Good journalists don't base their stories on highly dubious "facts." And they try to avoid reports that will encourage violence. Unfortunately, a recent segment on NPR's Morning Edition (10/26/07) violated both rules.
NPR Iraq correspondent Anne Garrels' report was based around the accounts of three men who were being held prisoner by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia. The captives were supposedly "renegade" members of Sadr's militia who said "they were trained in roadside bombs and car bombings in Iran...to attack Americans and sow suspicion and violence between Shiites and Sunnis." The details of the prisoners' accounts made up much of Garrels' report, despite her noting that "the three detainees had clearly been tortured."
"There was blood all over their clothes," Garrels reported. "They were in such bad shape they couldn't walk. They had to be dragged onto the chairs, and one of them was just sobbing."
Given the brutal treatment of the three men, there is no reason to put any stock whatsoever in the claims they made in the presence of their captors. As Alfred W. McCoy writes in his book A Question of Torture: "The past two millennia are rich with examples that confirm, time again... the strong can resist torture and the weak will say anything to end their pain." Nevertheless, Garrels began recounting their statements in response to anchor Steve Inskeep's asking "the question that's on the minds of many Americans right now, which is what is Iran's role in all this violence?" Why does NPR believe that stories produced by torture help to answer that question?
The one note of skepticism came in a follow-up question from Inskeep: "Well, if the story that these tortured prisoners told was true--if it's true--how were they sowing suspicion between Shiites and Sunnis?" Garrels ignored the opportunity to stress the unreliability of information derived from torture, and instead continued to relate details of the captives' stories as though they were newsworthy.
Airing information whose veracity is utterly dubious is a clear disservice to NPR's audience; it's doubtful that the network would have taken the claims seriously had the U.S. government not been "making the same claim about Iran this week," as Inskeep noted in an introduction to the story. (Try to imagine NPR airing the claims of people who had been tortured by an Iraqi militia into "confessing" that they had conducted terrorism on behalf of the U.S. government.)
In addition to its journalistic worthlessness, NPR's report sets a terrible precedent. Garrels described how she was "invited to an interrogation session of three renegade Sadr militiamen, apparently to show us how the movement is cleaning up its ranks." By airing the Sadr militia's torture-based claims on an influential U.S. radio network, NPR invited other violent groups to use torture to extract whatever statements are deemed useful to attract international press coverage.
Please call on NPR's ombud to address the network's irresponsible reporting of torture-based confessions.
NPR Ombud Alicia Shepard
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