Why did this happen?

UK editors and broadcasters are backing Reuters’ demand that the US military investigates how its cameraman was killed and three other staffers injured when a US tank shelled a Baghdad hotel the media believed was a “safe” house.

Reuters editor-in-chief Geert Linnebank met senior editors immediately following the death of television cameraman Taras Protsyuk and the wounding of Gulf bureau chief Samia Nakhoul, technician Paul Pasquale and photographer Faleh Kheiber, who were among 18 Reuters journalists in Baghdad. Jose Couso, a cameraman for the Spanish TV channel Telecinco, also died in the attack.

The agency then contacted US military central command in Qatar to ask both for an explanation and an investigation of what had happened after the Americans owned up to one of their tanks firing on the Palestine Hotel.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote immediately to the Pentagon. “We told the Pentagon in advance that the reporters would be at the Palestine Hotel,” he told Press Gazette. “We received informal word back saying that this was a good place to be so I was astonished last night to see General Vince Brooks, briefing in Qatar, coming close to implying the hotel was a legitimate target.

“I certainly think that any pressure editors can put on the Pentagon to explain what happened and to guarantee the reporters’ safety is vital.”

Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan agreed: “We almost certainly will call for an investigation. I’ve got one of my own guys there and it was a very, very scary thing for everybody and very emotional for them, because they are obviously a tight-knit group of people going through incredible stress with no sleep and a lot of pressure. This has really hit them very hard as a unit of very brave journalists.

“The least we can do back in our cosy ivory towers in London is get to the bottom of what happened and, more importantly, why and, if it was the Americans, to find out what the hell they thought they were playing at.”

Linnebank said: “I note that the commander of the US Third Infantry has now said that one of its tanks fired a round at the Palestine Hotel. He said he did this after it came under fire from the hotel. The incident raises questions about the judgements of the advancing US troops who have known all along that this hotel is the main base for almost all foreign journalists.”

General Brooks had said the hotel was being used for “other regime purposes” and that reporters should not be in a dangerous zone.

Morgan wants an investigation after hearing that his man in the hotel, Anton Antonowicz, and other journalists are not completely convinced it was an American attack that caused the damage.

Several pressure groups have also rounded on the Pentagon for the US attack on the hotel, as well as the attacks on Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV.

The NUJ described the attack on Tuesday as a “war crime”.

“It seems certain that the media are being targeted,” said NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear. “There must be thorough and independent investigations of all these incidents, and those responsible must be brought to book.

“The Geneva Conventions require combatants to protect the lives of civilians, yet here we have American forces taking aim at them. These are war crimes. The Americans say they have the most precise weaponry in history. Not all of these attacks can be accidents.”

Reporters Without Borders called on US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to provide evidence that US forces did not deliberately fire at the hotel and bureaux.

“We are appalled at what happened because it was known that both places contained journalists,” said RWB secretary general Robert MŽnard.

“Film shot by the French TV station France 3 and descriptions by journalists show the neighbourhood was very quiet at that hour and that the US tank crew took their time, waiting for a couple of minutes and adjusting its gun before opening fire.

“This evidence does not match the US version of an attack in self-defence and we can only conclude that the US Army deliberately and without warning targeted journalists. US forces must prove that the incident was not a deliberate attack to dissuade or prevent journalists from continuing to report on what is happening in Baghdad,” he said.

Both the NUJ and RWB lamented that no explanation had been given for the death three weeks ago of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd and injury to the crew when their clearly marked vehicle was wrecked by coalition tank fire.

Broadcasters expressed their condolences. Nick Pollard, head of Sky News, offered the channel’s sympathy to the families of the journalists killed at the hotel. “It is yet another reminder of the dangers that staff of all news organisations face in covering the war,” he said.

Mark Damazer, deputy director of BBC News, said the deaths “underline the extent to which journalists and those who work with them are putting their lives on the line in order to report this war”.

Stewart Purvis, editor-in-chief at ITN, added: “We know only too well the terrible effect of losing a member of the team, particularly in what Reuters has rightly called unnecessary circumstances.”

By Jean Morgan and Wale Azeez

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