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United States13 February 2002

A Washington Post correspondent in Afghanistan restrained at gunpoint by American soldiers

In a letter to Donald H. Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, Reporters Without Borders (RSF - Reporters sans Frontières) expressed its preoccupation after Doug Struck, correspondent with the Washington Post en Afghanistan, was restrained at gunpoint by American soldiers while he was investigating the impact of an American missile fired in Afghanistan. RSF asked the Secretary of State to provide explanations concerning this incident. "Our organization is worried, as is the staff of the Washington Post, about why American soldiers in Afghanistan prevent journalists from reporting about military operations in Afghanistan," said Robert Ménard, general secretary of RSF. Robert Ménard also pointed out that American special forces are suspected of attacking three American press photographers on 20 December 2001.

According to information obtained by RSF, on 10 February 2002, Doug Struck, a Washington Post correspondent in Afghanistan, was threatened and restrained at gunpoint by American soldiers, who said they would shoot him if he did not respect a security perimeter around the US missile impact area. "If you go further, you would be shot," said the commanding officer. The Washington Post said it was "baffled" by this incident. Philip Bennett, assistant managing editor for foreign news with the Washington Post, questioned "on what basis the military in Afghanistan prevents American reporters from reporting on aspects of military operations in Afghanistan." During a press conference given on 11 February, Victoria Clarke, Defense Department spokeswoman, and John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations, refused to confirm this information. Nevertheless, recalling that commander Massoud had been killed by two men claiming to be journalists, the American officials explained that the situation in Afghanistan was so chaotic that American soldiers could not be sure that someone claiming to be an American reporter really was what he said. In a dispatch from Agence France Presse dated 12 February, the American colonel Frank Wiercinski, commander of the multinational force deployed at Kandahar airport, "replied that the journalist was accompanied by armed men, that he approached a combat patrol without presenting himself, and that he was lucky he wasn’t shot."

In an audio interview available on the Washington Post web site, Doug Struck says that he informed the American military authorities in Khowst (approximately 150 kilometers south of Kabul) before leaving for the zone in question. He also said that the soldiers present threatened to shoot him after consulting their superiors. Struck wanted to go to Zhawar (50 kilometers south of Khowst) where a missile, fired on 4 February by a US spy plane, had killed suspected members of Al Qaeda. Since there was a possibility that one of the victims might be the leader of the terrorist organization, Osama bin Laden, American military commanders sent a task force to investigate.

RSF points out that on 20 December 2001, Joao Silva and Tyler Hicks, photographers with the New York Times, and David Guttenfelder, photographer with Associated Press, were roughed up and threatened by Afghans in the presence of members of American special forces in Meelawa, near Tora Bora (east of the country). The American commandos refused to allow US journalists to be present in this area, and local Afghan forces were in charge of preventing the press from reaching it. According to David Guttenfelder, members of the US special forces personally gave orders to Afghans to arrest them. Film was confiscated from the photographers. During a conference organized in New York on 12 February 2002 by the Museum of Television and Radio on war coverage, several media prodded the Bush administration to open up the war to more scrutiny.

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