Anthrax Attacks: Journalists as Targets

Whoever sent the letters contaminated with anthrax spores seems to have a particular interest in media outlets—with NBC, ABC and CBS, the New York Times and New York Post being apparent targets, as well as the Sun supermarket tabloid in Florida, where the first case was identified. Beyond the horror of disease being used as a weapon, the apparent targeting of news personnel is a troubling sign of the erosion of the protected status of journalists—a protection that is vital to any credible flow of information during a crisis.

The idea that journalists can be targets has been promoted not only by these terrorists—whether foreign or domestic—but by the U.S. military. In April 1999, during the Kosovo War, the U.S. bombed the headquarters of Radio-Television Serbia (RTS), a state-owned but civilian media outlet in Belgrade, killing at least 16 people. Pentagon officials attempted to justify the bombing to Amnesty International by calling RTS “a propaganda organ”—a label anyone can apply to any media outlet they don’t like.

In fact, no matter how partisan its content, news reporting is a civilian activity and therefore not a legitimate target. (Situations where radio or television broadcasts are used to direct military activity are a separate—and very rare—situation.) Amnesty International rightly noted that the attack on RTS met the legal definition of a war crime.

The bombing of RTS, however, elicited little condemnation from fellow journalists in the United States; FAIR could find only three newspapers in the Nexis database that editorialized about the attack. Even the Committee to Protect Journalists, dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, excluded the RTS workers killed from its annual list of journalists attacked because of their work. FAIR criticized this omission at the time as a dangerous precedent (Extra!, 9-10/00).

In the current war against Afghanistan, the U.S. bombed the transmitters for the Taliban government’s Radio Shari’a on October 8—the second day of the attack—and has since bombed some 20 regional radio sites. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld defended the targeting of these facilities, saying: “Naturally, they cannot be considered to be free media outlets. They are mouthpieces of the Taliban and those harboring terrorists’’ (Index on Censorship online, 10/18/01).

When the U.S. government and press freedom groups alike take the position that a news outlet becomes a valid target when it broadcasts “propaganda” or serves as a “mouthpiece” for a hated government, they encourage any fanatic or group of fanatics to decide for themselves what those words mean. In a crisis where many TV news shows carry an American flag label, and Dan Rather announces that wherever the president “wants me to line up, just tell me where,” it’s necessary to stress that nationalistic, even jingoistic journalists have the same protection as any other.