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Iraq: Media Groups Call For Inquiry Into Reporters' Deaths, Question 'Embedding' System

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The deaths of three reporters in U.S. strikes on Baghdad this week have prompted accusations against both coalition forces and the Iraqi regime for alternately targeting and failing to protect journalists. International media watchdogs are calling for an investigation into the killings. They are also questioning the integrity of the "embedding" system, which they say has adversely affected relations between the military and those reporters not traveling with coalition troops.

Prague, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With 10 reporters killed in just 20 days of fighting -- in addition to seven wounded and two others presumed killed -- the war in Iraq has already taken a heavy toll on the international media community.

"The New York Times" yesterday said the death toll was equal to nearly 10 percent of the number of U.S. and British military deaths in the current campaign. By comparison, the newspaper noted, the number of reporters killed during the Vietnam War was equal to less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. military casualties.

A second article yesterday, in "The Wall Street Journal," quoted the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as saying: "This is one of the most dangerous conflicts reporters have covered."

The deaths of three journalists and the destruction of the offices of two Arab television channels in Baghdad on 8 April have triggered harsh criticism of the U.S. military and renewed concern about the safety of reporters covering the conflict.

International media watchdogs -- including the CPJ and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) -- have accused the coalition forces of targeting journalists.

The Iraqi regime was also criticized. The IFJ condemned what it said "appears to be Iraqi tactics of using civilians and reporters as 'human shields' against attack."

In an interview with RFE/RL, IFJ Secretary-General Aidan White denounced what he described as a dangerous pattern.

"There is a pattern here of targeting journalists, which is completely unacceptable and, worse than that, is actually outside international law," White said. "Our concern has been about the process which we see beginning to develop, of generally one side or another targeting media during a war -- and that is extremely serious."

Two reporters -- a Ukrainian-born Reuters cameraman and a Spanish Telecinco cameraman -- were killed on 8 April when a U.S. tank shell hit the Palestine Hotel, where most foreign press representatives in the Iraqi capital are based.

In a separate incident, the Baghdad office of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television station was hit by U.S. missile fire that killed one of its reporters, a Jordanian. The Abu Dhabi television network also says its office was hit by U.S. fire that same day. No casualties were reported in that incident.

The U.S. Central Command in Doha issued a statement asserting that U.S. forces had come under enemy fire at the Al-Jazeera office and blamed the Iraqi regime for using foreign media facilities as cover for military operations.

Central Command also denied the coalition was targeting journalists and said the U.S. military was investigating all three incidents.

But Arab media and press associations yesterday accused Washington of intentionally targeting Al-Jazeera, just months after the U.S. military bombed the television network's Kabul office on the grounds that it was an Al-Qaeda facility.

Central Command also initially quoted officers as saying a U.S. tank fired on the Palestine Hotel only after it was fired at from positions within the hotel. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke defended the U.S. actions at a Pentagon briefing later that day.

"We are at war. There is fighting going on in Baghdad. Our forces came under fire, they exercised their inherent right to self-defense."

But witnesses in the hotel said there was no fighting at the time of the attack and that the U.S. tank crew was not under immediate threat. Footage from a French television crew in the hotel shows a relatively quiet scene with no shots being fired prior to the incident.

In private, U.S. defense officials acknowledge that the tank crew may have mistaken the journalist's cameras for grenade launchers, "The Washington Post" reported yesterday. But White of the IFJ says that denial of intent is not enough and that an independent inquiry should be conducted into the killings.

"As far as we are concerned, it seems to us that we need to have proper international and independent inquiry into cases where there are serious concerns of potential targeting. It is really important." White said when there is a conflict and such cases occur, "you can expect denial of intent from the military people. But what we really want to know is the truth. We want to know what really happened, why did certain things happen."

In earlier remarks, White also said attacks on reporters were "crimes of war" that should be punished. The German Association of Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) issued similar condemnations of the incidents.

"We are appalled at what happened because it was known that both places (the Palestine Hotel and the Al-Jazeera office) contained journalists," RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard said in a statement.

Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo-Figueroa described the attack on the hotel as a "very serious mistake." Following this week's bombing, Spain and Portugal have urged their media organizations to withdraw their correspondents from Baghdad.

Media watchdog groups have also expressed concern at the attitude of the U.S. military toward those reporters who are not traveling with army units and who are referred to as "nonembedded" journalists or "unilaterals."

IFJ says American, British, and other "embedded" journalists represent only a quarter of the press corps reporting from Iraq and neighboring countries.

With the exception of two journalists -- one German, one Spanish -- killed on 7 April when the U.S. military vehicle they were traveling in was hit by an Iraqi missile, and a third who died in a car crash last week (4 April), all the reporters that have been killed or gone missing since the beginning of the conflict were "unilaterals." An "embedded" correspondent, NBC's David Bloom, died of natural causes on 6 April.

RSF says many "nonembedded" journalists have complained about being refused entry into Iraq, threatened with withdrawal of accreditation, or detained and interrogated for several hours by the U.S. military.

On 28 March, American soldiers stationed south of Baghdad detained three reporters -- one Portuguese and two Israelis -- on charges of spying for the Iraqi regime. The three said they were interrogated and mistreated before being sent back to Kuwait. The Pentagon has justified the arrests by saying the journalists were posing a "security threat" to U.S. troops.

Aly Colon teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. He tells RFE/RL he believes the "embedding" process is a good thing because it gives journalists an opportunity to report from the front line even though their reports offer only "one slice of what is actually taking place."

While saying he is unaware of harassment of "nonembedded" journalists by U.S. troops, Colon admits that the military may develop different relations with reporters depending on their status.

"I have not been aware and I am not knowledgeable about specific statements or expressions of attitude toward those who are not 'embedded,' but I would assume that the military is going to know and be aware of those who are in the units." He said troops might be "more attentive" to those correspondents that are "embedded" and "may not have the same sense of responsibility and definitely [not] the same control" over "nonembedded" journalists than they would with "embedded" ones. "So," he said, "I would assume that they are expecting that the independent journalists would be independent in the entire sense of the word and be responsible for themselves."

Speaking at a press briefing on 9 April, White said the "embedding" process is making reporters who do not travel with military units more vulnerable to harassment because "[U.S.] military commanders on the ground have responded to the natural impulse to target 'nonembedded' journalists."

IFJ Human Rights and Safety Officer Sarah De Jong tells our correspondent the difference in the risks faced by either group of reporters stems from their legal status.

"We are not saying that one group faces less risks than the other group," she said. "What we are saying is that both groups face different types of risks, different dangers. On top of that, they both have different legal rights in a war zone. If you are a journalist officially 'embedded' with a military unit you lose your status as an independent, neutral observer. You basically lose your rights as a journalist under the Geneva Conventions, you become a different category."

In contrast, she says, independent journalists "maintain their rights under the Geneva Conventions and one of their primary rights is to be treated as civilians, but also, like all civilians, to be protected in a war zone. And we've had a very, very strong indication that that has not been the case, by either these so-called 'coalition forces,' or by the Iraqi regime."

According to a protocol added to the 1949 Geneva Convention, journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict are considered civilians. But these measures do not apply to reporters who choose to travel with either of the warring sides in a conflict. If captured, those journalists are considered prisoners of war.

In White's opinion, the "embedding" experience, which has not been used on such a massive scale since the Vietnam War, has not been a favorable one.

"It has created a horrible situation when you have basically two classes of media reporting. One from the 'embedded' community, which is a minority -- about 500 or 600 journalists. And the other reporting has come from 'nonembedded' journalists -- numbering about 2,000, I suppose -- who have not had the protection of the military and, to a certain extent, have been the ones who have been most of all in the firing line." He said he thinks "we have to try to get away from this first-class and second-class idea about reporters in times of conflict and try to come to a common understanding of the way in which media and journalists should work and the responsibility of combatants to respect their status."

The IFJ's De Jong believes it may be too early to call for an end to the "embedding" process. Nevertheless, she expects both the Pentagon and the media community to take certain lessons away from the Iraq war and initiate a dialogue on how to enhance the safety of journalists reporting from war zones.

(RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina contributed to this report.)