The Pentagon has held up its practice of “embedding” journalists with military units as proof of a new media-friendly policy. On April 8, however, U.S. military forces launched what appeared to be deliberate attacks on independent journalists covering the war, killing three and injuring four others.
In one incident, a U.S. tank fired an explosive shell at the Palestine Hotel, where most non-embedded international reporters in Baghdad are based. Two journalists, Taras Protsyuk of the British news agency Reuters and Jose Couso of the Spanish network Telecino, were killed; three other journalists were injured. The tank, which was parked nearby, appeared to carefully select its target, according to journalists in the hotel, raising and aiming its gun turret some two minutes before firing a single shell.
Journalists who witnessed the attack unequivocally rejected Pentagon claims that the tank had been fired on from the hotel. “I never heard a single shot coming from any of the area around here, certainly not from the hotel,” David Chater of British Sky TV told Reuters (4/8/03). Footage shot by French TV recorded quiet in the area immediately before the attack (London Independent, 4/9/03).
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 have been broadcasting graphic footage of the human cost of the war. Both outlets had informed the Pentagon of their exact locations, according to a statement from the Committee to Protect Journalists. 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 Ayoub, and injured another journalist, prompting Al Jazeera to try to pull its remaining reporters out of Baghdad for fear of their safety (BBC, 4/9/03). Personnel at Abu Dhabi TV escaped injury from an attack with small-arms fire.
Al Jazeera, which the Bush administration has criticized for airing footage of American POWs, has been 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 (Associated Press, 4/9/03). “We are saying it is not a safe place; you should not be there.”
Kate Adie, a British war correspondent during the 1991 Gulf War, told Irish radio prior to the war (RTE Radio1, 3/9/03; GuluFuture.com, 3/10/03) that she had received an even more direct threat from the U.S. military: “I was told by a senior officer in the Pentagon, that if uplinks– that is, the television signals out of… Baghdad, for example– were detected by any planes…of the military above Baghdad… they’d be fired down on. Even if they were journalists…. He said: ‘ Well…they know this…. They’ve been warned.’ This is threatening freedom of information, before you even get to a war.”
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” which “therefore constitutes a war crime.” On March 25, the U.S. began airstrikes on government-run Iraqi TV, in what the International Federation of Journalists (Reuters, 3/26/03) suggested might also be a Geneva Convention violation, since it the U.S. was “targeting a television network simply because they don’t like the message it gives out.”
Al Jazeera has also been 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), Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, the U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary 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,” concluded Gowing, “makes no effort to distinguish between legitimate satellite uplinks for broadcast news communications and the identifiable radio or satellite communications belonging to ‘the enemy.'”
Whether the U.S. is deliberately targeting independent media, or is simply not taking care to avoid attacking obvious media targets, the failure to respect the protection afforded journalists under the Geneva Conventions is deeply troubling. Unfettered reporting from the battlefield is essential to bear witness to the realities of war.