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With daily violence, journalists face great risks in Iraq
International freedom-of-the-press watchdog groups have been calling this week for full U.S. disclosure in the case of Giuliana Sgrena and Nicola Calipari. She's the prominent Italian journalist whom insurgents in Iraq abducted last month. He's the Italian intelligence agent who negotiated her release but who then died under fire from U.S. soldiers as he escorted her to the Baghdad airport. She was wounded in that shooting. The watchdog groups have made similar demands in the past over killings of journalists by U.S. troops in Iraq -- with little result. But as our correspondent reports, the press groups expect the Sgrena-Calipari case to be different.
Prague, 10 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The central difference in this case, they say, is it involves the famous Italian sense of national honor.
The New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists calculates that U.S. fire has killed at least nine journalists and two of their assistants in Iraq since the invasion two years ago. In each of those incidents, organizations like the International Press Institute, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee To Protect Journalists have peppered U.S. officials with letters and protests demanding investigations, changes in procedures and punishment for the perpetrators.
The protests this time were vociferous as well. But they have been joined by the voice of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of U.S. President George W. Bush's staunchest allies in Europe.
"Only a frank, a reciprocal recognition of eventual responsibility, is the condition for closure of the incident which was so irrational and that caused so much sorrow," Berlusconi said.
Berlusconi was speaking 9 March to the Italian Parliament. The Italian prime minister said U.S. authorities have promised full cooperation.
The U.S. government has promised full disclosure before in journalist shootings. But Jean-Francois Julliard at the Paris International Secretariat of Reporters Without Borders says he is confident that the Sgrena-Calipari shootings will generate more information than past cases.
"No, we think we will have a response and we are sure that in the case of Giuliana, for instance, we are sure that there will be a response. Because the Italians are associated with this inquiry, and they will do whatever they can to be sure that there is a response," Julliard said.
Other high-profile journalists' deaths have generated pressure. Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana was filming outside Abu Ghurayb prison in Iraq in August 2003 with a group of other journalists when a tank rolled around a corner. The tank's gunner apparently mistook Dana's TV camera for a shoulder-held rocket launcher and fired instantly, killing the cameraman.
The U.S. military, after investigating that case, proposed improvements in communication, reforms of its rules of engagement, and other remedies. Joel Campagna of the Committee To Protect Journalists, tells RFE/RL that the ideas were excellent -- but without effect.
"Unfortunately, to our knowledge, none of these recommendations has been implemented. And they should be," Campagna said.
In past cases, the press-freedom groups have been frustrated by reports from witnesses that appear to conflict with the U.S. military's explanations. When a tank commander fired a round into Baghdad's Palestine Hotel in April 2003, killing two journalists, U.S. military spokesmen said at first that the tank had been fired upon and had returned fire. The tank commander himself said, however, that he had not come under fire. He said he shot at a hotel window because he suspected an enemy spotter was emplaced there.
The military subsequently changed its official account. But, says Campagna, it only raised more questions.
"What the military's investigation failed to address was the questions of why U.S. troops on the ground were not made aware of what was at the time perhaps the best-known civilian site in all of Baghdad. It was a location where dozens of journalists were reporting the twists and turns of the conflict in Baghdad," Campagna said.
Former hostage Giuliana Sgrena's account of the attack on her car near the Baghdad airport differed in significant detail from that offered by U.S. officials. They said her driver ignored signals to stop as he approached a military checkpoint at high speed. She said he was traveling at a moderate speed and that a hail of gunfire instantly followed one flash of light.
Berlusconi clearly has come down mostly on the side of his countrywoman's version. He said that the U.S. version of events did "not coincide" with what happened. The Italians also insist that agent Calipari had informed U.S. authorities that he was heading to the airport with the freed hostage. That seems to contradict a U.S. statement that the top U.S. general in Iraq was unaware of any such notification.
So far no responsible figure has given public credence to Sgrena's suggestion that U.S. forces might have targeted her in a deliberate ambush because of her record of hostile coverage or displeasure over a possible ransom being paid. Editor David Dadge of the International Press Institute in Vienna says that recklessness rather than premeditation usually gets the blame.
"Obviously it's not a question of -- or it doesn't appear to be a case of -- journalists actually being targeted. But it seems to be a high degree of recklessness being shown by the United States Army with regard to how they're actually choosing their targets and how they're actually going about firing on the," Dadge said.
But the Committee To Protect Journalists' Joel Campagna says there is one case in which deliberate U.S. targeting of journalists in Iraq remains an unanswered suspicion. That was an April 2003 missile strike on the Baghdad bureau of the Arab TV outlet Al-Jazeera.
"To our knowledge, the U.S. military has not even launched an investigation into that incident. And it is an incident that has fueled charges from a number of journalists that the Baghdad bureau of Al-Jazeera was deliberately targeted by U.S. troops. And that coming two years after the network's Kabul bureau had been similarly struck by U.S. forces," Campagna said.
In most of the journalists' death cases, U.S. authorities have responded with information, however limited. In the case of the Al-Jazeera strikes, however, the only response from the U.S. military -- even after inquiries under the federal Freedom of Information Act -- is that the strikes have not been investigated.