May 1 2003

The Other Side of the Gun

Non-embedded journalists sometimes became targets of U.S. forces

Tareq Ayyoub

Tareq Ayyoub, killed when the U.S. military attacked Al Jazeera’s offices in Baghdad

The Pentagon has held up its practice of “embedding” journalists with military units as proof of a new media-friendly policy. The treatment of independent journalists, however; was hardly friendly, with sever­al being killed by U.S. forces; on one day alone, April 8, there were three sep­arate incidents of U.S. attacks on non- embedded media.

In one incident, a U.S. tank fired an explosive shell at Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, where most independent reporters were based. Two journalists, Taras Protsyuk of the British news agency Reuters and Jose Couso of the Spanish TV network Telecino, were killed; three other journalists were injured. The military initially claimed that it had taken fire from the hotel, a claim that was unequivocally denied by journalists who witnessed the attack; later, a tank commander said that jour­nalists’ cameras were mistaken for binoculars used to spot targets (London Guardian, 4/21/03).

Earlier in the day, the U.S. launched separate but near-simultaneous attacks on the Baghdad offices of Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV, two Arabic-lan­guage news networks that had broad­cast graphic footage of the human cost of the war. Both outlets had informed the Pentagon of their exact locations, according to a letter released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (4/8/03). As with the hotel attack, Pentagon officials claimed that U.S. forces had come under fire from the press offices, charges that were rejected by the targeted reporters.

The airstrike against Al Jazeera killed one of the channel’s main correspondents in Iraq, Tareq Ayyoub, and injured another journalist. Personnel at Abu Dhabi TV escaped injury from an attack with small-arms fire.

Al Jazeera, which the Bush administration criticized for airing footage of American POWs,was attacked several times by U.S. and British forces during the war in Iraq. Its offices in Basra were shelled on April 2, and its camera crew in that city fired on by British tanks on March 29. A car clearly marked as belonging to Al Jazeera was shot at by U.S. soldiers on April 7 (Reporters Without Borders, 4/8/03).

International journalists and press free­dom groups condemned the U.S. attacks on the press corps in Baghdad. ‘We can only conclude that the U.S. Army deliber­ately and without warning targeted jour­nalists,” Reporters Without Borders declared (4/8/03). ‘We believe these attacks violate the Geneva Conventions,” wrote the Committee to Protect Journalists in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (4/8/03), referring to the pro­tection journalists receive under the laws of war. The attacks on journalists “look very much like murder,” Robert Fisk of the London Independent reported (4/9/03).

But the Pentagon, while expressing regret over the loss of life, rejected the idea that its forces did anything wrong, and appeared to place blame on the press corps for being in Baghdad in the first place: “We’ve had conversations over the last couple of days, news orga­nizations eager to get their people uni­laterally into Baghdad,” said Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke (AP, 4/9/03). “We are saying it is not a safe place; you should not be there.”

Pattern of attacks

Clarke’s claim that “we go out of our way to help and protect journalists” is belied by the U.S.’s pattern of deliberately tar­geting “enemy” broadcast operations. In the Kosovo War; the U.S. attacked the offices of state-owned Radio-Television Serbia, in what Amnesty International called a “direct attack on a civilian object” that “therefore constitutes a war crime.” On March 25, the U.S. began airstrikes on government-run Iraqi TV, in another possible violation of the Geneva Conventions. (See sidebar.)

Al Jazeera was also targeted prior to the Iraq War. During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Al Jazeera’s Kabul offices were destroyed by a U.S. missile. In a report by the BBC‘s Nik Gowing (4/8/02), Adm. Craig Quigley, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant for pub­lic affairs, claimed that the compound was being used by Al Qaeda—a charge the news outlet strongly denied—and that this made it a “legitimate target” The U.S.’s evidence? Al Jazeera’s use of a satellite uplink and its regular con­tacts with Taliban officials—perfectly normal activities for a news outlet.

Quigley also made the improbable claim that the U.S. had not known the compound was Al Jazeera‘s office, and asserted that in any case, such information was “not relevant” to the decision to destroy it. “The U.S. military,” the BBC concluded, “makes no effort to distinguish between legitimate satellite uplinks for broadcast news communications and the identifiable radio or satellite communications belonging to ‘the enemy.'”


U.S. Media Applaud Bombing of Iraqi Media

When the offices of Iraqi TV in Baghdad were hit by a U.S. missile strike on March 25, the targeting of media was strongly criticized by international press and human rights groups. Amnesty International warned (3/26/03) that the attack may have been a war crime under the Geneva Conventions–which forbid the targeting of civilian installations, whether state-owned or not, unless they are being used for military purposes–and emphasized that it is not permissible to bomb a television station “simply because it is being used for the purposes of propaganda.”

“Although stopping enemy propaganda may serve to demoralize the Iraqi population and to undermine the government’s political support,” Human Rights Watch likewise reported (3/26/03), “neither purpose offers the  ‘concrete and direct’ military advantage necessary under international law to make civilian broadcast facilities a legitimate military target.”

The general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, Aidan White, also condemned the bombing, telling Reuters (3/26/03), “Once again, we see military and political commanders from the democratic world targeting a television network simply because they don’t like the message it gives out.”

U.S. journalists, however, showed little concern about the targeting of Iraqi journalists. Prior to the bombing, some even seemed anxious to know why the broadcast facilities hadn’t been attacked yet. Fox News Channel‘s John Gibson wondered (3/24/03): “Should we take Iraqi TV off the air? Should we put one down the stove pipe there?” Fox‘s Bill O’Reilly (3/24/03) agreed: “I think they should have taken out the television, the Iraqi television….Why haven’t they taken out the Iraqi television towers?”

On NBC Nightly News (3/24/03), Andrea Mitchell noted that “to the surprise of many, the U.S. has not taken out Iraq’s TV headquarters.” Mitchell’s report cautioned that

U.S. officials say the television headquarters is in a civilian area. Bombing it would further infuriate the Arab world, and the U.S. would need the TV station to get out its message once coalition forces reach Baghdad. Still, allowing Iraqi TV to stay on the air gives Saddam a strong tool to help keep his regime intact.

She did not offer the Geneva Conventions as a reason to avoid bombing a media outlet.

After the facility was attacked, CNN‘s Aaron Brown (3/25/03) noted that “a lot of people wondered why Iraqi TV had been allowed to stay on the air, why the coalition allowed Iraqi TV to stay on the air as long as it did.” CNN correspondent Nic Robertson seemed to defend the attack, saying that bombing the TV station “will take away a very important tool from the Iraqi leadership–that of showing their face, getting their message out to the Iraqi people, and really telling them that they are still in control.” It’s worth noting that CNN, like other U.S. news outlets, provides all of these functions for the U.S. government.

New York Times reporter Michael Gordon appeared on CNN (3/25/03) to endorse the attack:

And personally, I think the television, based on what I’ve seen of Iraqi television, with Saddam Hussein presenting propaganda to his people and showing off the Apache helicopter and claiming a farmer shot it down and trying to persuade his own public that he was really in charge, when we’re trying to send the exact opposite message, I think, was an appropriate target.

According to the New York Times (3/26/03), Fox‘s Gibson seemed to take credit for the bombing of Iraqi TV, suggesting that Fox‘s “criticism about allowing Saddam Hussein to talk to his citizens and lie to them has had an effect.”

Given such attitudes, perhaps it’s not surprising that discussions of the legality of attacking Iraqi TV have been rare in U.S. mainstream media. Yet when the White House accused Iraq of violating the Geneva Conventions by airing footage of American POWs, media were eager to engage the subject of international law. Too bad U.S. media don’t hold the U.S. government to the same standard.

–Peter Hart