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David Schlesinger: What I want from the Pentagon

David Schlesinger on Wednesday demanded justice for journalists killed covering war and called for acknowledgment, transparency and accountability from the Pentagon.

The editor-in-chief wrote in The Guardian about a growing furore over a recently leaked video of the deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh in Iraq three years ago. His article, published under the headline “War journalists have a right to safety”, follows in full:

When Wikileaks published the harrowing video of the deaths in Iraq of my colleagues Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his assistant and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, the world finally had the transparency it should have had about this tragedy.

It was impossible for me to watch and not feel outrage and great sorrow - but this is not about trying to tell anyone else what to feel. This is about trying to find out exactly what happened and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

What I want from the Pentagon - and from all militaries - is simple: Acknowledgment, transparency, accountability.

Acknowledgment means both understanding at headquarters and training in the field that journalists have a right to be on the battlefield, and not just those embedded with a military unit. A journalist’s mission is to provide understanding, provide context and provide the reporting that citizens deserve. That mission requires journalists cover the story from multiple angles, including ones that potentially put them in harm’s way. A war prosecuted in darkness is a war without accountability. The journalist’s role is vital for a democracy and it must be acknowledged.

Then, there must be acknowledgment that true journalists come in every race, both sexes and a multitude of nationalities. Within Reuters, our 2,800 journalists come from 80 different nationalities. They all have a right to safety.

As too many tragic deaths, including those of Namir and Saeed, have proven, soldiers in tense warfare repeatedly mistake cameras and tripods for weapons. They’re not. There must be a way of training soldiers to distinguish the forms. It is imperative to have the consciousness that the shape in the scope might not be a threat.

Transparency is vital. This is the honesty for all to learn lessons from what has transpired. Soon after the incident, Reuters editors were shown only one portion of the video. We immediately changed our operating procedures - the first portion of the video made clear that anyone walking with a group of armed people could be considered a target. We immediately made it a rule that our journalists could not even walk near armed groups.

However, we were not shown the second part of the video, where the helicopter fired on a van trying to evacuate the wounded. Had we seen it, we could have adjusted our procedures further.

Transparency saves lives.

We have been trying for more than two and a half years to get this video from the military through formal legal means without success and in fact have an appeal to their last denial of our request still pending; now it transpires that officials who repeatedly told us that what the video contained was important enough for security reasons to withhold it from us, made no efforts to secure it and weren’t even clear where it was. It took a whistleblower to make sure the world had the transparency it needed and deserved.

I want the Pentagon to join me in a search for thorough and complete transparency.

Finally there is accountability. There are rules of war as there are in peace. The lack of transparency has meant there’s been absence of accountability.

Let’s dig behind the video. Let’s fully understand the rules the military were operating under. Let’s have a complete picture of what was going through the fliers’ minds. Let’s hear the Pentagon explain its interpretation of the rules of engagement and the Geneva Convention and how the actions either did or did not accord with them in its view. And importantly, let’s keep in mind that while we focus on this particular tragedy, it is the rare circumstance that when a journalist is injured or killed in a conflict area, there is a video of the death, and even more rare as this case demonstrates, for the public to see such a video.

And then let’s have the debate. Seeing the hundreds of articles and thousands of comments in the wake of the video’s release, it’s clear that people on every side of the issue have strong feelings. Let’s have a debate based on fact and not on emotion.

Acceptance, transparency and accountability - these add up to true justice. And that, in the end, is what I am after. I want justice for the journalists who lost their lives.

Justice is not vengeance. Justice is about holding all to account to make sure that proper lessons are learned, that mistakes aren’t repeated and that tragedies don’t happen again. ■

The Guardian