Iraqis need people like James Brandon to tell their story

The gunmen who kidnapped the British journalist James Brandon from his hotel late on Thursday probably had no idea they would have to release him a few hours later. Nor, I suspect, did James Brandon. The foreigners taken, both by insurgents and by the common criminals who have flourished since the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq, have suffered various fates. Some have been ransomed. Others have been murdered. Many have been held and released without explanation.
Almost all have been used for propaganda purposes, to hasten the departure of foreign troops and contract workers from Iraq. Along with other familiar tactics such as ambushes, mass rallies, attacks on convoys and suicide bombings, the kidnappings are designed to end an unwelcome occupation. The threat to murder one Filipino hostage resulted in the withdrawal of the Philippines’ military contingent. Sometimes, kidnapping works.

It worked in Lebanon in the 1980s when the Shia Muslim Hezbollah kidnapped Westerners such as John McCarthy, Terry Anderson and myself. Far more Lebanese – Muslim and Christian – than foreigners became hostages, but nationals of Western countries were especially vulnerable while Hezbollah was seeking to expel both US and Israeli forces from their country. The suffering of families who waited years for the return of a father or a husband, or whose loved one died in captivity, cannot be excused on the basis of political necessity. The hostages themselves were innocents – teachers, clergymen, aid workers and journalists – who for the most part disapproved of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon as much as the Lebanese did. This did not matter to Hezbollah or its Iranian sponsors, while they waged a guerrilla war against Israeli occupation and Iran fought for its survival against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army with its massive US backing. Political kidnapping, cruel as it is, took place in a context over which the hostages themselves had no more control than the Lebanese majority had over Israel’s invasion or than ordinary Iraqis exercise over the actions of US soldiers in Iraq.

Brandon’s release at the behest of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shia Muslim followers is a hopeful sign to other journalists in Iraq that they may no longer be treated as part of the occupation. Rather, the insurgents are being encouraged to view the press as witnesses on behalf of a worldwide audience who can influence their governments through the ballot box and mass protest.

If the public knows what is going on in Iraq from independent observers, they can arm themselves with facts to confront government propaganda from Washington, London, Canberra and elsewhere that has been shown – again and again – to have been false. The recent mea culpas in The Washington Post and New York Times, that their newspapers did not live up to their responsibilities to examine and criticise the Bush administration’s mendacious case for war, have only increased their obligation to inform readers of the consequences of that invasion and the subsequent occupation.

We, the public, especially in countries whose troops are in Iraq, need an independent and critical press to tell us what they are able to see. Because journalists have been targeted, along with soldiers, mercenaries and Halliburton staff, they have been for the most part confined to their compounds or hotels. This makes them more reliant on official Western sources, who cling to the proposition that only foreign terrorists and local malcontents oppose the presence of benevolent troops from America, Britain and, now, freedom-loving Azerbaijan.

It is too early to know what strategy the disparate resistance groups have developed and whether, as in Vietnam 40 years ago, they understand that allowing the press to work freely can only expose to the world the impact of military occupation on Iraqi society and on many of the foreign soldiers themselves. Some Iraqi insurgents, particularly when they watch news on the US satellite television channels that confine coverage to cheerleading the Bush administration’s policy, may be unsympathetic to arguments against kidnapping journalists. Worse, their justification for kidnapping civilians increases while US forces are detaining thousands of Iraqis without trial or public oversight.
James Brandon, who was at school with my son George, has said he will return to Iraq after a well-earned holiday. I hope he and other journalists will be safe there. We need them. But I suspect that Iraq, like Lebanon after its years of kidnapping, will be safer for foreign civilians when the foreign soldiers have gone home.

Charles Glass was kidnapped in Lebanon in 1987 and covered the wars in Kuwait in 1991 and Iraq in 2003 for ABC News.