SBS Journalist John Martinkus had a surreal moment recently when requesting information from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Looking to give context to coverage of Douglas Wood’s capture in Iraq, SBS contacted DFAT for a statement on Australian hostages taken since the war began.
"They sent us back a release that said: Douglas Wood is the first one to be taken, although there was an incident last October, in which SBS journalist John Martinkus claimed to have been taken by Sunni militants in Baghdad," he says.
Martinkus was on assignment for SBS current affairs program Dateline when he was kidnapped by insurgents on 16 October last year. He was held for 20 hours and interrogated, before negotiating his own release.
"I was very offended when I read that," he says. "It was calling into question my professional integrity; implying that it would be possible that I would make something like this up. For me to do that would be like professional suicide, and of course, for SBS to air that would be a national disgrace to their audience."
Ironically, Martinkus says he was actually approached on his return from Iraq by an Australian Government taskforce for information that may be of assistance in future hostage negotiations. That same taskforce is now attempting to secure Wood’s release.
"So on the one hand you’ve got the Australian Government defaming me, and on the other hand you’ve got the Australian Government asking me for advice, on an incident that, foreign affairs says, is not clear even happened. It’s just hypocrisy of a massive order," he says.
Instead of the outpouring of public sympathy that one might expect after such an experience, Martinkus endured a tirade of criticism on his return from Iraq, prompted by his somewhat brash doorstop comments as he got off the plane.
"I was asked [by the media]as I was coming out of the airport, why I wasn’t killed and other people were. And I answered – I probably didn’t choose my words very carefully – simply because, from the perspective of the insurgents, the others deserved to die because they worked for the coalition, and I didn’t work for the coalition.
"It was as simple as that: that was the point upon which I had to argue to win my release, and that was the point upon which they were prepared to kill me.
"I’m not trying to make a cheap political shot when I say that," he assures. "I am merely describing the situation. And I think it’s such a brutal reality over there that it was something that people here were not really prepared to hear. Translators who work for the American military, contractors, and even Iraqi [politicians]and police, are killed all the time. It’s a very common thing to happen over there. This is how the war is evolving."
Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer initially tried to put the onus for his abduction back onto Martinkus, claiming that he had been in a dangerous area that he should not have traveled to. In fact he was a couple of hundred metres from the Australian embassy, which was guarded by Australian troops in fortified positions, when he was snatched. The minister branded Martinkus’s comments "close to the most appalling thing any Australian has said about the situation in Iraq".
"The [Australian] Government tried to discredit me because my assessment of the situation was directly contradictory to theirs," says Martinkus.
"The Government continues to say that we’re in Iraq because we’re helping in the reconstruction effort; we’re rebuilding democracy. But the insurgents see these activities as economically driven attempts to colonise their country, or exploit their resources. Now whether I think that’s true or not, I think it was deeply embarrassing for the Government [for my experience to become public], because they were still pushing a line that when you looked at what was happening on the ground was patently false."
Martinkus believes the Australian media’s response was less contrived, and driven primarily by a naive assessment of what is actually happening in Iraq, by journalists with no direct experience of the conflict.
"Iraq as a conflict has not been very well covered in the Australian media by our own press," he says. "We’ve relied on other media organisations to do it for us. There are a lot of good reasons for that: there’s cost, there’s security. A lot of networks and papers aren’t prepared to keep people there permanently for these reasons."
"When I was kidnapped, I was the only Australian correspondent working for an Australian organisation over there. So the situation that I was describing hadn’t really been described first-hand by anybody else. I was describing some very unpleasant realities, which hadn’t really been exposed to the Australian people before.
"We’ve been very lucky to this point that most of our troops in Iraq have not been directly engaged in combat operations. We’ve had very few casualties. Unlike the American public, which has had to deal with a lot more human damage, we haven’t had to do that yet, so our view of the war in Iraq has been a little sheltered.
"I think now with the Douglas Wood case and I hate to say it, because I, more than anyone else, have an idea of what that guy is going through but I think the brutal reality of just how much the occupation is being opposed is only now sinking into the Australian media; how much we’re hated because we’ve taken part in this war. We’re identified so fully with the Americans that we’re on a par with them, and their actions are identified with us, we’re seen as complicit in them and that’s why this guy is being held now."
Martinkus believes that his release by his captors, and attempts to explain the situation on his return, brought into question the popularly held belief that Iraqi insurgents are indiscriminate killers. He believes this unsettled people.
"One of the first things I said was: they’re not just killing people randomly, they’re thinking about it, and you can talk to them and reason with them. They’re not just mad blood-thirsty lunatics, which is how Downer and Co keep alluding to them, they’re actually running a program.
"And yes, that program employs some incredibly brutal methods: they do cut people’s heads off, and they do think they’re doing the right thing.
"What I was talking about was tactics and methods, but [the media]were stuck in ‘good and evil’ and it’s just not that simple."
Martinkus concedes that he could have been more savvy in how he handled the media on his return to Australia, but explains that he had not slept, had a shower or changed his clothes since being kidnapped at gunpoint 60 hours earlier.
"I just don’t think anybody really gave me the benefit of the doubt," he says.
"It made me thoroughly disgusted with large parts of the Australian media.
"I just thought, well, hell, I’ve just been through the worst experience of my life and I don’t need this. I actually had the guts to go out there and try to report what’s going on in Iraq, and it reflected a reality that you didn’t like. I very nearly got killed doing it, and it was only because I actually did know what was going on that I was able to get out of it. And then I get back to Australia and I’m some kind of ‘supporter of terrorists’. It was almost like people were making great political capital out of kicking me while I was down."
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