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The Pentagon Targets the Press (and Other Civilians)

A controversy over the U.S. military's killing of journalists in Iraq has forced the resignation of the Cable News Network's chief news executive, Eason Jordan, who has been with CNN since 1982. In January, as a panelist at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Jordan said he thought several such journalists had been targeted. He soon backed off and apologized, saying they were killed "accidentally." (AP 2-12-05.)

Jordan was right the first time, evidence indicates. That the U.S. military has targeted news media is a fact beyond dispute – and such actions are war crimes.

During the Clinton-NATO war on Yugoslavia in 1999, Radio Television Serbia in Belgrade was bombed and sixteen editorial, technical, and office personnel died. In an impromptu interview by Jeremy Scahill last year, the general in charge of that war, Wesley Clark, admitted that the bombing was intentional. (Pacifica Radio, Jan. 26, 2004.)

One week into the current war in Iraq, the Iraqi radio and television headquarters in Baghdad were bombed. Casualties were not reported. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders futilely called for an impartial international investigation. Robert Menard, its secretary general, said that "a media outlet cannot be a military target under international law…." He called attacks on any civilians, including journalists, war crimes.

At least a dozen media people are known to have died from violence involving the U.S. military in Iraq. The incidents are described below. The first four cases appear relatively clear-cut, although the military admits no wrongdoing in any case.

Five deaths, six incidents, no "accidents"

  • An air raid on the Al-Jazeera TV offices in Baghdad killed the journalist Tareq Ayoub and wounded a colleague on April 8, 2003. The network had shown civilian victims of U.S. bombings. Big banners marked "TV" hung outside the building. Six days earlier, the Basra Sheraton Hotel, whose only guests were an Al-Jazeera team, received four direct artillery hits, without casualties, according to the Arabic TV news channel. And in November 2001, U.S. bombs destroyed Al-Jazeera's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, also without casualties. Before all three incidents, the network had notified U.S. authorities of the respective locations, a spokesman said.
  • Within three hours after the Baghdad bombing, a tank fired at the Palestine Hotel there and fatally wounded two cameramen: Taras Protsyuk, a Ukranian, of Reuters; and Jose Couso, a Spaniard, of the Telecinco network. The French Press Agency reported next day that footage by France 3 television "shows a US tank targeting the journalists' hotel and waiting at least two minutes before firing." The Department of Defense claimed the shooting was self-defense. Reporters Without Borders said that all the facts indicated "exactly the opposite." The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), based in Brussels, accused the Pentagon of a "cynical whitewash." Robert Fisk of the UK newspaper Independent asked if it was possible to believe that the twin Baghdad attacks were accidents. "Or was it possible that the right word for these killings … was murder?"
  • Tank fire also killed the Palestinian cameraman Mazen Dana of Reuters outside of Abu Ghraib prison on August 18, 2003. The U.S. Army claimed that soldiers mistook his camera for a weapon. But colleagues with him said otherwise. The Guardian, UK, next day quoted a Reuters soundman, Nael al-Shyoukhi, saying the soldiers "saw us and they knew about our identities and our mission…. We were noted and seen clearly." They had filmed the prison and were about to go when a convoy led by a tank arrived; Dana stepped out of the car to film again, walked a bit and was shot. IFJ noted that it happened in broad daylight and that the camera team had made contact with soldiers to explain its mission and received permission to film the prison.
  • Dhia Najim, an Iraqi freelance cameraman working for Reuters, in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, was shot to death, evidently by a U.S. sniper, on Nov. 1, 2004. He had been filming clashes between marines and foes, but exchanges had ended when he was felled by a single shot. Najim's colleagues and family said a U.S. sniper killed him. Military authorities denied it. Reuters noted that photographs taken two days earlier showed marine snipers taking positions in Ramadi. The news agency called for an investigation.

Anti-media acts – or just routine slaughter?

Among the first fallen news men after the war began was Terry Lloyd, a correspondent for the UK's Independent Television News (ITN). Initially he was reported killed by crossfire on March 22, 2003, near Basra. The Daily Mirror (9-10-03) said U.S. marines admitted to ITN investigators having fired on Lloyd's two Jeeps marked "TV." But the paper interviewed an Iraqi businessman who said that Lloyd, suffering only a shoulder wound, was killed by machine-gun fire from a U.S. helicopter while the man was driving him and some Iraqi soldiers to a hospital in a minibus. His colleagues, cameraman Fred Nerac and translator Hussein Othman, were believed to have been captured and slain by an Iraqi militia.

Another unsettled incident involved Bourhan Mohammad al-Louhaybi, an ABC News cameraman, killed by a shot to the head as he covered an exchange of fire between armed Iraqis and American forces in Fallujah on March 26, 2004.

Four media men were shot to death last year by U.S. troops in two unexplained attacks on cars, on March 18 at a Baghdad checkpoint and on April 19 on a road in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Victims in the former attack were Ali Abdel-Aziz, cameraman, and Ali al-Khatib, correspondent, for Al-Arabiya satellite news channel. Next day, at a Baghdad press conference for Secretary of State Colin Powell, an Arab journalist demanded an open investigation of that incident and security for journalists working in Iraq; then he and some 20 colleagues walked out. Mohsin Abdel Hamid, member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, called the shooting "clear aggression by the occupation forces against the media." (Online NewsHour, 3-19-04.)

The latter victims were Asad Kadhim, correspondent for Al-Iraqiya, U.S.-funded TV, and his driver, Hussein Saleh. A wounded cameraman, Jassem Kamel, told Al-Iraquiya that they had done interviews in a police station and driven for some 500 meters when they were fired on. U.S. authorities called it an "accidental shooting" but said the soldiers who fired acted within the "rules of engagement." IFJ blamed a pattern of negligence by the invading forces. (Inter Press Service, 4-20-04.)

It is not certain whether the pair of incidents represented a deliberate targeting of news media or what seems to be a standard procedure in Iraq to blast all vehicles that fail to stop or slow down when U.S. soldiers fire "warning shots" – and some vehicles that do slow down. The victims are invariably innocent civilians. That practice was reported in The Times (UK, 3-30-03), The Washington Post (4-1-03), Le Monde (4-12-03), and the Sacramento Bee (5-16-04).

Another victim from Al-Arabiya TV was a Palestinian cub reporter, 26, one of 13 people killed when a U.S. military helicopter fired into a crowd of civilians near a burning Army armored vehicle in Baghdad. The military said it had tried to scatter looters, but witnesses to the contrary, including a Reuters cameraman who filmed the scene, said the crowd had been peaceful. At Al-Arabiya's office, employees wept as they watched the shooting on television. A portrait hung on the door with the inscription, "Martyr Mazin Tumaisi, who was killed by the American forces on September 12th 2004." His photo joined photos of the two colleagues killed in March. Laith Ahmed, operations manager, tearfully related that Tumaisi had called twice that day with reports, then called for help: "I am injured in my leg and head." He died in Karama Hospital. (The Washington Post, 9-13-04.)

Al-Arabiya was victimized yet again on Oct. 30, 2004, when a bombing at its Baghdad office killed seven people, including five employees. An obscure group of jihadists avowed responsibility. Two days later, the Najim killing brought the toll of media fatalities since the invasion to 62, according to IFJ's count.

"All sides in Iraq seem to regard independent journalism itself as the enemy," IFJ's general secretary, Aidan White, said at a London forum. He demanded that the U.S. military investigate each of its media killings and bring to justice those responsible for "reckless or murderous action."

War chiefs should read their own manual

The Geneva Conventions' Protocol I, Article 79, says, "Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflicts shall be considered civilians…. They shall be protected as such under the Conventions and this Protocol, provided they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians."

The 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, of which the above is a part, prohibits any military attacks directed at civilians or indiscriminate attacks on both civilians and military targets. Violation is considered a war crime. Although the basic Geneva Conventions – which prohibit, among other acts, the murder or torture of civilians or war prisoners – are U.S. treaties in full effect, the protocol was signed but not ratified by the U.S. (never coming before the Senate). However, Amnesty International and others contend that it has become part of customary international law. In fact, the U.S. Army Field Manual (FM 27–10) incorporates some of its principles under "The Law of Land Warfare," e.g. (40, 41):

Customary international law prohibits the launching of attacks (including bombardment) against either the civilian population as such or individual civilians as such…. Loss of life and damage to property incidental to attacks must not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained.

The manual also states, paraphrasing The Hague Convention on rules of land warfare (1907): "Cities, towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which may be classified as military objectives, but which are undefended … are not permissible objects of attack." Attacks on hotels occupied by media people are clear violations. Of course, most of the attacks on cities, towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings by the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Indochina, Korea, and, for that matter, Germany and Japan, have also been violations of Hague.

A 1996 statute (U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 2441) makes any fatal violation of Hague or Geneva a capital "war crime."

February 18, 2005