Five years after deadly Palestine Hotel and Al-Jazeera strikes, unanswered questions linger

New York, April 7, 2008—Five years after a series of U.S. military strikes against media outlets in Baghdad killed three journalists, CPJ calls on the U.S. military to fully investigate the incidents and make its findings public. CPJ also calls on the U.S. military to implement procedures to address the presence of journalists on the battlefield.

On April 8, 2003, a U.S. tank fired a single shell on the Palestine Hotel, the main base for dozens of international journalists covering the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, killing Spanish cameraman José Couso of Telecinco and veteran Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk, and wounding three other reporters. A CPJ investigation into the attack, “Permission to Fire,” found that although the attack on the hotel was not deliberate, it could have been avoided and may have been caused by a breakdown in communication within the U.S. Army chain of command.

Earlier that morning, U.S. air strikes hit the Baghdad bureau of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite news channel, killing correspondent Tareq Ayyoub and injuring a station cameraman. Moments later, the nearby offices of Abu Dhabi TV came under fire in a separate attack. While both stations were operating in a combat area, they had been there for weeks and Al-Jazeera had provided its coordinates to the Pentagon.

It was not the first time the U.S. military had struck Al-Jazeera; the channel’s Kabul bureau was hit in November 2001. The Pentagon has stated that the Kabul bureau was “a known al-Qaeda facility” without offering any evidence.

David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters, spoke to CPJ about his dissatisfaction with the progress since one of his reporters was killed. “While there have been official investigations into various incidents, we are not satisfied with their speed or objectivity,” Schlesinger said. “We feel acutely that more needs to be done to make the battlefield as safe as possible for non-combatants like journalists.”

“Troubling questions about these attacks linger to this day, and each has potentially deadly implications for all journalists who work in conflict zones,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “U.S. officials need to answer the longstanding questions of why U.S. troops on the ground were not made aware of the Palestine Hotel, and what steps the military has taken to avoid such tragedies in the future. It must also end its silence about its strike on Al-Jazeera.”

On August 12, 2003, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) issued a news release summarizing the results of its investigation into the shelling of the Palestine Hotel. The report concluded that the tank unit that opened fire on the hotel did so “in a proportionate and justifiably measured response.” It called the shelling “fully in accordance with the Rules of Engagement.” However, the news release failed to address one of the conclusions in CPJ’s report: that U.S. commanders knew journalists were in the Palestine Hotel but failed to convey this knowledge to forces on the ground.

The military’s investigation, released in November 2004, found no fault in the attack and did not explain why troops were not made aware of what was one of Baghdad’s best known civilian locations. To CPJ’s knowledge, the U.S. military has never investigated or credibly explained its strike on Al-Jazeera’s bureau. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment for this report.

Of the 127 journalists and 50 media support workers killed in Iraq since March 20, 2003, at least 16 journalists and six media support staffers have been killed by U.S. forces, the last one on July 12, 2007.

In Spain, Couso’s family is pursuing criminal charges against three U.S. soldiers involved in the attack on the Palestine Hotel—Sgt. Shawn Gibson, Capt. Philip Wolford, and Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp.

U.S. military officials have in the past discussed ways to improve safety with news executives and press freedom groups. Military officials have formulated a set of recommendations as part of their investigative report into the death of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, who was shot and killed by U.S. soldiers in August 2003 while filming outside Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. These included calls to improve military communication regarding the presence of journalists in conflict areas, improve communications between the military and the media, and reassess the rules of engagement for U.S. troops.

“Why were U.S. troops on the ground not made aware of who was in the Palestine Hotel, one of the best known civilian sites in all of Baghdad?” Simon asked. “More important, what steps has the military taken to avoid such tragedies in the future? Why has the U.S. remained silent despite repeated demands to explain its strikes on Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV? Five years on, these questions are still urgent and they demand answers.”