Kiwi controversy after SAS war hero Willie Apiata photographed
January 22, 2010 - 2:49PM
Controversy has erupted in New Zealand over the publication of a photograph showing New Zealand war hero Willie Apiata on duty with fellow SAS soldiers in Afghanistan.
Corporal Apiata, who was awarded the Victoria Cross, was photographed in Kabul this week, moments after a deadly gunfight in which three Taliban militants were killed.
The publication of the photo of Corporal Apiata yesterday sparked debate about news media showing members of the SAS - whose identities are normally withheld due to security reasons - on duty.
Australia's Defence Department enforces similar restrictions, with strict secrecy surrounding the identities, activities and whereabouts of the nation's special forces troops.
French photographer Philip Poupin took photographs of Corporal Apiata and two other members of the New Zealand SAS emerging from a building after the attack. Poupin told The Dominion Post that he saw the troops emerge from the building.
"They were going out of the building where the three insurgents were. They walked towards the Presidential Palace, no car, no Humvee," said Poupin from a hotel room in Kabul. "They were really close to the insurgents ... they were there to fight."
Once the battle subsided, Poupin went inside the building and saw the bodies of the militants.
"There were two in one room and one in another. I can't tell you if [the New Zealanders] were directly fighting with the insurgents ... but I could say they were right there."
They were the only Western troops involved in the battle, he said.
Monday night's attack was one of the biggest in Kabul since the war began in 2001. It followed three suicide bombings in the capital.
This week, NZ Prime Minister John Key described the SAS's role in the battle as "very limited", saying they were "quite a long way back" from the building and fired no shots.
He confirmed their presence only after it was revealed by a New York Times reporter.
Thirteen people died in the battle and at least 70 were injured.
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said yesterday that the SAS members were not as close to the fighting as Poupin suggested.
"That's the information we have. Both the Prime Minister and I have acted on the advice we've received."
Corporal Apiata was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2007 for carrying an injured Kiwi soldier out of the firing line during an attack in Afghanistan three years earlier.
Yesterday Mr Key criticised media for publishing a photograph of Corporal Apiata that clearly showed his face, saying it put the soldier at further risk.
He said Corporal Apiata would probably stay in Afghanistan until the end of his deployment. "He is a very brave New Zealand soldier and he wants to be on deployment," he said.
The New Zealand Defence Force website features several photographs of Corporal Apiata, and has released photographs of him on duty in the past.
Dominion Post editor Bernadette Courtney said the paper published Corporal Apiata's photograph because it was the first picture of New Zealand SAS troops in Kabul after they responded to a Taliban attack.
It was well known that the SAS was in Kabul, and the Prime Minister had confirmed the soldier in the picture was Corporal Apiata, she said.
"Corporal Willie Apiata is a war hero who asked to return to Afghanistan. He was paraded in front of the public and the media here and around the world when he won his Victoria Cross.
"He has had extensive media training $35,000 worth of advice paid for by the Defence Force.
"We don't believe media here have placed Corporal Apiata or any of the other SAS members at any greater risk than they already are."
The New Zealand Herald said today the journalist who broke the story of the SAS joining the counterattack against a Taliban strike was surprised at the reaction in New Zealand.
Afghanistan-based New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, in a blog posted to the newspaper's website yesterday, wrote: "New Zealand? At war? Who knew? Not a lot of New Zealanders, apparently.
"The news ... that a team of commandos from New Zealand had joined Afghan soldiers at the scene caused a sensation in the little country off the coast of Australia," he wrote.
Filkins said he spotted the New Zealand soldiers as they moved in to Pashtunistan Square, the site of the Taliban attack that killed five people and wounded at least 70.
He said one told him: "Get out of here."
"I saw the patch on his arm announcing his country. Others were more friendly. 'Can't talk now, mate,' said another with a smile."
The New Zealand Herald's assistant editor John Roughan said the paper stood by the decision to use the picture which, he said, had real news value.
"The soldiers were in a public street, in a major city, visible to anybody, wearing their uniforms, carrying their guns, photographed as the New Zealand SAS," he said.'
So..."real news value" or dangerous exposure?
I tend to think the latter while on ACTIVE duty (in the lion's den, so to speak). This soldier is very well known due to his Victoria Cross, and maybe I'm being completely paranoid (always a possibility and someone with combat experience is very welcome to correct me) but I can't see how it helps to have him identified in a presently active zone. Even his own Defence Dept has done this in the past.
But that's the press for ya...notice they persec'd the other guy's ID but not Apiata. One time this might have been an offence of some sort but apparently not now. I stand ready to be educated