- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

Saddam’s trial

There are dozens of extra journalists in Baghdad this week, scratching around for stories now that the trial of Saddam Hussein has been postponed.

Newspapers from around the world sent reporters to cover the trial, which began on schedule Wednesday but immediately was adjourned until Nov. 28.

Freelancers also began arriving in the Iraqi capital, anticipating what looked like a long-running story that would give them a chance to recover the substantial costs of getting to Baghdad and maintaining secure housing there.

Our reporter Sharon Behn describes having run across three German freelancers who had made their way to Iraq from Yemen. Another was our regular contributor Paul Martin, who traveled from London at considerable personal expense and has already had several trial-related stories in our pages.

Responsibility for deciding who would get the small number of coveted spots for reporters in the courtroom at Saddam’s trial fell to officials at the U.S. Embassy, largely by default.

“The embassy is only involved in this process of media logistics at all because the court has lacked the ability to carry out this function,” an embassy official e-mailed last week, explaining to Mrs. Behn just two days before the hearing why she had not yet been notified about coverage arrangements.

“We hope and expect the court will begin to take a more active role in these matters, and as they do we will try to ensure that courthouse access is maximized for all sorts of media organizations.”

With the demand for seats far exceeding the supply, a decision was made well in advance that the spots would first go to the handful of news organizations that maintain a permanent staff presence in the country.

The few remaining seats were to have been allocated on a rotating basis among journalists who signed up on a list. But as with so much else in Iraq, the plan changed at the last minute.

Making do

“The previous embassy spokesman and I had come up with a seat allocation scheme for the [Iraqi Special Tribunal] courthouse that involved media categories and lotteries,” the embassy staffer’s e-mail explained.

“The purpose was to give visiting media organizations access while providing priority to the largest resident bureaus of major media outlets. … This was a plan not just for hyped media milestones such as the first day of trial but for the long haul of many hundreds of days of trial sessions in all the cases that will come before the IST.

“Very late in the game a different scheme was imposed on us from above, and for this one day there will be no at-large seats allocated. It remains to be seen whether we can revive our original system for the hundreds of trial days to come. After this week we will revisit the issue and you will be kept informed. … Apologies for this situation.”

Being left outside the courtroom was a disappointment, but hardly crippling. The proceedings were televised to the country and we had full access to the reports of the wire agency correspondents inside, who picked up on some details that the TV cameras missed.

Having to watch from outside also made it easier to talk to senior officials and ordinary Iraqis, getting their reactions to the sight of their former leader on trial.

Meanwhile, we received a sharp reminder that news coverage in Iraqi remains a very dangerous business.

Rory Carroll, a 33-year-old Irish-born reporter for the British newspaper the Guardian, had decided to watch the trial on television with an Iraqi family in the Shi’ite slum known as Sadr City, the Reuters news agency reported.

On leaving the house, Mr. Carroll — an acquaintance of both Mrs. Behn and Mr. Martin — was seized by a group of armed kidnappers. Fortunately, Mr. Carroll was set free on Thursday.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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