Anje Niedringhaus, winner of a 2005 Courage in Journalism award from the International Women's Media Organization (full disclosure: I am a co-chair of the IWMF). Niedringhaus was among the speakers at a panel about humanitarian intervention, a subject on a lot of people's minds right now given the worsening situation in Iraq. President Bush's job-approval rating had sunk to a perilous 31 percent, with dissatisfaction over the Iraq war one of the main reasons why.
Bush insists progress is being made in Iraq, but at what pace and at what cost? It's difficult to verify the administration's claims. Since Iraq has become a supremely dangerous country, most foreign journalists remain in the American-protected Green Zone in Baghdad, venturing out only with military escort. "It's not that I'm afraid," Niedringhaus says, but as a Western woman carrying camera gear, she won't be returning to Iraq. The risk of kidnapping is too great. "I would go back to sit in the Palestine Hotel guarded by American soldiers to edit the work of our Iraqi colleagues. They are our only eye. I am very sorry, but I can't show you anymore what I showed you before, and I think it is a terrible situation."
Two thirds of Americans think going into Iraq was a mistake, and they don't believe Bush can successfully extricate this country from the deepening disaster. A story in USA Today on Thursday about a secret government program to collect the phone records of tens of millions of Americans is another reminder of the broad powers this administration has assumed while ignoring existing law and constitutional protections in the name of fighting terrorism.
But it's important to remember that it didn't have to turn out this way. At the Kennedy Library on Wednesday Anne Barnard, The Boston Globe's Middle East bureau chief, recalled those heady days right after Saddam Hussein was toppled. "It was as if a Band-Aid had been ripped off—it hurt, but it was something new and exciting and people wanted a better life, and they wanted justice." Barnard filed stories that chronicled what she called these "raw desires." She saw people digging up recently discovered graves and watched one man "pulling up fistfuls of his brother's bones out of the ground." She expected to see a flood of agencies and aid workers come in to help the Iraqi people and stabilize the country after decades in which 100,000 people died at the hands of Saddam's regime, and others suffered from sanctions and neglect. The deliverance never happened. Instead, in the summer of 2003 the United Nations headquarters was bombed, and everything began to unravel. "That's when we understood journalists and aid workers would not be granted safe haven," says Barnard, who lived in Iraq for almost two years.
The panel marked the second Elizabeth Neuffer Forum on Human Rights and Journalism. The winner of an IWMF Courage in Journalism Award in 1998, Neuffer was killed in an auto accident in Iraq in 2003 while on assignment for The Boston Globe. To continue her legacy, the IWMF sponsors a woman journalist for a nine-month research fellowship in human-rights journalism and social justice issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies. The awardee this year is a young Iraqi journalist, Huda Ahmed, whose essay touches on many of the sentiments expressed by her American counterparts. Ahmed wrote that in April 2003 there were thousands of foreign journalists in Baghdad. "Today, I can just about name every foreign writer left in my country." With fewer outsiders reporting, she wants to prepare for the day when only Iraqi journalists will tell the story of their country, and she wants to better understand the U.S. policies and politics that made Iraq "the Bush administration's experiment in exporting its own democratic ideals to the Middle East." She notes that Americans debate over how much freedom they would give up to protect themselves from terrorists. "Here in Baghdad, where we plan trips to buy groceries like military operations—precise, swift and with hopes of avoiding casualties ... I hear people ask, 'What is the use of freedom if it means nothing but death?'" Like so many people, Ahmed asks, "Is it worth it?"