CPJ sends letter to Rumsfeld about the deaths of two journalists in Iraq

Dear Secretary Rumsfeld:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alarmed by the deaths of two journalists working for the United Arab Emirates-based news channel Al-Arabiyya in Baghdad last week. These deaths are especially troubling because they occurred just days before the military presented a detailed report on the August death of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana that contained recommendations for creating safer conditions for journalists working in Iraq.

On the evening of March 18, Al-Arabiyya cameraman Ali Abdel Aziz and reporter Ali al-Khatib were shot near a U.S. military checkpoint in Baghdad. According to Al-Arabiyya, the two journalists, along with a technician and a driver, had gone to cover the aftermath of a rocket attack against the Burj al-Hayat Hotel. The crew arrived at the scene in two vehicles and parked about 110 to 165 yards (100 to 150 meters) away from the checkpoint, which was situated near the hotel. Abdel Aziz, al-Khatib, and technician Mohamed Abdel Hafez approached the soldiers on foot and spoke with them for a few minutes but were told they could not proceed, according to Abdel Hafez.

As the three men, already in their cars, prepared to depart, Abdel Hafez said that the electricity in the area went out and a car driven by an elderly man approached the U.S. troops, crashing into a small metal barrier near a military vehicle at the checkpoint. Abdel Hafez said that as the crew pulled away from the scene, one of their vehicles was struck by gunfire from the direction of the U.S. troops. Abdel Hafez said he witnessed two or three U.S. soldiers firing but was not sure at whom they were firing. He said there had been no other gunfire in the area at the time.

Apparently, bullets passed through the rear windshield of the car in which Abdel Aziz and al-Khatib were driving. Abdel Aziz died instantly of a bullet wound, or wounds, to the head, while al-Khatib died in a hospital the next day, also due to a bullet wound, or wounds, to the head. CPJ is currently seeking more details about the incident.

According to press reports, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, has ordered an “urgent review” of the incident. On March 20, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the deputy director of operations for coalition forces in Iraq, appeared to cast doubt on the assertion that U.S. forces were responsible for the journalists’ deaths,
citing forensic evidence that showed the number of bullets that U.S. troops fired did not match the number that struck the Al-Arabiyya vehicle, and that the wounds suffered by the Al-Arabiyya journalists were not consistent with those likely to be suffered by passengers in a moving vehicle. According to The Washington Post, Kimmitt said that U.S. troops accounted for all but two bullets fired at the car that crashed into the metal barrier. He pointed out, however, that an autopsy revealed that the Al-Arabiyya journalists were hit by at least five bullets.

CPJ urgently calls on U.S. authorities in Iraq to ensure that the investigation under way into this incident is conducted thoroughly, and that all findings are made public. Only a serious and impartial accounting can help determine responsibility for the tragic deaths of our colleagues.

Abdel Aziz and al-Khatib’s deaths underscore the grave dangers facing journalists reporting in Iraq. At least 21 journalists have been killed in action in Iraq since the U.S.-led war began a year ago, including most recently a news anchor working for the CPA-backed Diyala TV who was shot and killed in a separate incident on March 18 when armed assailants opened fire on a bus carrying station employees in Baqouba. (A technician and a security guard were also killed in the attack.)

While journalists in Iraq face myriad risks from armed insurgents and common criminals, gunfire from U.S. forces has killed at least four journalists, and maybe as many as six, including Abdel Aziz and al-Khatib. We believe that these deaths may have been avoidable.

The circumstances of several of these cases have called into question the conduct of U.S. troops and have raised the issue of whether U.S. forces are adequately taking into account the presence of journalists working in conflict areas in Iraq and using appropriate measures to avoid endangering them.

In fact, the military directly addressed this issue in the recommendations outlined in the report it released to Reuters about the death of its cameraman Mazen Dana, who was killed by U.S. troops near Baghdad on August 17, 2003. According to Reuters, the report, which called the shooting both “tragic and regrettable” but absolved U.S. troops of any wrongdoing, calls for improved communication between the media and the military in areas of conflict–including communication among adjacent units regarding the presence of journalists in areas of operation–and a review of the Army’s rules of engagement. (CPJ has yet to receive the report, which has been promised by U.S. Central Command in response to a CPJ Freedom of Information Act request.)

These recommendations should be implemented immediately. Additionally, the military should respond to journalists, who have expressed an interest in creating more dialogue with the military about safety issues. For example, on March 22, Reuters announced that it is willing to host and sponsor conferences in Baghdad and Washington, D.C., for journalists and the U.S. military to improve safety in conflict areas.

Journalists, like the U.S. military, are likely to remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future. U.S. troops must ensure that the media can report in the presence of soldiers without fear of harassment or being mistaken for hostile forces. The swift and thorough investigation of instances where journalists are killed, injured, or mistreated by U.S. forces, as well as the adoption of effective means to reduce the potential harm to working journalists from troops, would be welcome steps and would also show a serious commitment by the U.S. military to address these important issues.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director