CPJ appeals FOIA denial on Al-Jazeera bombing

New York, October 20, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists has appealed the Pentagon’s refusal to release information about the U.S. bombing of Al-Jazeera television’s Baghdad bureau in 2003 which killed a reporter.

The formal appeal sent on Thursday followed the revelation by Britain’s Channel 4 this week that former British Home Secretary (Interior Minister) David Blunkett had suggested around the time of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain that bombing Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad transmitters might be justified. This has added to suspicions that the station may have been deliberately targeted.

CPJ filed a request in May 2003 under the Freedom of Information Act for details of the air strike that killed Al-Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayyoub. At the same time, CPJ also sought information on a separate incident, the shelling on April 8, 2003 by a U.S. tank of the Palestine Hotel, which killed two journalists. For information on that incident see http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2003/palestine_hotel/palestine_hotel.html

To date, the Pentagon has declined to release classified material or references to classified material to CPJ about the Al-Jazeera strike. It released an edited version of its internal report into the Palestine Hotel shelling and other documents that that were already widely available.

On October 18, the Pentagon wrote CPJ and provided only unclassified press conference “talking points” and a related memorandum. It failed to indicate the existence of classified documents that relate to the incident, their estimated volume, and the statutory reasons for denying their release.

The strike against Al-Jazeera gained prominence this week when Channel 4’s “Dispatches” program disclosed audio diaries that Blunkett kept when in office. The channel reported that Blunkett suggested to the British cabinet that an attack might be justified. “Well, I don’t think for a minute in previous wars we’d have thought twice about ensuring that a propaganda mechanism on the soil of the country you were invading would actually continue being able to propagandize against you,” Blunkett said when asked by a Channel 4 interviewer whether Al-Jazeera was a civilian target. Although Blunkett said he supported targeting broadcast transmissions, he said he was against targeting journalists.

“We can see no reason why the Pentagon should not make public all information relating to this and other strikes against Al-Jazeera,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “It is essential for the safety of those covering conflict that U.S. officials provide a detailed public accounting of these troubling incidents.”

At around dawn on April 8, 2003, a U.S. air-to-surface missile exploded outside the two-story villa that housed Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau, killing Ayyoub, who had been on the roof adjusting a pre-positioned camera during fierce fighting in the area. The missile targeted an electricity generator just outside the building, Al-Jazeera staff told CPJ at the time. The U.S. military claimed Ayyoub was killed in crossfire when U.S. forces were responding to hostile fire coming from the building, an assertion denied by Al-Jazeera. For more detail on the incident, see http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/Iraq/Js_killed_by_US_13sept05.html

CPJ has repeatedly demanded that the U.S. military conduct and make public a thorough investigation into the incident, but is unaware of any military inquiry that was ever launched. U.S. officials have not responded to repeated requests for information on the strike.

The U.S. military previously bombed Al-Jazeera’s bureau 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 his recently published book The One Percent Doctrine, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind wrote that U.S. forces deliberately targeted Al-Jazeera’s Kabul bureau in November 2001 to send a “message” to the station.