Journalist killed in car accident Security situation for media remains precarious

New York, April 14, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) mourns the death of Mario Podestá, a veteran free-lance Argentine war correspondent on assignment for the Argentine television station America TV, who was killed today in a car accident on the highway between Amman, Jordan, and Baghdad.

Eduardo Cura, the station’s news director, told CPJ that Podesta was part of a convoy of journalists trying to get into Baghdad before nightfall. Cura said that a tire explosion in the car where Podestá and camerawoman Veronica Cabrera were traveling caused the accident, which occurred about 24 miles outside the Iraqi capital. Podestá died instantly, he said, and his body was taken to the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.

Cabrera, who was injured in the accident, was sent to a hospital near Baghdad for treatment. CPJ is investigating reports that gunfire was heard in the vicinity just before the accident happened.

Podesta, 52, an experienced independent war correspondent who was covering his 35th conflict, had been in the Middle East since mid March. He is the 12th journalist to die covering the war. A translator for the BBC has also been killed.

Click here to review “Media Casualties in Iraq.”

Situation still dangerous for journalists
Since the fall of Baghdad more than a week ago, journalists covering events inside Iraq continue to face threats to their safety, particularly in the unrest that has followed the regime’s collapse. CPJ has documented recent incidents in which armed Iraqis have threatened, detained, fired upon, or physically attacked reporters.

On Sunday, April 13, a CNN crew led by senior correspondent Brent Sadler came under fire from forces apparently loyal to Saddam Hussein in Tikrit moments after being waved through an Iraqi checkpoint inside the city. The crew’s armed security escort returned fire, and the crew fled the scene. Sadler reported that CNN producer Maria Fleet was hit by a bullet fragment, which her flak jacket repelled. A CNN driver was also slightly injured.

“In some rare cases, such as in Somalia and Afghanistan, journalists have employed armed security guards to cover a particularly dangerous conflict,” said CPJ acting director Joel Simon. “However, this practice can jeopardize the safety of all journalists by making them appear parties to the conflict.”

In a separate incident on Friday, April 11, Iraqi fighters near Tikrit detained and bound with rope CNN reporter Kevin Sites for several hours. Sites reported that the men accused him and his cameraman, interpreter, and security guard of being spies but later released them after negotiating with village elders. Some of his crew were beaten by their captors, he said.

Click here to read Sites’ account.

“Although the fighting in this conflict may have subsided, the security situation for those covering events remains precarious,” added CPJ’s Simon.

In other developments:

  • On Saturday, April 12, armed Iraqis briefly detained three Malaysian journalists in Baghdad and released them three hours later, according to press reports. New Straits Times photographer Mohd Anuar Hashim, Radio Television Malaysia cameraman Omar Salleh, and The Sun reporter Terence Fernandez were returning to their hotel after accompanying a Malaysian medical relief team that was delivering supplies to two hospitals in Baghdad when some 100 Iraqis ambushed their two cars, according to the New Straits Times. The journalists were shot at and detained before being freed.
  • Also on Saturday, Turkish journalists Kemal Batur, a reporter for Sky Turk television, and Mesut Gengec, a cameraman for Show TV, were wounded when their car came under fire in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The journalists had been traveling by car along with other Turkish journalists and were heading to a nearby hospital to report on looting. Officials at Show TV said they believed that hospital guards defending the facility from looters had fired at the journalists. Batur lost two fingers after being shot in the hand. Gengec was injured by a bullet fragment in the head.
  • On Thursday, April 10, a reporter and a photographer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune was confronted by an Iraqi carrying a hand grenade just outside the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, according to a dispatch by one of the reporters. Reporter Paul McEnroe and photographer Richard Sennott were just outside the oil refineries of Kirkuk when six Iraqi fighters thought to be loyal to Saddam Hussein approached the journalists, who were traveling with Kurdish fighters. According to McEnroe, one of the men carrying a grenade wanted to kill them because they were Americans. The journalists escaped when Kurdish militia opened fire on the fighters, killing one.