Friday, October 26, 2007

NPR Reports Tortured Confessions

If you are a reporter and you are shown three tortured people – and it was entirely obvious they were tortured with broken limbs and blood on them -- who spout confessions, how do you report what they said? Do you give it any credibility at all? Or do you report it and simply say “well if these confessions were true it means that ….”

Well if you're NPR and "Morning Edition" you’ll repeat the confessions practically verbatim and then ask what it means.

Today’s "Morning Edition" on NPR, there was a story by reporter Ann Garrels “Iraqi Group Accuses Iran of Fueling Violence” which was ostensibly about Moqtada Al Sadr is claiming that Iran is shaping Iraq’s violence. Of course his movement is really fractured he’s lost control and he has a motivation for turning the blame on Iran.

Here is part of the story which I transcribed:

Ann Garrels: The head of Sadr’s militia in the Western side of Baghdad invited NPR to an interrogation session of three of these reengage Sadr militiamen apparently to show us how the movement was cleaning up its ranks. We were not allowed to tape it.

In the Sadr safehouse three detainees had clearly tortured…and the story they told was they were trained in roadside bombs, and car bombings in Iran. They say they worked for money and that their orders were to attack Americans and so sow suspicion and violence between Shiites and Sunnis.

Steve Inskeep: How were they tortured?

Anne Garrels: There was blood all over their clothes, 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.

Steve Inskeep: If the story that these tortured prisoners told was true, if it’s true, how were they sowing suspicion between Shiites and Sunnis?

Anne Garrels: Well In one case they said they went into a contested area of Bagdad, pretended they were Sunnis, raped a Shiite girl they then went to the Sadr organization and said “look what Sunnis did to an innocent Shiite girl” and the result were stepped up attacks on Sunnis.

These young men also said they killed local Sadr militia leaders in order to gain control of certain areas. And they also say they use American troops to further their ends by calling in with tips about so-called “bad Sadrists” so the Americans will take them out. Now once again they said they’re doing this for money on orders of Iranian agents working on the Iran-Iraq border. They said their mission was to create an unstable Iraq.
I understand that the focus of the story was not on the allegations but, considering the political content of the confessions, airing them without more skepticism (listening to the report Inskeep is hardly treating them as what they are, worthless confessions), is irresponsible. Fact is I think Garrels could have made more of a story about witnessing the interrogation rather than on Sadr’s loss of control.

UPDATE: 11/1/07 Morning Editon has followed up on the issue to addressed the question of reporting on tortured confession. Garrels misses some of the point a little when she says, repeatedly, that she and other NPR staff did not actually witness the torture. I don't think the problem I had with the story is that Garrels was there and that she did not do anything to stop the militia men from torturing their prisoners. My concern is how the allegations were reported, and in her follow up she said she did follow the information to see if it checked and says some of it did. (Of course it's unknown if those men did it, or performed those actions for the given motivations they stated, etc).

I understand fully that Garrels and the NPR staff in the room were in a tough situation -- my issue isn't how they handled the situation it how they chose to report it. I think it's a very good ethical question how does a reporter handle information that is obtained via torture. Perhaps they shouldn't "follow" the leads precisely because it validates the methods and more importantly they might miss out on a different story because they are following the leads provided by the torturers.

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