Killing the witnesses

Thursday, April 7th, 2005

The deaths of journalists in wartime, while no more tragic than the deaths of other innocents, fall into a special category, like the deaths of medical personnel, perhaps — people on the battlefield by choice, but taking no part in the winning or losing, simply representing humanity.

Journalists are at particular risk because their job is to witness. And when their deaths are deliberate, the special category is war crime.

When we finally pull out of Iraq, leaving behind merely one more stain on history — another reminder of what happens when leaders mix geopolitics and ideological fanaticism — the force bringing the nation to its senses will be the one let loose by the independent journalists who are there, documenting reality.

I consider them, like other witnesses of war, heroes of the human race; and thus I had a particular interest in hearing Javier Couso speak recently about his brother, Jose, a cameraman for the Spanish television station Telecinco who was one of two journalists killed two years ago when a U.S. tank opened fire on the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad.

Maybe it was murder; maybe it was just a military screw-up. After all, “War is a dangerous place.” So George Bush said with inarticulate dismissiveness when pressed by a Spanish journalist about Couso’s death not long afterward.

Well, yeah. The day that Couso died — April 8, 2003, a few weeks into the invasion — war was a particularly dangerous place for the international panoply of independent journalists then in Baghdad. Earlier that day, the U.S. bombed the Baghdad headquarters of Al-Jazeera, killing correspondent Tariq Ayoub. A short while later, a second U.S. air strike took out Abu Dhabi TV; no deaths, but injured journalists were trapped in the rubble.

Then, in the afternoon, a single round from an Abrams tank, parked on a bridge about a mile away, blew a hole in the 15th floor of the Hotel Palestine. Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk was killed instantly; Couso, seriously injured, died at a nearby hospital.

The thing about the Hotel Palestine is that it was full of journalists, a fact known to U.S. command; the hotel was off limits to attack. And within minutes of the strike, U.S. officials were in full damage-control mode, announcing to the world that the tank had been fired on from the hotel lobby. A variation on this theme — we came under fire — is the military’s all-purpose, go-to excuse for most of its lethal snafus; it’s why we strafe wedding parties, for instance.

In this case, it was both illogical (since the tank fired at the 15th floor) and vehemently denied by dozens of witnesses. The official excuse went through several permutations before settling on mistaken identity. The tank commander thought a cameraman at the window was an Iraqi with binoculars — a “forward observer” — directing fire at U.S. forces. So he took him out.

Don’t forget, war is a dangerous place.

Javier Couso is certain his brother was deliberately targeted as a journalist and wants a real investigation. He wants justice, and is now traveling across the United States with his translator, James Hollander, in quest of it. They’re speaking at small venues (I heard him in a classroom at Chicago’s Loyola University) and showing the film “Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness,” which documents the attack on the hotel in horrific detail and contains the last footage shot by Jose Couso.

Murder or screw-up? I don’t know, but I do put Couso’s death in context. Not only was the attack on the Hotel Palestine the third U.S. strike against journalists that very day, but also fits into a troubling pattern of military actions against journalists in recent years, in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Indeed, Kate Adie, a British correspondent during Gulf War 1, has charged that she was told by a Pentagon official shortly before the launch of the second Iraq war that the U.S. intended to fire on the satellite uplinks of independent broadcasters. And so far dozens of journalists have died in this war, many from U.S. fire. Not a single death has been investigated.

“I’ve seen a complete erosion of any kind of acknowledgement that reporters should be able to report as they witness,” Adie told an Irish radio interviewer in 2003. “The Americans . . . take the attitude which is entirely hostile to the free spread of information.”

To a heavily armed invader contemptuous of human rights, the most dangerous enemies it has are the witnesses.