One of the most powerful executives in the cable news business, CNN’s Eason Jordan, was brought down after he spoke out of school during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in January. In a rare moment of candor, Jordan reportedly said that the US military had targeted a dozen journalists who had been killed in Iraq. The comments quickly ignited a firestorm on the Internet, fueled by right-wing bloggers, that led to Jordan’s recanting, apologizing and ultimately resigning after twenty-three years at the network, “in an effort to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy.”
But the real controversy here should not be over Jordan’s comments. The controversy ought to be over the unconscionable silence in the United States about the military’s repeated killing of journalists in Iraq.
Consider the events of April 8, 2003. Early that morning, Al Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayyoub was reporting from the network’s Baghdad bureau. He was providing an eyewitness account of a fierce battle between US and Iraqi forces along the banks of the Tigris. As he stood on the roof of the building, a US warplane swooped in and fired a rocket at Al Jazeera’s office. Ayyoub was killed instantly. US Central Command released a statement claiming, “Coalition forces came under significant enemy fire from the building where the Al-Jazeera journalists were working.” No evidence was ever produced to bolster this claim. Al Jazeera, which gave the US military its coordinates weeks before the invasion began, says it received assurances a day before Ayyoub’s death that the network would not be attacked.
At noon on April 8, a US Abrams tank fired at the Palestine Hotel, home and office to more than 100 unembedded international journalists operating in Baghdad at the time. The shell smashed into the fifteenth-floor Reuters office, killing two cameramen, Reuters’s Taras Protsyuk and José Couso of Spain’s Telecinco. The United States again claimed that its forces had come under enemy fire and were acting in self-defense. This claim was contradicted by scores of journalists who were in the hotel and by a French TV crew that filmed the attack. In its report on the incident, the Committee to Protect Journalists asserted that “Pentagon officials, as well as commanders on the ground in Baghdad, knew that the Palestine Hotel was full of international journalists.”
In a chilling statement at the end of that day in Iraq, then-Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke spelled out the Pentagon’s policy on journalists not embedded with US troops. She warned them that Baghdad “is not a safe place. You should not be there.”
Eason Jordan’s comment was hardly a radical declaration. He was expressing a common view among news organizations around the world. “We have had three deaths, and they were all non-embedded, non-coalition nationals and they were all at the hands of the US military, and the reaction of the US authorities in each case was that they were somehow justified,” David Schlesinger, Reuters’s global managing editor, said in November. “What is the US’s position on nonembeds? Are nonembedded journalists fair game?” One of the BBC’s top news anchors, Nik Gowing, said recently that he was “speak[ing] for a large number of news organizations, many of whom are not really talking publicly about this at the moment,” when he made this statement about the dangers facing reporters in Iraq: “The trouble is that a lot of the military–particularly the American…military–do not want us there. And they make it very uncomfortable for us to work. And I think that this…is leading to security forces in some instances feeling it is legitimate to target us with deadly force and with impunity.”
The US military has yet to discipline a single soldier for the killing of a journalist in Iraq. While some incidents are classified as “ongoing investigation[s],” most have been labeled self-defense or mistakes. Some are even classified as “justified,” like the killing of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, shot near Abu Ghraib prison when his camera was allegedly mistaken for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Also “justified” was the killing of Al Arabiya TV’s Mazen al-Tumeizi, blown apart by a US missile as he reported on a burning US armored vehicle on Baghdad’s Haifa Street.
There have also been several questionable killings of journalists at US military checkpoints, such as the March 2004 shooting deaths of Ali Abdel-Aziz and Ali al-Khatib of Al Arabiya. The Pentagon said the soldiers who shot the journalists acted within the “rules of engagement.” And Reuters freelancer Dhia Najim was killed by US fire while filming resistance fighters in November 2004. “We did kill him,” an unnamed military official told the New York Times. “He was out with the bad guys. He was there with them, they attacked, and we fired back and hit him.”
The military has faced almost no public outcry at home about these killings. In fact, comments by Ann Cooper of the Committee to Protect Journalists have been used to discredit Jordan’s statement at Davos. “From our standpoint,” Cooper was widely quoted as saying, “journalists are not being targeted by the US military in Iraq.” But as CPJ’s Joel Campagna acknowledges, the Pentagon has not been cooperative in the investigations of many of these journalist killings. The fact is that CPJ doesn’t know that the military has not targeted journalists, and there are many facts that suggest that it has. These include not only the events of April 8, 2003, but credible accounts of journalists being tortured by the US military in Iraq, such as Salah Hassan and Suheib Badr Darwish of Al Jazeera [see Christian Parenti, “Al Jazeera Goes to Jail,” March 29, 2004] and three Reuters staffers who say they were brutalized by US forces for seventy-two hours after they filmed a crashed US helicopter near Falluja in January 2004. According to news reports, the journalists were blindfolded, forced to stand for hours with their arms raised and threatened with sexual abuse. A family member of one journalist said US interrogators stripped him naked and forced a shoe into his mouth.
In many of these cases, there is a common thread: The journalists, mostly Arabs, were reporting on places or incidents that the military may not have wanted the world to see–military vehicles in flames, helicopters shot down, fierce resistance against the “liberation” forces, civilian deaths.
In his resignation letter, Jordan wrote, “I never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists.” The families and colleagues of the slain journalists believe otherwise. And it is up to all journalists, not just those in Europe and the Middle East, to honor the victims by holding their killers responsible. In Spain, the family of cameraman José Couso has filed a lawsuit against the US soldiers who killed him, and they plan to travel to the United States for the anniversary of his death this spring. Will any network have the courage to put them on the air?