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Five years after US strike on Palestine Hotel it is just 'shameful silence'

Five years after US strike on Palestine Hotel it is just 'shameful silence'
Protesting apathy: People holding a portrait of late journalist Taras Protsyuk take part in a rally near the U.S. embassy in Kiev April 8, 2008. A couple of dozen people in Kiev on Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Protsyuk, who was killed at age 35 when a U.S. tank shell hit the Palestine Hotel that served as the headquarters for international journalists in Baghdad as troops entered the Iraqi capital April 8, 2003.Photo: Reuters / Gleb Garanich

Five years after a series of US military strikes against news media outlets in Baghdad killed three journalists, there are calls on the US military to fully investigate the incidents and make its findings public. So far, impunity has ruled.

On April 8, 2003, a US tank fired a single shell on the Palestine Hotel, the main base for dozens of international journalists covering the US-led invasion of Iraq, killing Spanish cameraman José Couso of Telecinco and veteran Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk, and wounding three other reporters.

A Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) investigation into the attack, “Permission to Fire,” found that although the attack on the hotel was not deliberate, it could have been avoided and may have been caused by a breakdown in communication within the US Army chain of command.

Earlier that morning, US airstrikes hit the Baghdad bureau of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite news channel, killing correspondent Tareq Ayyoub and injuring a station cameraman. Moments later, the nearby offices of Abu Dhabi TV came under fire in a separate attack. While both stations were operating in a combat area, they had been there for weeks and Al-Jazeera had provided its coordinates to the Pentagon.

It was not the first time the US military had struck Al-Jazeera; the channel’s Kabul bureau was hit in November 2001. The Pentagon has stated that the Kabul bureau was “a known al-Qaeda facility” without offering any evidence.

David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters, spoke to CPJ about his dissatisfaction with the progress since one of his reporters was killed. “While there have been official investigations into various incidents, we are not satisfied with their speed or objectivity,” Schlesinger said. “We feel acutely that more needs to be done to make the battlefield as safe as possible for non-combatants like journalists.”

“Troubling questions about these attacks linger to this day, and each has potentially deadly implications for all journalists who work in conflict zones,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “US officials need to answer the longstanding questions of why its troops on the ground were not made aware of the Palestine Hotel, and what steps the military has taken to avoid such tragedies in the future. It must also end its silence about its strike on Al-Jazeera.”

On August 12, 2003, US Central Command (Centcom) issued a news release summarising the results of its investigation into the shelling of the Palestine Hotel. The report concluded that the tank unit that opened fire on the hotel did so “in a proportionate and justifiably measured response.” It called the shelling “fully in accordance with the Rules of Engagement.” However, the news release failed to address one of the conclusions in CPJ’s report: that US commanders knew journalists were in the Palestine Hotel but failed to convey this knowledge to forces on the ground.

The military’s investigation, released in November 2004, found no fault in the attack and did not explain why troops were not made aware of what was one of Baghdad’s best known civilian locations. To CPJ’s knowledge, the US military has never investigated or credibly explained its strike on Al-Jazeera’s bureau. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment for this report.

US military officials have in the past discussed ways to improve safety with news executives and press freedom groups. Military officials have formulated a set of recommendations as part of their investigative report into the death of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, who was shot and killed by US soldiers in August 2003 while filming outside Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. These included calls to improve military communication regarding the presence of journalists in conflict areas, improve communications between the military and the media, and reassess the rules of engagement for US troops.

“Why were US troops on the ground not made aware of who was in the Palestine Hotel, one of the best known civilian sites in all of Baghdad?” Simon asked. “More important, what steps has the military taken to avoid such tragedies in the future? Why has the US remained silent despite repeated demands to explain its strikes on Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV? Five years on, these questions are still urgent and they demand answers.”

In Spain, Couso’s family is pursuing criminal charges against three US soldiers involved in the attack on the Palestine Hotel—Sgt Shawn Gibson, Capt Philip Wolford, and Lt Col Philip DeCamp.

According to CPJ research, of the 127 journalists and 50 media support workers killed in Iraq since March 20, 2003, 16 journalists and six media support staffers have been killed by US forces, the last one on July 12, 2007.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has called on the governments of Iraq and the US to issue reports and investigations into the widespread targeting and killing of reporters and media staff during the Iraq war. IFJ says 273 media lives have been lost since the fall of Baghdad to American troops five years ago this week.

“A few weeks ago the leader of Iraqi journalists was himself gunned down by unknown killers,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “The shameful silence of the authorities over all of these deaths gives an impression of callous indifference and toleration of impunity.”

IFJ has also demanded action over the deaths of British ITN reporter Terry Lloyd and his colleagues Fred Nérac and Hussein Osman, whose bodies are still missing, in an encounter between US and Iraqi troops near Basra, in March 2003 as the invasion of Iraq gathered pace. In October 2006 a British coroner ruled that the death of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd in the Basra fire-fight was an “unlawful killing.”

“The shadow of impunity continues to fall over Iraq where journalists have been prominent among the victims,” said White. “It’s time for the Iraqi and American authorities to take their responsibility for ending the uncertainty and ignorance about what has happened to our colleagues.”

Date posted: April 8, 2008 Date modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 1038