CPJ concerned about possible shielding

New York, March 20, 2003— International journalists evacuated the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad this morning after receiving reports that the hotel was a likely target of a U.S. air strike. One journalist received a phone call from a Western government official warning journalists to leave the hotel immediately. At least one U.S. media outlet was warned by the Pentagon that the Al-Rashid was not safe.

Pentagon spokespeople would neither confirm nor deny that the hotel was a target and said only that Baghdad was a dangerous place for journalists.

The evacuation of Al-Rashid comes amid troubling attempts by Iraqi officials to force journalists to stay in the hotel, increasing concerns that journalists are being used as “human shields.” According to Robert Collier, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle in Baghdad, major U.S. news organizations, including CNN, received word last week from the Pentagon that the Al-Rashid was a possible military target because of a sensitive government bunker that is allegedly located beneath the hotel. (Other journalists have cited fears of staying at the hotel because of its proximity to government ministries.) That information, Collier said, prompted a large number of journalists to depart the Al-Rashid and relocate to the Palestine Hotel, which is on the other side of the Tigris River and generally considered safer because of its distance from government buildings.

Journalists who went to the Palestine last week told CPJ that Iraqi authorities ordered them to return to the Al-Rashid yesterday without explanation. While larger news organizations, such as CNN and the BBC, resisted and were allowed to stay put after threatening to leave the country, others reluctantly returned to the Al-Rashid.

This morning, after learning of warnings from a Western government to leave the Al-Rashid immediately, the journalists rushed back to the Palestine Hotel. Some journalists suspect human shielding as the reason behind Iraq’s orders.

“The possibility that Iraqi authorities would use journalists as human shields is deeply troubling, and increases our already grave concerns about the safety of journalists reporting from Baghdad,” said Joel Simon, acting director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Journalists in Baghdad have said that the Information Ministry, which tightly supervises foreign media in the country, has shown signs of disarray and that “minders” who closely shadow foreign reporters have been withdrawn and relocated to other posts in the Iraqi war effort. According to Collier, officials have ordered journalists to stay in their hotels during the attacks and instructed them not to leave their hotels unless accompanied by a government escort. However, at least one journalist reported today that he was able to walk freely about the capital.

Citing safety concerns, large numbers of journalists have departed Baghdad in recent days. Some who attempted to leave were delayed or barred from leaving the country by Iraqi authorities because of their failure to comply with proper government exit procedures. A spokeswoman for The New York Times told CPJ that reporter John Burns and photographer Tyler Hicks could not secure a required “currency clearance certificate”—something not previously required to exit the country—and, therefore, did not leave. The Times also said that the concerns about banditry on the road from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, were a reason why the journalists stayed behind in the Iraqi capital.

Other U.S. news outlets encountered similar bureaucratic obstacles while trying to exit the country. Some were delayed for hours, while others were forced to return to Baghdad. CPJ is investigating unconfirmed reports that European news crews were expelled from Iraq today and that others might have been detained for carrying “illegal” satellite phones and undeclared currency.

CPJ will continue to monitor press access in the region.