Iraq: The deadliest war for journalists

More journalists were killed during the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq than in any war in history.

tareq ayoub death
Al Jazeera journalist Tareq Ayoub was killed in a US airstrike during the US-led invasion of Iraq. His daughter Fatima was 14 months old at the time. [GALLO/GETTY]

On April 8, 2003, during the US-led invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayoub was killed when a US warplane bombed Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Baghdad.

The invasion and subsequent nine-year occupation of Iraq claimed the lives of a record number of journalists. It was undisputedly the deadliest war for journalists in recorded history.

Disturbingly, more journalists were murdered in targeted killings in Iraq than died in combat-related circumstances, according to the group Committee to Protect Journalists.

CPJ research shows that “at least 150 journalists and 54 media support workers were killed in Iraq from the US-led invasion in March 2003 to the declared end of the war in December 2011.”

“The media were not welcome by the US military,” Soazig Dollet, who runs the Middle East and North Africa desk of Reporters Without Borders told Al Jazeera. “That is really obvious.”

Unfortunately for Al Jazeera and Tareq Ayoub, Dollet’s statement was all too true.

Journalists “should not be there”

Map: Iraq the deadliest war for journalists

Al Jazeera bore a constant barrage of bellicose verbiage from Bush administration officials during the invasion and occupation. Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld labeled Al Jazeera Arabic’s reportage as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.” 

But the verbal attack had been preceded by bombs in Afghanistan.

The US bombed Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul during the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, and attacked the media outlet multiple times during the 2003 Iraq invasion, including the killing of Ayoub, despite the fact that Al Jazeera supplied the Pentagon with their headquarter’s coordinates in Baghdad in February 2003.

On the same day Ayoub was killed a US tank shelled the Palestine Hotel, home and office to more than 100 unembedded international journalists operating in Baghdad at the time. The shell smashed into the Reuters office, killing two cameramen, Reuters’ Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso of Spain’s Telecinco. That day there was also an attack on an Abu Dhabi TV office by US forces.

In a chilling statement at the end of that bloody day in Iraq, then-Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke spelled out the Pentagon’s policy on journalists who were not embedded with US troops when she warned them that Baghdad “is not a safe place. You should not be there.”

No Justice

By 2010 Reporters Without Borders had recorded the deaths of 230 media professionals, 87 per cent of which were Iraqis.

The infamous day when Ayoub was killed along with the two Reuters’ cameramen unfortunately became a warning of what was to come for journalists working in Iraq.

As high as both the CPJ and Reporters Without Borders tallies are, another group, the Brussells Tribunal, closely tracked Iraqi media worker deaths in detail, and provides a detailed account of each death, concluding with the current total number of 382 journalist and media worker deaths when combining Iraqi and non-Iraqi.

However, Iraq’s impunity rate, or the degree to which perpetrators have escaped prosecution for killing journalists, is the worst in the world at 100 per cent. Even today, as Iraq has moved beyond the US conflict, both Iraqi and US governmental authorities have shown no interest in investigating these murders.

Dima Tareq Tahboub, Tareq Ayoub’s widow, continues her mourning for her late husband, which she said is extended due

Dima Tahboub, widow of Al Jazeera journalist Tareq Ayoub, continues seeking justice 10 years after her husband was killed by the US military. [Dima Tahboub]

to the lack of justice for what happened.

“No justice has been achieved to this day after 10 years,” she told Al Jazeera.

In her quest to find justice for the death of her husband, Tahboub has filed lawsuits in Belgium, the US, and Jordan, but “none of the cases were successful and the American lawyer finally informed us that the US soldiers were granted immunity from prosecution.”

Today she acknowledges that the effort made by individuals like herself is “not enough” and calls for continued efforts by media watchdog and rights groups to seek justice and work towards the better protection of journalists in conflict zones around the world.

Long term consequences

Today, Tahboub and her now 11-year-old daughter Fatima, struggle to cope with the loss of Tareq.

“Does anyone ever cope with the loss of a loved one,” she asked Al Jazeera. “That the perpetrators got away with murder

Dima Tahboub’s daughter, Fatima, now 11 years-old, was only 1 year old when her father Tareq was killed. [Dima Tahboub]

deepens our grief and agony. We are stranded in the past, unable to move forward and turn the page with some kind of relief.”

Dollet believes the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has had long-term consequences on the freedom of the press in Iraq, and expects the targeting of journalists there likely to continue.

“Between 2003 and 2010 more than 30 Iraqi journalists were detained and held in prisons in Iraq by the Americans,” she explained. “All of these journalists were arbitrarily arrested by the Americans, just as they continue to be arrested by the Iraqi government today.”

Tahboub continues to hope that the death of her husband will ultimately result in indictments against those responsible in the Bush administration.

“Those responsible in the US military, and the other perpetrators, should be tried before a court of law,” she said. “They should be indicted for the premeditated murder of Tareq, revealing the truth about the bombing of the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad.”

“How the US treated journalists during and after the invasion was in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions,” Dollet added. “Reporters Without Borders continues to be angry about what happened in Iraq, and we continue our investigations into who is responsible for all the murders of foreign and Iraqi journalists, and we aim to bring prosecutions.”

Dollet was clear about who her group believes is responsible.

“The US, as the occupying power in Iraq all those years, they have a huge responsibility for what happened,” she concluded.

Al Jazeera is still awaiting an apology from the US government for the death of Tareq Ayoub.

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

Source: Al Jazeera