Commentary: Dark day for Iraq journalists

By DALAL SAOUD   |   April 8, 2003 at 4:55 PM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 8 (UPI) -- Day 20 of the war in Iraq was a dark day for the hundreds of journalists struggling to ensure that coverage out of Baghdad would continue to flow.

Until the early morning hours of Tuesday, most journalists believed they were relatively safe in their makeshift offices at the Palestine Hotel -- their temporary quarters since they evacuated the al-Rasheed and Mansour Melia hotels. The proximity of the later two hotels to Iraqi's information ministry had rendered them unsafe.

Tuesday's first victim was Tariq Ayoub, a 34-year-old Jordanian national and a reporter for al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite TV network. Ayoub and his cameraman Zuheir Iraqi, were wounded when U.S. missiles struck al-Jazeera's office in Baghdad. Ayoub died shortly after he was rushed to hospital.

The nearby office of Abu Dhabi TV, a rival of al-Jazeera, was also hit during the morning missile, but its journalists escaped unharmed. Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV were only media networks to operate from private offices outside the hotel.

Hours later, it was the turn of the Palestine Hotel which houses some 300 journalists. The 15th floor of the large hotel was hit by a U.S. tank shell, which struck the offices of the Reuters wire service.

Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk, 35, and Spanish cameraman Jose Couso, 37, were killed. A Japanese cameraman working for Fuji TV, three other Reuters journalists and another Western reporters were also injured.

Two French and British journalists at the Palestine Hotel were quoted by Arab TV stations as strongly denying initial U.S. military claims that the tank was returning fire from inside the hotel. A reporter from Britain's Sky News also working from the Palestine Hotel concurred that no outgoing fire was heard from the hotel.

Western journalists said they saw the tank pointing its barrel at the hotel and heard no explosion or fire prior to the attack.

At Central Command Headquarters in Doha, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks denied that coalition forces were intentionally targeting journalists. But the many journalists in Baghdad who were seen in a state of shock, fear and anger, do not agree. Many feel they have become targets of the war.

Al-Jazeera reporter Taysir Allouni said the journalists at the Palestine Hotel were now almost certain that it was the U.S. military that fired at the balcony of the 15th floor were Reuters cameraman Protskyuk and other cameramen were filming. Allouni said Arab and Western journalists were in a state of anger, wondering what they should do.

"We are only witnesses of events we want to document and transmit to the world," he said. "They (coalition forces) want these witnesses to disappear so that no one can testify to the actions they commit, whether a small or big crime."

Ali Jamalo, an Abu Dhabi TV correspondent, shared Allouni's fears but said "they want us out and we are considering mass withdrawal but we should all stay."

Allouni said some journalists were thinking about leaving Baghdad "as it became very dangerous and they are considering us part of the conflict." However, he pointed out that the road from Baghdad to Syria and Jordan -- the only routes out of Baghdad -- was equally dangerous.

At dusk, Western and Arab journalists gathered in front of the Palestine Hotel to hold prayers in memory of their slain colleagues.

Some broke into tears while others lit candles. A few shouted, "Stop friendly fire."

Earlier Tuesday, Abu Dhabi TV in Baghdad appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate 25 of its crew members trapped in their office between Iraqi and U.S. fire. Reporter Shaker Hamed urged the ICRC in Baghdad and other humanitarian organizations to secure the evacuation of the TV team who "are the only civilians in this area and where bombs are falling from everywhere."

Hamed said contacts should be made immediately to secure their safety and that they need at least six cars to evacuate them.

The journalist killings were denounced by the International Federation of Journalists as well as by several Arab officials.

Jordanian Information Minister Mohammed Edwan sharply denounced the U.S. bombing as "acts in which many innocent victims are falling," and offered the government's condolences to Tareq Ayoub's family.

Meanwhile, dozens of Jordanian journalists staged a sit-in outside the Jordan Press Association in the capital, Amman, chanting anti-American slogans and calling for an end to the "massacres of journalists and civilians" in Iraq. The Jordanian syndicate accused U.S. forces of "targeting the media as part of an effort to block media coverage of the crimes, massacres and barbaric destruction these forces are committing."

It called on Arab states to adopt a "unified position to pressure the international community to stop this aggression." The journalists also urged the international community and human rights groups to condemn the "targeting of civilians and killing of journalists."

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud condemned the U.S. bombardment that targeted journalists in Baghdad, saying it was an attempt to prevent them from "transmitting the truth."

Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi also denounced the attacks saying, "the freedom the U.S. is talking about is the freedom of killing everyone without exception, especially journalists to prevent them from informing public opinion about the massacres committed in Baghdad and Iraqi cities."

Aridi reminded that U.S. State Secretary Colin Powell called on journalists to leave Baghdad before the war started 20 days ago "so that no witness remains to testify about the committed massacres."

He said a number of Arab, Lebanese and foreign journalists have complained about harassment by the U.S. forces meant to prevent them from carrying out their work.

Buthaina Shaaban, head of the information department at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, expressed sadness for the killing and injury of journalists in Baghdad which she said "this is part of the war to hide the truth from the British and U.S. people who if they were able to witness what is going on in Iraq will not support this war."


(With reporting by Sana Abdallah in Amman, Jordan, and Thanaa Imam in Damascus, Syria.)

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