The plight of Jill Carroll, the freelance reporter for The Christian Science Monitor who is being held captive by insurgents in Iraq, underscores just how dangerous it is for reporters to cover events there. It is believed to be the most deadly conflict for journalists in decades.
Chris Hedges, who has been a war correspondent in Latin America, the Balkans, North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, was a reporter for The New York Times during the first Gulf War, in 1991. Toward the end of that conflict, Hedges drove with NPR's Neal Conan from Kuwait toward Basra in Iraq. Iraqi soldiers quickly intercepted the two reporters.
"Neal and I were in my Jeep, and the armed gunmen thrust us into the back seat and drove off the hard pavement into the desert itself," Hedges says. "My fear was we were going to be rolled out the back door and shot through the head, and discarded like baggage."
As frightening as it was, there was some sense of order. Hedges amused one Iraqi colonel with a series of corny jokes in Arabic he picked up from a Palestinian language teacher. The reporters were held for nearly a week.
Hedges says it's much more dangerous to confront informal militia than soldiers in a military hierarchy.
"When you're dealing with kids with guns, with no training — and there's no accountability — then there's a quantum leap in the danger," Hedges says.
It is not known precisely who Jill Carroll's captors are. They've demanded that all women prisoners held by the U.S. military in Iraq be released. According to the Associated Press, Iraqi officials have said six of the eight women are expected to be released next week —but say the release was not linked to abduction. Some prominent Sunni clerics have also called for her to be freed.
Christian Science Monitor Washington bureau chief David Cook appealed to Carroll's captors for mercy Wednesday.
"A while ago, Jill wrote that she went to Iraq because, '(She) could do more good there than in the U.S. explaining the difficult issues facing the people of the Middle East,'" Cook told reporters at a press conference.
He stood outside the Monitor's offices a few short blocks from the White House.
"It would be wrong to murder someone who has devoted herself unselfishly to promoting understanding of the Iraqi people," Cook said.
Watchdog groups say the conflict in Iraq is the deadliest one for journalists since the Vietnam War. Lynn Tehini is responsible for monitoring North Africa and the Middle East for the advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders.
"For the first time, terrorists are entering the houses of the journalists and they do not hesitate to kill them in front of their families," Tehini says. "They do not hesitate to kidnap them, in daytime, in the streets, or where there are a lot of people walking."
Tehini spoke to NPR by telephone from her offices in Paris. She says foreign reporters are sometimes grabbed for use as bargaining chips. Iraqi journalists working for Western news outlets are more likely just to be slain, she says.
"Today, all journalists are in danger in Iraq," Tehini says.
Reporters Without Borders says 55 journalists and 22 media assistants have been killed since the start of hostilities in March 2003. Some of these have been caught in crossfire. But others have been targeted.
Reporters who stay inside the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, controlled by the U.S. military, are likely to be safer. But their ability to depict actual life in Iraq is severely restricted. Most major news organizations have set up shop outside the Green Zone and have made extensive security arrangements.
Jill Carroll reported 50 stories for The Christian Science Monitor last year. She tried to keep a low profile while she pursued them, so she didn't rent armored cars or hire bodyguards. It was her intent to escape unwanted attention that way.
John Stack, the vice president for newsgathering for the Fox News Channel, says news executives face a terrible tradeoff.
"With this most recent development, it's clear that journalists can be a target for the insurgents, and at that point, we want to keep as low a profile as possible," Stack says. "As journalists, we want to tell the story as well, so we constantly walk that fine line of being out and telling a story and also keeping them safe to tell the story another day."
A veteran journalist who has covered conflict on and off for 20 years, Stack is familiar with the adrenaline rush that draws reporters to war. But he says this one is fundamentally different.
In the other conflicts, Stack says, “there was always the risk that journalists could get involved in the crossfire. But harm to them usually was a mistake." That's no longer the case.