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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 March, 2003, 12:49 GMT
When are pictures of POWs propaganda?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online

Captured US pilot David Williams (left) and al-Qaeda suspects held by the US
Should they get equal treatment?

Footage of captured soldiers can either be unsensational reporting of a war's progress or it can be distressing propaganda. There's a fine line between the two.

First came a tape showing five American soldiers being questioned and pictures of dead men in US army uniform. The following day, Iraq paraded two American helicopter pilots on television. Now a film which shows Iraqis with two prisoners of war - claimed to be lorry drivers for the British Army - and two dead UK soldiers has been screened.

Western media outlets have covered the surrender of Iraqi troops, showing kneeling men with their hands bound in duct tape and others being given water at gunpoint.

The images of coalition captives has caused outrage in the US and UK, and prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to warn both sides to respect the human rights of their prisoners of war.

US troops give an injured Iraqi soldier water
Basic food rations should keep prisoners in good health
Suitable clothing should be supplied, preferably prisoners' original uniforms
Prisoners must be protected against violence or intimidation, insults and public curiosity
POWs should be released and repatriated after ceasefire

Under the Geneva Conventions - the US, UK and Iraq are state signatories - captured soldiers must be given food and clothing, and protected from violence, intimidation and "public curiosity".

The treatment of POWs, and how they are portrayed in the media, is a delicate issue with much at stake - not least the competing efforts to secure the moral high ground.

The issue all comes down to the motive in showing images of the prisoners, says Ian Piper of the ICRC. "If the intention is to humiliate these captives as part of the propaganda war, this is clearly a breach of the convention."

Yet a POW need not be badly treated to serve a propaganda purpose. If, for instance, an army were to film enemy soldiers being given medical care, it may hope that this will persuade others to defect; that it will prompt reciprocal treatment of its captured soldiers; and that the public will see that it is a war humanely fought.

But by demonstrating the good - and legal - treatment given to POWs, the coalition could be guilty of using them to satisfy public curiosity.

Royal Marines guard an Iraqi prisoner
Some media agencies are choosing not to identify POWs

The Pentagon and the UK's Ministry of Defence last week asked the media not to identify Iraqi prisoners.

Some media outlets have chosen to pixilate the faces of the captives. Others, however, are showing the faces of POWs from both sides, reasoning that the convention applies to states, not to the media.

Human shields

This is not the first time the Iraqis have shown POWs on camera. In the first Gulf war, downed RAF pilots John Peters and John Nichol were urged to parrot "confessions" on Iraqi television. Their bruised faces and blank eyes became an enduring image of that conflict.

Downed RAF pilots held in 1991
John Peters (left) and John Nichol

Saddam Hussein's regime used the images to rally Iraqi troops - and to spark fears that the airmen could be used as human shields. The Iraqis positioned hundreds of civilians - both Westerners and Iraqis - at key sites such as power stations to prevent bombing raids. There was nothing voluntary about this role.

Although such images may be demoralising for the public back home, at least the families know their loved ones are still alive. "My family drew strange comfort from the fact that, even though I was in Iraqi hands, they knew I had survived the missile attack on my Tornado," Mr Nichol has said.

Cuban detainees

In its outrage over the treatment of American soldiers, the US has been accused of having double standards. For it has refused to grant prisoner of war status to the 650 Taleban and al-Qaeda suspects held for months in Guantanamo Bay.

While conditions are said to have improved somewhat since photos were released of hooded, shackled figures crouching in open-air pens, the detainees have been denied access to lawyers and have yet to be charged with any offence - all, that is, bar John Walker Lindh, the US citizen who was sentenced to 20 years last October.

The Americans say the men are not covered by the Geneva Convention because they are "unlawful combatants" rather than POWs. As this term has no status in international law, opponents fear they have been consigned to what the Master of the Rolls Lord Phillips has described as a "legal black hole".

The UK's Daily Mirror, 25 March

The Prime Minister Tony Blair has defended the treatment of the suspects, nine of whom are British citizens. At his monthly news conference on Tuesday, he said: "We investigated any allegations of human rights' abuses and are satisfied that is not happening. It's a unique and difficult situation."

Asked if captured coalition troops in Iraq could be regarded as unlawful combatants, given claims questioning the legality of the war, Mr Blair said: "These are troops acting under the authority of the state. They are quite clearly POWs and should be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention."

But in an illustration of the emotional charge surrounding the issue, the anti-war Daily Mirror said there was no difference between the breaches committed by Iraq and the US.

"The world should condemn every nation and every leader who flagrantly breaches those rules. Whether it is Iraq or the USA, Saddam Hussein or George W Bush. There cannot be one rule for America and one for the rest of the world."

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