Questions over journalists’ deaths

The families of three journalists killed as Baghdad fell search for answers.


Tareq Ayoub died when a US tank fired
at Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau [Getty]

An international media advocacy group has criticised the US military for not fully investigating the deaths of three journalists killed when their hotel and Al Jazeera’s office came under US fire as Baghdad fell on April 8, 2003.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says it has continuously called on the US military to fully investigate the incidents that came just before the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled.

“The Pentagon has never credibly explained the strike on the Baghdad bureau on Al Jazeera, despite our repeated calls to investigate it,” Joel Campagna, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa senior programme co-ordinator, said.

Tariq Ayoub, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, was killed when a US missile struck the Baghdad bureau.

Al Jazeera directors had given the US military the bureau’s geographic co-ordinates weeks before the war began in March 2003.

US commanders were also aware that the Palestine Hotel was a main base for dozens of international journalists.

But José Couso, a cameraman for the Spanish television station Telecinco, and Taras Protsyuk, a cameraman for Reuters, were killed after a US tank fired a shell at the hotel later the same day.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the CPJ stated that their investigation into the attack “found that although the attack on the [Palestine] hotel was not deliberate, it could have been avoided and may have been caused by a breakdown in communication within the US army chain of command”.

Targeted attacks?

But Ayoub’s brother, Khalid Ayoub, believes that both attacks were intentional.

[Bush] targeted these journalists, he targeted Al Jazeera and he has an agenda against them

“My brother was 100 per cent killed and targeted,” he said.

“[Bush] targeted these journalists, he targeted Al Jazeera and he has an agenda against them.”

The US military media office in Central Command (Centcom) in Qatar denied that its forces intentionally target citizens or members of the press. 

When asked to respond to the CBJ’s claims, the Centcom media office referred Al Jazeera to the US department of defence in Washington DC.

There was no immediate response from the defence department.

Military investigation

A US military investigation into events at the Palestine hotel was made public in late 2004 in response to a Freedom of Information Act requested by CPJ in May 2003. The findings cleared US forces of “fault or negligence”.

However, the CPJ’s main concern is why US commanders, who knew that international journalists were in the Palestine Hotel, failed to convey this information to US forces on the ground.

Campagna feels that a similar investigation is required to explain how Al Jazeera’s Ayoub was killed on April 8.

“We haven’t seen evidence to conclude [Al Jazeera’s bureau] was deliberately targeted but it is troubling to have silence from the Pentagon about the strike,” he said. 

He said that whether one believes that the targeting of the Baghdad bureau were intentional or not, the US Pentagon should not just “sweep our questions or demands for an investigation under the rug. People want answers and they should deal with it by answering our questions.”

“American assurances”

Maher Abdullah, a talk show host and producer with Al Jazeera, witnessed the attack against the Baghdad bureau and documented the events surrounding Ayoub’s death.

Ukranians stand in memory of Taras Protsyuk in
front of the US embassy on April 8, 2008 [EPA]

But Abdullah died in a car accident in 2004 before he could publish his work. His unpublished notes were provided to Al Jazeera by his brother Abraham Ahmad.

Abdullah wrote that US aircraft had been flying extremely low over the area that morning.

His crew had gone up to the roof of the building to film but had to come down because the situation had become too dangerous.

Abdullah wrote that Al Jazeera’s general manager had “reiterated American assurances about the bureau being known to them and that it would not be targeted”.

But later, when Ayoub and the assistant cameraman went back up on the roof to adjust a camera, which was shooting live at the time, a missile struck Al Jazeera’s power generator killing Ayoub. The assistant cameraman was injured.

Seeking justice

As the CPJ continues to push the US military to launch an investigation into Ayoub’s death, the family of slain Telecinco journalist José Couso says it is pursuing criminal charges against US soldiers involved in the attack on the Palestine Hotel.

Though their case was dismissed by a Spanish high court in 2006, the Couso family have been appealing against the dismissal and protesting in front of the US embassy in Spain every April 8 to continue building awareness about the incident.

Iraq has proven to be one of the bloodiest battlegrounds for journalists.

Since the March 20, US-led invasion in 2003, at least 16 journalists and six media support workers have been killed by US forces, the CPJ said. Another 110 have been killed by militias, anti-government fighters and car bombings.

The CPJ has continually asked the US military explore ways to improve safety with news executives and press freedom groups.

In the meantime, April 8 is a bitter anniversary for the Ayoub family.

Khalid says his brother was loved and respected while he was alive, and after his death.

“He was a good person, good brother, father and friend and he was just doing his job,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera