Attacks on journalists prompt call for inquiry

As Operation Iraqi Freedom shifts to an occupation plan, international concern is being raised over the deaths of journalists in the course of the fighting.

A total of 14 international reporters died in Iraq in just over a month of covering the U.S.-led war. It is unclear how many Iraqi civilians were killed in attacks on media targets.

Reporters Without Borders, an international organization working for press freedom, has called for an independent inquiry by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to determine whether attacks on journalists constitute war crimes.

“These events are too serious to be left solely in the hands of an investigation by U.S. officials, who have already refused to give any details about the killing of a British TV journalist under British-U.S. gunfire in Basra ... and the disappearance of two of his colleagues caught in the incident,” the organization’s secretary-general, Robert Menard, wrote in a letter to the commission.

U.S. responses to the deaths of journalists have proven far from satisfactory for many. On April 21, Secretary of State Colin Powell replied to Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio’s concerns over the April 8 U.S. shelling of the Palestine Hotel. Reviewing the attack on the hotel, which had housed international journalists throughout the war, Powell said the U.S. had found “that the use of force was justified and the amount of force was proportionate to the threat against United States forces.”

Powell also wrote that the U.S. military does not target civilians or civilian structures. Though he did not mention it, such targeting would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

However, a spokesman for the Spanish defense ministry said the U.S. had declared the hotel a military target on April 6, on the grounds that Iraqi leaders were meeting there. Though the spokesman said journalists had been warned of this, following the obligation under the Geneva Conventions, those journalists at the hotel have said they received no such warning.

The attack killed two journalists, Jose Couso of Spain and Taras Protsyuk of the Ukraine, and injured others. It was followed on the same day by an attack on the Baghdad offices of Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-based television network, killing Taraq Ayyoub, and the offices of Abu Dhabi television.

The U.S. military’s justification for the attacks has been that they were in response to “hostile fire.” However, journalists on the scene have refuted this, saying that they had not seen or heard any gunfire. French television footage of the tank attack on the Palestine Hotel, starting a few minutes before the attack, confirms that there was no “hostile fire.”

The author can be reached at jbarnett@pww.org