January 15, 2004
By Ciar Byrne
A US army attack on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad that killed two journalists was the result of "criminal negligence" and George Bush's government was partly to blame, said international media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres.
In a report published today, RSF called for the reopening of a US army inquiry into the shelling of the hotel, which was considered a media safe house and the base for most foreign journalists in the Iraqi capital during the Gulf war.
The attack on April 8 left two journalists dead, Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso of Spanish TV station Telecinco, and injured many others.
It led to a media outcry at the time - Spanish journalists snubbed a visit by the foreign minister, Jack Straw, to Madrid shortly afterwards, downing cameras, notebooks and holding their heads in silence during a speech.
The US at the time admitted it had opened fire on the hotel but said it had come under attack from snipers.
But that account has been dismissed as "absurd" by journalists working out of the building.
Sky News correspondent David Chater, who saw the tank direct its gun barrel at the hotel, said he was "staggered" it fired despite knowing it was the de facto press centre for all the western media in Baghdad.
RSF said today the real cause of the tragedy was that soldiers in the field were never told the hotel was full of journalists.
"It is inconceivable that the massive presence of journalists at the hotel for three weeks prior to the shelling, which was known by any TV viewer and by the Pentagon itself, could have passed unnoticed," said the watchdog.
"Yet this presence was never mentioned to the troops in the field or marked on the maps used by artillery support soldiers. The question is whether this information was withheld deliberately, out of contempt or through negligence.
"The US shelling of the hotel was not a deliberate attack on journalists and the media. It was the result of criminal negligence," said RSF.
The watchdog accused American authorities of initially lying about what happened, before exonerating the US army of any blame in an official statement four months later.
To begin with Pentagon officials claimed the tank had fired in response to enemy fire. Later, however, they qualified this, saying the soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division who fired the fatal shell were seeking to "neutralise" an Iraqi "spotter", reporting back to his side on US army movements.
RSF said the US government must bear some of the responsibility for what happened, not just because it has authority over the army in the field, but also because leaders made false statements over the incident.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned the media to leave Baghdad before the start of the war, in effect creating two kinds of journalists - those who were embedded and those who were "ignored", RSF said.
The gunner who fired the shell, Sergeant Shawn Gibson and his immediate superior, Captain Philip Wolford, should not be held responsible, said RSF.
They were simply acting as soldiers in a battle situation, and were not equipped with information that would have made them aware of the consequences of firing on the hotel, the media watchdog concluded.
However, the headquarters of the 3rd Infantry commander, General Buford Blount, bore a "heavy responsibility", said RSF, because it had access to information both from the Pentagon and from the media about the presence of journalists at the hotel.
A spokeswoman for Reuters, which had three other staff seriously hurt in the attack, said: "The main conclusions in this report are generally consistent with the finding of our own investigation which identified a breakdown in communications between military commanders and troops on the ground.
"Since this attack, the safety of journalists in Iraq has not improved and we are taking every possible step, including actively engaging with the US military, to try and change this."
A second Reuters cameraman, Mazen Dana, was shot dead by US troops in Iraq in August 2003. It appears they mistook his camera for a grenade launcher.
Reuters made a formal complaint to the US army this week about the arrest and treatment of three of its staff held after a helicopter crash near the town of Falluja.
In May 2003 the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said the American government regretted the attack but believed "truly it was an accident of war".
Mr Powell wrote to the Spanish government saying that the use of force was "justified", and explained that soldiers had attacked in response to "hostile fire appearing to come from a location later identified as the Palestine Hotel", although this version of event was later modified.
Journalists on the scene were adamant no gunfire had come from the hotel before the US shell was fired.
On the same day as the US attack on the Palestine Hotel, an American army aircraft fired two missiles at the Baghdad bureau of Arabic TV channel al-Jazeera, killing the station's correspondent Tareq Ayoub.
The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, also expressed concern over the killing of journalists at the Palestine Hotel and called for a detailed explanation of their deaths.
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