Shooting the Messenger is a War Crime

The Committee to Protect Journalists recently released its 2006 report on threats to journalists. Iraq is by far the deadliest place for the fourth year in a row, with 32 journalists killed this year. Sad to say, the violence follows a trend that started with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

When you step off the elevator at the Reuters news offices in Washington, D.C., you see a large book sitting on a wooden stand. Each entry describes a Reuters journalist killed in the line of duty. Such as Taras Protsyuk. The veteran Ukrainian cameraman was killed on April 8, 2003, the day before the U.S. seized Baghdad. Protsyuk was on the balcony of the Palestine Hotel when a U.S. tank positioned itself on the al-Jumhuriyah bridge and, as people watched in horror, unleashed a round into the side of the building. The hotel was known for housing hundreds of unembedded reporters. Protsyuk was killed instantly. Jose Couso, a cameraman for the Spanish network Telecinco, was filming from the balcony below. He was also killed.

The difference between the responses by the mainstream media in the United States versus Europe was stunning. While in this country there was hardly a peep of protest, Spanish journalists engaged in a one-day strike. From the elite journalists down to the technicians, they laid down their cables, cameras and pens. They refused to record the words of then-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who joined British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush in supporting the war. When Aznar came into parliament, they piled their equipment at the front of the room and turned their backs on him. Photographers refused to take his picture and instead held up a photo of their slain colleague. At a news conference in Madrid with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Spanish reporters walked out in protest. Later, hundreds of journalists, camera people and technicians marched on the U.S. embassy in Madrid, chanting "Murderer, murderer."

About four hours before the U.S. military opened fire on the Palestine Hotel, a U.S. warplane strafed Al-Jazeera's Baghdad office. Reporter Tareq Ayyoub was on the roof. He died almost instantly.

When interviewed after his death, Ayyoub's wife, Dima, said: "Hate breeds hate. The United States said they were doing this to rout out terrorism. Who is engaged in terrorism now?" This summer, she sued the U.S. government.

The family of Jose Couso has also taken action. They know the names of the three U.S. servicemen who fired on the Palestine Hotel. On Dec. 5, 2006, the Spanish Supreme Court said the men could be tried in Spanish courts, opening the possibility for indictments against the U.S. soldiers.

The military response to the journalists' deaths? Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria "Torie" Clarke, who has since become a news consultant for CNN and ABC, said at the time that Baghdad "is not a safe place. They should not be there."

David Schlesinger, global managing editor of Reuters, said: "It seems in my interactions with the U.S. military -- to paraphrase, basically -- if you are not embedded, we cannot do anything to protect you. Journalists need to be accorded the rights under the Geneva Convention, of civilians not to be shot at willy-nilly, not to be harassed in doing their professional jobs."

The U.N. Security Council agrees. On Dec. 23, it passed a unanimous resolution insisting on the protection of journalists in conflict zones.

More than 120 reporters and other media workers have been killed in Iraq since the invasion. In August 2003, Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana was filming outside Abu Ghraib prison when a machine-gun bullet tore through his chest. The Pentagon said the soldiers had "engaged a cameraman."

Not long before his death, Dana won the International Press Freedom Award. "We carry a gift," he said. "We film and we show the world what is going on. We are not part of the conflict." In receiving his award, Dana reflected, "Words and images are a public trust, and for this reason I will continue with my work regardless of the hardships and even if it costs me my life."

But it shouldn't have. The Pentagon should adopt the U.N. standard and send a clear message to its ranks: Shooting the messenger is a war crime that will not be tolerated.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Seattle Post-Intelligencer