What is a journalist’s life worth? I ask this question for a number of reasons, some of them–frankly–quite revolting. Two days ago, I went to visit one of my colleagues wounded in the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Samia Nakhoul is a Reuters correspondent, a young woman reporter who is married to another colleague, the Financial Times correspondent in Beirut. Part of an American tank shell was embedded in her brain–a millimetre difference in entry point and she would have been half paralysed–after an M1A1 Abrams tank fired a round at the Reuters office in Baghdad, in the Palestine Hotel, last week.
Samia, a brave and honourable lady who has reported the cruelty of the Lebanese civil war at first hand for many years, was almost destroyed as a human being by that tank crew.
At the time, General Buford Blount of the 3rd Infantry Division, told a lie: he said that sniper fire had been directed at the tank–on the Joumhouriyah Bridge over the Tigris river–and that the fire had ended "after the tank had fired" at the Palestine Hotel. I was between the tank and the hotel when the shell was fired. There was no sniper fire–nor any rocket-propelled grenade fire, as the American officer claimed–at the time. French television footage of the tank, running for minutes before the attack, shows the same thing. The soundtrack–until the blinding, repulsive golden flash from the tank barrel–is silent.
Samia Nakhoul wasn’t the only one to be hit. Her Ukrainian cameraman, father of a small child, was killed. So was a Spanish cameraman on the floor above. And then yesterday I had to read, in the New York Times, that Colin Powell had justified the murder–yes, murder–of these two journalists. This former four-star general–I’m talking about Mr Powell, not the liar who runs the 3rd Infantry Division–actually said, and I quote: "According to a US military review of the incident, our forces responded to hostile fire appearing to come from a location later identified as the Palestine Hotel… Our review of the April 8th incident indicates that the use of force was justified."
But it gets worse. A few hours before I visited Samia, I was in Beirut with Mohamed Jassem al-Ali, the managing director of the Qatar-based Arab al-Jazeera channel. On that same day–8 April–that the American tank fired at the Reuters office in Baghdad, an American aircraft fired a missile at the al-Jazeera office in Baghdad. Mr al-Ali has given me a copy of his letter to Victoria Clarke, the US Assistant Secretary of State of Defence for Public Affairs in Washington, sent on 24 February this year. In the letter, he gives the address and the map coordinates of the station’s office in Baghdad–Lat: 33.19/29.08, Lon 44.24/03.63–adding that civilian journalists would be working in the building.
The Americans were outraged at al-Jazeera’s coverage of the civilian victims of US bombing raids. And on 8 April, less than three hours before the Reuters office was attacked, an American aircraft fired a single missile at the al-Jazeera office _ at those precise map coordinates Mr al-Ali had sent to Ms Clarke–and killed the station’s reporter Tareq Ayoub. "We find these events," Mr al-Ali wrote in his slightly inaccurate English, "unjustifiable, unacceptable, arousing all forms of anger and rejection and most of all need an explanation."
And what did he get? Victoria Clarke wrote a letter that was as inappropriate as it was "economical with the truth". She offered her "condolences" to the family and colleagues of Mr Ayoub and then went on to write a preachy note to al-Jazeera. "Being close to the action means being close to danger," she wrote. "…we have gone to extraordinary [sic] lengths in Iraq to avoid civilian casualties. Unfortunately, even our best efforts will not prevent some innocents from getting caught in the crossfire [sic]… Sometimes this results in tragedy. War by its very nature is tragic and sad…"
Pardon me? Al-Jazeera asks why its office was targeted and Ms Clarke tells the dead man’s employer that war is "sad"? I don’t believe this. General Blount lied about his tank crew on the Tigris river. "General" Powell went along with this lie. And now Ms Clarke–who clearly was told to write what she wrote since her letter is so trite–does not even attempt to explain why an American jet killed Al Jazeera’s reporter (just like an American missile was fired at Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul in 2001).
A Ukrainian, a Spaniard, an Arab. They all died within hours of each other. I suspect they were killed because the US–someone in the Pentagon though not, I’m sure, Ms Clarke–decided to try to "close down" the press. Of course, American journalists are not investigating this. They should–because they will be next.
As for Mohamed al-Ali, he has the painful experience of knowing that he gave the Pentagon the map coordinates to kill his own reporter. Who was the pilot of the American jet that fired that missile at al-Jazeera? Why did he fire? What were the coordinates? Who was the American tank officer who blasted a piece of metal into Samia’s brain? A day after he fired, I climbed on his tank and asked the soldier on top if he was responsible. "I don’t know anything about that, sir," he replied. And I believe him. Like I believe in Father Christmas and fairies at the bottom of my garden.