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Shadow Army

About the author
Jens Münch is a photographer and journalist, reporting from Kuwait and other places.
flag over the Sheraton hotel

As US troops are deployed in Kuwait on a massive scale, the media are scrambling to meet the same deadline for war. But is there any place for objective and diverse reporting in the race for winning coverage?

Competition between media companies is having the effect that journalists are too busy to think about the many questions which ought to accompany a possible war. With news needing to be produced, although nothing much is happening here, an overly intimate relationship with the armed forces and heavy investment by media corporations is producing a catch-22 in effect: the media have come to report objectively on the war but seem dangerously unaware that their journalism might be what allows it, even encourages it, to happen.

Part of the problem is that there are only so few places from which to cover the conflict. Baghdad is still the prime location but out of bounds for the majority because of stringent visa rules. The rest of the journalistic force is divided between Iran, where they aim to enter Iraq through the north, and those in Kuwait who have opted to ride in the wake of the armed forces.

With a large portion of network and newspaper resources and foreign correspondents focused in these places, it is inevitable that a lot of reporting should be produced here. Unfortunately, a small country like Kuwait does not supply enough news to go around and so speculation and sensationalism are common.

Indeed, although there has been no fighting yet, much of the news coverage is characterised by a focus on conflict; reports of regional al-Qaida links and images of the US army exercising in the desert (as they have done for years) appear daily. Little space is left to clarify the reasons for war or to probe alternative solutions. Add to the sensationalism a cosy relationship with the army and you have a problem.

the set
A spanish tv-crew (antenna 3) persuades the father of a kuwaiti POW in Kuwait to pose for the camera

Embedding: cosying up to the army

The Public Affairs Office of the US army has altered its policy towards the media markedly since the Gulf War in 1990. This time around the media are encouraged to be assigned to a division and follow them in battle: journalists are ‘embedded’ within the army units. The official policy is that soldiers will train the same way they are intended to fight, under the spotlight, and journalists are therefore already joining them in the field for short- or long-term excursions.

Being embedded guarantees front line coverage, but also requires the journalist to be vetted by local officials or the Department of Defense in Washington, both of which apply less than transparent criteria. It is made quite clear that those who do not live up to the expectations will not appear on the next list of approved journalists posted up here in Kuwait.

Tough decisions: the Sheraton or the Hilton

As journalists take part in these excursions they are in the difficult situation of getting ready for war whilst at the same time remaining open to the possibility that it might not happen. And so are their organisations, as millions of dollars are poured into the operations. At the Sheraton, which has become the media headquarters, networks have rented out entire floors and turned them into media battle stations with maps and whiteboards and the floor lined with cables.

To the glee of the many networks which were outdone in the bidding spree for a Sheraton floor, however, the coalition forces have recently changed the media headquarters to the Hilton for security reasons. Even with the Sheraton combat stations relegated, for the moment, to strategically inferior positions in the media battle, the positions are far from fixed and the war for coverage has barely started. The next important struggle between the crews will begin early next week as embedment with the troops begins.

The atmosphere in Kuwait is one of anticipation, of waiting for the inevitable. When a local businessman, selling 4x4 desert jeeps to reporters, was asked whether or not Saddam should be overthrown he answered diplomatically, “Why not?” That answer also seems to characterise the attitudes of many journalists in the country to the issue of war. There are simply too many other things to worry about.

scuffle


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