Press Box

Johnny Dead Line

Laid bare, the true risks of covering war.

An injured photographer’s camera

Add to the Iraq war death toll three more journalists—Taras Protsyuk, Jose Couso, and Tarek Ayoub—killed yesterday by the U.S. military in downtown Baghdad. A tank round fired by U.S. forces slew Protsyuk and Couso as they observed the action from the 14th- and 15th- floor balconies of their rooms in the Palestine Hotel, where most of the foreign press corps is staying. And an American strike cut down Ayoub, an Al Jazeera reporter, as he prepared a live broadcast from the top of the network’s Baghdad headquarters.

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists immediately protested the killings as violations of the Geneva Conventions, specifically Article 79, which extends the protected status as civilians to “journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict. …” The Palestine Hotel was well-known as a journalist domicile, CPJ wrote in its letter of protest, and Al Jazeera had informed the Pentagon of its Baghdad location prior to the war’s beginning.

The earliest news reports indicated that the tankers, one mile distant from the Palestine Hotel, had thought they were under fire from the Palestine Hotel. A similar story is told about U.S. forces responsible for the Al Jazeera incident. Yet witnesses at both killing grounds counter that there was no outgoing fire from their structures, according to this New York Timesaccount and others.

Readers of today’s newspapers might be inclined to think of U.S. forces as trigger-happy journo killers. At Centcom, briefer Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks didn’t look so good as he retracted his initial statement that the U.S. tankers who targeted the Palestine Hotel soldiers had received fire from the lobby. “I may have misspoken,” he said. In the Washington Post, a British defense policy wonk criticized U.S. forces for having insufficient “fire discipline.”

Without a doubt, the deaths of Protsyuk, Couso, and Ayoub—or any journalists in a battle zone—are appalling and grievous. But were they intentionally so, as some suggest? And if not intentional, how avoidable were the killings?

The Los Angeles Times, benefiting from a later deadline than East Coast papers, presents a more nuanced treatment of the hotel tragedy. John Daniszewski’s brilliant dispatch identifies the tank company commander who ordered the tankers to fire and offers a more complete description of the circumstances behind the incident.

According to Daniszewski, a tank gunner scanning the horizon observed himself being observed from the hotel by someone with what he assumed were binoculars. Indeed, both of the journalists killed at the Palestine were cameramen, and both were believed to have been photographing the action. Daniszewski writes:

The decision to fire was made by the company’s commander, Capt. Philip Wolford, after a gunner from one of his tanks scanned the hotel and saw someone observing with binoculars. At the time, the company was receiving mortar fire from several unknown points on the hotel’s side of the river and had received intelligence that Iraqi spotters were using tall buildings to track American movements, military sources said.Wolford said his troops “were hit by four or five points along the river.” He also said he had received reports of teams of fighters with rocket-propelled grenades clustered at the foot of the hotel.

Both of the journalists killed at the Palestine were cameramen and may have been photographing the action. According to Cox Newspapers’ Craig Nelson and the New York TimesJohn F. Burns, the tanks were about one mile from the hotel—a distance at which it would be easy to mistake camera lenses for spotters’ binoculars. Photographers seem to have been hanging off the Palestine like human flies. Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay was taking pictures of the tanks from his 17th-floor balcony when the round landed. At dawn yesterday, before the attack, U.S. troops fired on magazine photographer Seamus Conlan as he took photos from the Palestine Hotel rooftop.

A tank fires toward the Palestine Hotel

“We had no idea where those hotels were,” Lt. Col. Philip deCamp, commander of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, told Daniszewski. DeCamp says the hotel might have been marked as a sanctuary by artillery, but individual units reserve the right to return fire. Eventually, an AP reporter called Palestine pressies at the behest of the tankers and told them to hang sheets from their windows to ward off further attacks.

At the moment, one need not strain to identify with the tankers—though the promised military investigation may turn up new details. Imagine yourself fighting an urban war. At a range of one mile, and in the fog of combat, you catch the glint of lenses peering down on you while receiving fire from who knows where. Baghdad soldiers dressed in civilian garb are known to be toting rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Might you fire first, too, to “discourage” the spotters? Only from the safety of your living room, where you can flip channels if the action becomes too hairy for your nerves, would you automatically hold your fire.

The circumstances behind the death of Tarek Ayoub, which took place earlier not far from the Palestine Hotel, are more muddled. But the notions that U.S. forces deliberately targeted Ayoub and Al Jazeera to silence Al Jazeera—and prevent the station from witnessing the postwar reconstruction, as one critic stated—are absurd. For one thing, Al Jazeera journalists remain embedded with U.S. troops, where they continue to observe U.S. conduct. For another, why remove Al Jazeera from the scene when the coalition is on the cusp of victory and the streets are filling with Iraqis, dancing and toppling Saddam statues?

A detailed investigation may prove my hunches wrong, but the journalists who died yesterday appear to be victims of their own contributory negligence. Journalists are entitled to the same Geneva Conventions rights as civilians not to be targeted by military forces. But the conventions give neither journalists nor civilians any vested right to stand wherever they wish on a battlefield and maintain that protected status. Iraqi civilians bent on surviving the Battle of Baghdad huddled in basements or in interior hallways, far from balconies, rooftops, and windows where they might be mistaken for combatants or accidentally catch a round intended for one.

The journalists who didn’t duck and cover because they wanted to record the war deserve our respect and admiration. Like the soldiers who serve, they are very brave. But they—and not the U.S. Army—placed themselves in harm’s way. In the absence of proof that the coalition targeted them, these journalists deserve our thanks. Their family and friends have our sympathies. But we cannot extend our outrage.

“The slender illusion of safety for journalists in the Iraqi capital,” writes Daniszewski, died yesterday. Reporters who feared U.S. bombs and the wrath of Saddam’s loyalists thought of the Palestine Hotel as their “sanctuary.” But they were wrong. War guarantees nobody a safe place.


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