When Iraqi TV offices in Baghdad were hit by a U.S missile strike on March 25, the targeting of media was strongly criticized by press and human rights groups. The general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, Aidan White, suggested that “there should be a clear international investigation into whether or not this bombing violates the Geneva Conventions.” White told Reuters (3/26/03), “Once again, we see military and political commanders from the democratic world targeting a television network simply because they don’t like the message it gives out.”
The Geneva Conventions forbid the targeting of civilian installations– whether state-owned or not– unless they are being used for military purposes. Amnesty International warned (3/26/03) that the attack may have been a “war crime” and emphasized that bombing a television station “simply because it is being used for the purposes of propaganda” is illegal under international humanitarian law. “The onus,” said Amnesty, is on “coalition forces” to prove “the military use of the TV station and, if that is indeed the case, to show that the attack took into account the risk to civilian lives.”
Likewise, Human Rights Watch affirmed (3/26/03) that it would be illegal to target Iraqi TV based on its propaganda value. “Although stopping enemy propaganda may serve to demoralize the Iraqi population and to undermine the government’s political support,” said HRW, “neither purpose offers the ‘concrete and direct’ military advantage necessary under international law to make civilian broadcast facilities a legitimate military target.”
Some U.S. journalists, however, have not shown much concern about the targeting of Iraqi journalists. Prior to the bombing, some even seemed anxious to know why the broadcast facilities hadn’t been attacked yet. Fox News Channel’s John Gibson wondered (3/24/03): “Should we take Iraqi TV off the air? Should we put one down the stove pipe there?” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (3/24/03) agreed: “I think they should have taken out the television, the Iraqi television…. Why haven’t they taken out the Iraqi television towers?”
MSNBC correspondent David Shuster offered: “A lot of questions about why state-run television is allowed to continue broadcasting. After all, the coalition forces know where those broadcast towers are located.” On CNBC, Forrest Sawyer offered tactical alternatives to bombing (3/24/03): “There are operatives in there. You could go in with sabotage, take out the building, you could take out the tower.”
On NBC Nightly News (3/24/03), Andrea Mitchell noted that “to the surprise of many, the U.S. has not taken out Iraq’s TV headquarters.” Mitchell’s report cautioned that “U.S. officials say the television headquarters is in a civilian area. Bombing it would further infuriate the Arab world, and the U.S. would need the TV station to get out its message once coalition forces reach Baghdad. Still, allowing Iraqi TV to stay on the air gives Saddam a strong tool to help keep his regime intact.” She did not offer the Geneva Conventions as a reason to avoid bombing a media outlet.
After the facility was struck, some reporters expressed satisfaction. CNN’s Aaron Brown (3/25/03) recalled that “a lot of people wondered why Iraqi TV had been allowed to stay on the air, why the coalition allowed Iraqi TV to stay on the air as long as it did.” CNN correspondent Nic Robertson seemed to defend the attack, saying that bombing the TV station “will take away a very important tool from the Iraqi leadership– that of showing their face, getting their message out to the Iraqi people, and really telling them that they are still in control.” It’s worth noting that CNN, like other U.S. news outlets, provides all these functions for the U.S. government.
New York Times reporter Michael Gordon appeared on CNN (3/25/03) to endorse the attack: “And personally, I think the television, based on what I’ve seen of Iraqi television, with Saddam Hussein presenting propaganda to his people and showing off the Apache helicopter and claiming a farmer shot it down and trying to persuade his own public that he was really in charge, when we’re trying to send the exact opposite message, I think, was an appropriate target.”
According to the New York Times (3/26/03), Fox’s Gibson seemed to go so far as to take credit for the bombing of Iraqi TV, suggesting that Fox’s “criticism about allowing Saddam Hussein to talk to his citizens and lie to them has had an effect.” Fox reporter Major Garrett declared (3/25/03), “It has been a persistent question here, why [Iraqi TV] remains on the air.”
Given such attitudes, perhaps it’s not surprising that discussions of the legality of attacking Iraqi TV have been rare in U.S. mainstream media. Yet when the White House accused Iraq of violating the Geneva Conventions by airing footage of American POWs, media were eager to engage the subject of international law. It’s a shame U.S. media haven’t held the U.S. government to the same standards.
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