David Schlesinger, the editor in chief of Reuters, declined to run a story by one of his own reporters containing claims that the 2007 killings of two Reuters staffers in Baghdad by U.S. troops may have been war crimes.
Reuters staffers Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh were killed by U.S. helicopter gunships in Baghdad in 2007. Video of the attack, which shows the journalists standing next to unidentified armed men on a Baghdad street and records the destruction of a van attempting to retrieve a wounded Chmagh, was published this week by Wikileaks.
The video has launched a debate about the legality of the attack, which also wounded two children (you can read our take here). Yesterday, Reuters’ deputy Brussels bureau chief Luke Baker filed a muscular story repeating allegations from several human rights and international law experts that the killings may have constituted war crimes. But Reuters chief David Schlesinger, a tipster says, spiked the story because “it needed more comment from the Pentagon and U.S. lawyers.” It never ran, but you can read it in full below.
Reuters’ response to the disclosure of the video has been relatively muted. Schlesinger issued a statement on Tuesday calling the video “disturbing” but declining to assign blame or accuse the U.S. military of improper behavior:
In this particular case, [I] want to meet with the Pentagon to press the need to learn lessons from this tragedy.
These stories are not easy for us to report or to be involved in. They test our commitment to viewing events and actions objectively.
What matters in the end is not how we as colleagues and friends feel; what matters is the wider public debate that our stories and this video provoke.
Baker’s story went much farther, quoting three human rights experts describing the killings as war crimes. While portions of those quotes ended up running in adifferent Reuters story on the video that appeared yesterday and which Baker is credited as having contributed to, some of the more direct accusations did not. For instance, Baker quoted Clive Stafford-Smith, a human rights lawyer, saying, “I don’t think there’s any question that this is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.” Stafford-Smith didn’t appear in any of Reuters’ coverage of the incident. Baker’s story also paraphrased Reuters lawyer Thomas Kim saying that “further investigation may be required” into the incident—a sentiment that Schlesinger did not express in his initial statement. Kim’s remark does not appear in any of Reuters’ coverage of the killings. The U.S. Central Command has said it has no plans to reopen an investigation.
Our tipster is baffled by Schlesinger’s apparent hesitance to take on the Pentagon over the killings: “Nothing about wanting to seek justice for the deaths of the Reuters’ employees or about seeking the truth. Just a bland statement about wanting to work with the Pentagon. Whose side is this guy on? Does he have any spine?”
A Reuters spokesperson denied in absolute terms the accusation that Baker’s story was spiked. “It’s 100% not true that the story was spiked,” she said. “Schlesinger sent it back for more reporting. But it was overtaken by events, and parts of it eventually ran in an updated story.” In a later statement, the spokeswoman added that the story was held up in “an effort to incorporate a wider range of experts.”
UPDATE: Reuters’ spokeswoman has asked us to publish the statement that she provided to us after our phone conversation in its entirety:
It is absolutely untrue that this story was spiked. It was sent back for more reporting in an effort to incorporate a wider range of experts. The story was then overtaken by a more updated one out of Washington that incorporated reporting from the original piece.
This isn’t the first time Schlesinger has been accused of killing Reuters stories for fishy reasons. In December, Talking Biz News reported that Schlesinger spiked a damaging story about hedge fund manager Steve Cohen after Cohen called to complain. He later admitted that it wasn’t “a bad story” and that it “could have run.”