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John Martinkus: ‘What my captors wanted to know’ When armed insurgents kidnapped John Martinkus in Iraq, they interrogated him on building a propaganda machine. A decade later, they became Daesh.

When I was kidnapped by Muslim insurgents in Iraq in 2004, they wanted one thing. They wanted to know how the Western media worked.

It was a carjacking. Just outside my hotel in Baghdad. One car in front, one behind the vehicle in which I was travelling. They waited until we were out of sight of the Australian-manned checkpoint across the road.

Then they struck.

The car in front stopped, blocking our way forward; the car behind blocked our way back. Armed men leapt out of both vehicles. They were dressed like normal Iraqi civilians. Bad shirts, short beards. But they had guns.

I tried to hold the door shut but as they wrenched it open the handle broke off in my hand. Then they were in the car, putting guns to my head. I had one thought at that moment: I am dead.

I fought the guy who got in the back seat. I had his pistol in a grip with both hands and forced it into his groin. He was strong and I remember yelling at my driver to reverse and ram the car blocking the road behind us. He couldn’t; another insurgent was holding a gun to his head and he drove forward as they told him.

I was trying to get my finger on the trigger, to shoot the insurgent beside me in the groin. As we started to drive, I yelled out the window at an Iraqi police checkpoint. I lost my grip on the handgun and that was it.

An American convoy went past as we drove out to insurgent-controlled western Baghdad. The man next to me saw my eyes and clamped his arm across me. He knew what I was thinking. But the calculus was this: If I run now will the Yanks shoot me before these guys do? The moment passed. I was in their control.

The men who kidnapped me did not want to kill me, although I didn’t know that yet. What they wanted to know was how to pierce the Western news cycle.

Tied up and blindfolded ...

Tied up and blindfolded, I explained to them my role as a freelancer, working for SBS. I explained my previous role as a reporter for wire services including Associated Press. I had a reasonably good understanding of how the international press were operating in Iraq then. Even though the war was a big story by 2004, only the big news organisations had permanent staff there – Time, CNN, Fox, The New York Times, AP, Reuters, AFP.

Everybody else either rode on the backs of the majors or sent in single correspondents for short periods.

My captors asked very specific questions about how my reports were distributed. They were particularly interested in the roles of wire services: in how news reports, photos and video were circulated to the international media.

They wanted to know how a photo, or a piece of video, could be disseminated so quickly. They wanted to know how to purchase a satellite phone to get internet access. They wanted to know how to hook that up to a computer to post digitised images to the internet.

I couldn’t answer a lot of their questions. They were too technical for me. They were the kind of questions I would ask the tech guys at the office when I was trying to get something done.

The questioning lasted for 24 hours.

A series of different guards, leaders and visitors cycled through. I was held, along with my translator and driver, in two houses in the western suburbs of Baghdad. On the highways beyond the room I could hear fighting with American troops.

In the morning they forced me to make a video telling then prime minister John Howard to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq. I thought they were going to kill me. A few days earlier, I had watched insurgent tapes of three Western hostages being beheaded. The footage was horrible. I couldn’t watch the whole thing through.

In retrospect, 11 years later, I can see what this all meant. This was about propaganda, about a new and savvy insurgence that would in part go on to become Daesh.

The insurgents who held me were trying to understand how to get their message into the international media ...

… 

I tried to report this in 2004. People such as Andrew Bolt, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and John Laws derided me at the time as an anti-American, terrorist-loving jihadist. But they simply didn’t understand what was going on.

That was 2007 and the mainstream media was reporting that everything was going well. Correspondents flew in and out, never leaving the bubble of military bases and secured compounds. More troops, more bombing, more heavily armoured patrols. Politicians came and went, accompanied by blinkered journalists, proclaiming success. On November 2 that year, Andrew Bolt offered this analysis: “The battle is actually over. Iraq has been won.” And later, in the same piece: “Add it all up. Iraq not only remains a democracy, but shows no sign of collapse. I repeat: the battle for a free Iraq has been won.” Meanwhile, the situation deteriorated. The lack of clean water led to outbreaks of cholera, the oldest disease in the world. The Americans declared victory and left.

There were a few correspondents who tried to tell the truth. I remember one report by Michael Ware for CNN. He simply went to the morgue in Baghdad and documented the mutilated and unidentified bodies coming in every day. There were many. It was heartbreaking to see how many people were being killed. Journalism 101. Track the dead. Count the bodies. It was awful.

And all this time you had commentators in the Australian and US media saying the surge was working, we were winning. On the ground, Sunnis fled or became radicalised.

In some respects, this is a story about media. In the West, it is a media that declared a war won and promptly ignored the foment it left behind. For Daesh, for the men who kidnapped me, it became about another battlefield. A battle of propaganda.

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Read the full, brilliant article, The Saturday Paper here. Or go and get a hard copy from your newsagent ...

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• Pete Godfrey in Comments: To have been in your position in a war zone and to know that what you were hearing in the media and from the government was total bullshit would be very hard. Thankyou for writing your story and giving those who can think a chance to understand what was happening and what is still happening with our sanitised reports of what is going on in the world. Sorry that you and many others have had such horrid experiences, we live on a planet surrounded by angry, violent madmen ... and some very beautiful people too.

• Peter Bright in Comments: Pete Godfrey at #4 perceptively refers to media and government bullshit and indeed I’ve become increasingly suspicious about everything these distorting, deceiving, misleading and lying institutions tell us. One of their greater sins is to conceal the truth by omission. Our citizens are not thinking, and far worse than this, they don’t want to. Worst of all is that many just can’t.