CPJ delegation urges Israel to release findings in death of Reuters cameraman

Washington, June 11, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Israeli authorities today to release the findings of an army investigation into the killing of a Reuters cameraman by an Israeli tank shell in the Gaza Strip two months ago. In a meeting with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, the CPJ delegation also urged the government to commit to a thorough, impartial, and credible inquiry into the killing—the seventh journalist death at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in seven years.

Meeting with Ambassador Sallai Meridor, CPJ detailed its concerns about the case of 23-year-old Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana, killed on April 16 by shellfire from an Israeli tank as he filmed Israeli military forces outside of Johr al-Diek, near the Israel-Gaza border. A number of other civilians were killed in the strike; Reuters soundman Wafa Abu Mizyed, who was traveling with Shana, was wounded.

Shana was filming the tank from an open area about 1,000 yards away when the tank fired on the Reuters crew, the news agency reported. Shana was killed by a shell that dispersed hundreds of flechettes—tiny anti-personnel darts that spread across a wide radius and are designed to inflict maximum casualties. Shana’s last footage shows his location and that of the tank; the footage goes dark after he is struck.

Shana’s sport utility vehicle and flak jacket bore the markings “Press,” and there was no fighting taking place in the immediate area at the time, according to eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, which conducted a detailed investigation in April. The group reported that journalists who attempted to come to the scene also came under shell attack.

“Based on the evidence we’ve seen thus far, it’s difficult to understand that the soldiers who fired on Fadel Shana and his colleague could not have determined they were civilians,” CPJ Senior Program Coordinator Joel Campagna told the ambassador. “We hope that Israeli authorities will provide answers that help explain this shocking incident. A first step would be to immediately release the IDF’s field report and to ensure that an impartial and thorough investigation is conducted into this incident.”

Meridor spoke with CPJ on condition that his comments not be publicized. The CPJ delegation also included board member David Marash and CPJ Journalist Security Coordinator Frank Smyth.

The IDF has said that it has completed its field investigation and has indicated that the soldiers did not know they were firing on journalists. It has yet to release its findings or publicly explain the incident.

At least eight journalists have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2001, seven in shootings by Israeli Defense Forces. Previous investigations into journalist deaths at the hands of the IDF have been marred by a lack of transparency and accountability.

Shana’s death occurs against the backdrop of what some foreign correspondents describe as an increasingly dismissive IDF attitude toward journalist safety in the West Bank and Gaza. An IDF spokesman issued a statement on May 7 stating that it “wishes to emphasize that it does not take any responsibility for the presence of foreign journalists in operational or combat zones in Judea, Samaria [the West Bank] and the Gaza Strip.”

“Any journalist who enters these areas is acting under his own will and responsibility,” the statement said. “Their will be no coordination of press movement and activity in the areas of IDF operations.”

The statement, journalists told CPJ, was released after an incident in which an ABC News crew in Gaza was alarmed by a circling Israeli Apache helicopter. The crew called the IDF and asked that the command be informed that journalists were in the vicinity. An IDF media officer dismissed their request, the journalists said.