PARIS - A media watchdog expressed concern on Sunday that a CNN team reporting from Iraq was traveling with an armed guard, saying it set a "dangerous precedent" that could imperil other journalists.
Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) made the comments after an incident in the northern Iraqi town of Tikrit in which a security guard hired by CNN fired his machinegun at a checkpoint when the CNN convoy came under gunfire.
"This behavior creates a dangerous precedent that could imperil all other reporters covering this conflict and others in the future," Robert Menard, RSF secretary general, said in a statement.
"There is a real risk that belligerents will believe all press vehicles are armed," he said, adding that the use of armed private security guards only increased the confusion between reporters and combatants in the conflict.
Media organizations have employed armed guards to protect premises in particularly dangerous places.
But a spokesman for the Paris-based media watchdog said it was unprecedented for journalists to travel with armed guards in conflict zones.
"To our knowledge, this is the first time press vehicles have traveled with armed security guards. It did not happen in the Balkans and it didn't occur in the first Gulf War," RSF spokesman Jean-Francois Julliard said.
"CNN appears to be going too far. This could come back to haunt them and other journalists. Journalists should not be traveling around with armed guards," he added.
CNN spokesman Matthew Firman said the team of reporters had come under small arms and automatic weapons fire from "relatively close range" either on the way in or out of Tikrit.
He said an Iraqi Kurd, hired as a security guard, had opened fire in response and been lightly wounded in the exchange. No one else was hurt.
Pointing to an earlier CNN report of an alleged assassination plot by Iraqi agents against its reporters in the north, Firman said locals had been hired in Kurdish-controlled Iraq to protect the station's journalists.
"Presumably we hire them to protect us, so if firing their weapon is required to protect themselves and our team, then that is appropriate," he said, in response to questions about CNN's policy of hiring armed guards.
"We only put our teams in situations in which we can do our best to ensure their safety. If it means hiring armed guards or security consultants we will do that. The security of our team is paramount," Firman said.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd