The Internet: Good and evil for Iraq hostages

commentary SBS Dateline reporter John Martinkus is likely to regard Internet search engines with new respect amid highly persuasive evidence one played a key role in saving his life.Martinkus, on assignment in Iraq, is still alive today after the four alleged Sunni militants who snatched him at gunpoint from a street on Saturday conducted what is believed to be an Internet search to check whether his claims he was not working for coalition military forces were true.

commentary SBS Dateline reporter John Martinkus is likely to regard Internet search engines with new respect amid highly persuasive evidence one played a key role in saving his life.

Martinkus, on assignment in Iraq, is still alive today after the four alleged Sunni militants who snatched him at gunpoint from a street on Saturday conducted what is believed to be an Internet search to check whether his claims he was not working for coalition military forces were true. The search -- combined with assertions from Martinkus' interpreter that he was reporting fairly and impartially on the conflict -- convinced the militants to release the correspondent several hours later.

Mike Carey, SBS television executive producer told wire services this week: "They Googled him, they checked him out on a popular search engine and got onto his own Web site or his publisher's Web site and saw he was a writer and journalist. They had thought he was working for the Americans as an informer." (Martinkus himself told the Dateline program this week only that he was aware the militants were doing some checking, confirming that he did not actually see them conducting the search).

The episode is one of a raft of incidents since the coalition invaded Iraq last year -- and indeed since September 11, 2001 -- that demonstrate the widely varying roles the Internet can play in terrorism and military conflict. Its pervasiveness and capacity to give a voice to almost everyone has yielded good, bad -- and very bad -- results. Militant groups in Iraq and elsewhere are well aware that the Internet provides a largely unfiltered platform for images of graphic violence against Western hostages -- images they hope prove so abhorrent to the Western societies who are providing the bulk of the military presence in Iraq they will sap the will of both leaders and citizens to keep their troops toughing it out in the region.

While Martinkus' family and friends gave thanks for his return, Web sites backed by insurgents and/or Islamic fundamentalists -- viewable by anyone with Internet access -- continued to portray graphic still images and video of the horrible fate of other hostages. Just one example: the militant group Muntada al-Ansar is alleged to have broadcast on its Web site a video of the beheading of Briton Nick Berg in May. While terrorist groups previously sent videotapes of their treatment of hostages to media outlets, the Internet now gives them a medium whereby the most powerful. agonising moments of the atrocities they commit remain unedited.

On the other hand, the Internet has allowed individuals to humanise the impact of both the military assault on Iraq and the brutal, vicious regime the coalition moved to topple. The so-called Baghdad Blogger, who diarised under the name Salam Pax, provided a desperately-needed English-language insight into daily life under the 23-year regime of Saddam Hussein to Westerners perplexed and fearful about the extremes of Arabic culture. Pax -- who turned out to be a 29-year old architect who spent long stretches of his life in Vienna -- also dished out insight into the mire the coalition found (and continues to find) itself in as it seeks to stabilise the lawless nation.

As Hussein, his sons and associates curbed dissent and Western military spokespeople sought to dehumanise the human toll of their efforts by using ghastly terms such as "collateral damage", the Internet has provided an outlet for uncurbed revelation, debate and criticism. (Of course, it also provides an outlet for hoaxes -- the Internet has been the source of many a myth taken as fact).

Your correspondent hopes academics are planning over the next few years to examine the role of the Internet post-September 11, referencing in particular the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. There is plenty of ground to be covered, including its effect on militant groups, victims and viewers. It would be glib to describe Iraq as the world's first Internet war in the same way as Vietnam was characterised as the world's first television war -- the Internet is far more mature and far more ubiquitous than television was when the United States went in to South East Asia. Nonetheless, it is clear that the heat of conflict is delivering extreme, often sharp-edged examples of the way the Internet is revolutionising communication.

For now, though, we'll just be grateful for Internet search. It probably saved Martinkus' life.

What are your thoughts on the role of the Internet in Iraq and other conflicts since September 11, 2001? What are its good and bad points?