Dear Secretary Rumsfeld:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned by a series of U.S. military strikes against known media locations in Baghdad today that have left three journalists dead and several wounded. We believe these attacks violate the Geneva Conventions.
This morning, Baghdad time, U.S. air strikes severely damaged the Baghdad office of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite network, killing journalist Taraq Ayyoub. Al-Jazeera cameraman Zouhair al-Iraqi was injured in the blast, according to the station. Moments later, another explosion damaged the nearby office of Abu Dhabi TV. Some 30 journalists are trapped in the station’s offices, said Abu Dhabi TV officials.
While we recognize that both stations, which are located near the Presidential Palace and the Information Ministry, were operating in an area where combat was occurring, the missile strike on the Al-Jazeera facility raises questions about whether the building was deliberately targeted.
The strike against these facilities is particularly troubling because both Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV have been openly operating from these locations in Baghdad for weeks, providing images of the war to the rest of the world.
In addition, prior to the commencement of hostilities in Iraq, both stations told CPJ that they provided the specific coordinates of their Baghdad offices to the Pentagon. CPJ has seen a copy of Al-Jazeera’s February letter to Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke outlining these coordinates.
The attack against Al-Jazeera is of particular concern since the stations’ offices were also hit in Kabul, Afghanistan in November 2001. The Pentagon asserted, without providing additional detail, that the office was a “known Al-Qaeda facility,” and that the U.S. military did not know the space was being used by Al-Jazeera.
In a separate incident today, a U.S. tank opened fired on the Palestine Hotel—the main base for dozens of international journalists covering the conflict from Baghdad—killing two journalists and wounding at least three others. Reuters reported that its cameraman Taras Protsyuk died in the blast, while reporter Samia Nakhoul and photographer Faleh Kheiber suffered facial and head wounds. Cameraman José Couso of Spain’s Telecinco television was also killed in the attack. U.S. officials have stated that they were responding to sniper fire from the roof of the hotel. Eyewitnesses said they heard no gunfire coming from the hotel.
While U.S. officials have expressed regret for the loss of life in these attacks and stated that they do not target journalists, they have left the impression that they bear no responsibility for protecting journalists operating independently in Iraq. At his Centcom briefing today in Doha, Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said that while embedded journalists receive protection from the military, those who operate as non-embeds do so at their own risk. As we noted in our March 6 letter to you, statements made by Pentagon officials warning of the potential dangers to independent reporters operating in Iraq “do not absolve U.S. forces of their responsibility to avoid endangering media operating in known locations.”
We remind you that journalists are civilians and protected under international humanitarian law and cannot be deliberately targeted. While we recognize the important role of embedded reporters, the Geneva Conventions also contemplate the presence of non-embedded, or “civilian,” journalists on the battlefield, and the U.S. military has an obligation to avoid harming them. Specifically, Article 79 of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions notes that “journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered civilians … without prejudice to the right of war correspondents [embedded reporters] accredited to the armed forces.”
While sources in Baghdad have expressed deep skepticism about reports that U.S. forces were fired upon from the Palestine Hotel, even if that were the case, the evidence suggests that the response of U.S. forces was disproportionate and therefore violated international humanitarian law. Even if the Iraqi forces were firing from both the Palestine and Al-Jazeera’s offices as the Pentagon has alleged, U.S. forces must factor in the likely harm to civilians when considering an appropriate response, according to the Geneva Conventions.
We call on you to launch an immediate and thorough investigation into these incidents and to make the findings public. We also urge you to take measures to ensure that similar attacks do not occur in the future and that journalists are given the protections afforded under international humanitarian law.
We take this opportunity to remind you that more than 100 independent journalists continue to operate in Baghdad from both the Palestine and the nearby Sheraton hotels. The U.S. military has a clear obligation to avoid harming them while carrying out military operations.
We await your response and the results of your investigation.