The Death of José Couso in Baghdad



"I think war is a dangerous place, and I think that nobody would kill a journalist intentionally."

George W. Bush

"The death of José Couso was a premeditated crime, an attack on journalists to prevent us from telling the story of something the US has tried to hide from the start of the war: the slaughter of civilians."

Mónica G. Prieto, Baghdad correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.


The invasion and occupation of Iraq has certainly had its share of crimes and atrocities, any of which should be cause enough to have Bush and Blair brought before the Hague, if the mechanisms of international justice could actually bring the powerful to heel, beginning with the war itself, which, as noted here at Counterpunch and elsewhere, was a crime against peace, the worst possible crime, as it constitutes a prelude to all other crimes. As valuable and important as it is, the immediate body count from the war doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Indeed, even many of us opposed to the war usually fail to grasp the fullest dimension of its unseen, long-term sheer criminality, for it goes far beyond the direct victims of bombing raids and the ongoing counterinsurgency by US troops: they have lain waste to a entire country, setting back for decades its possibilities for development and progress, ravaging its health system, shortening its life expectancy by impairing its general health and well-being, inflicting deep, traumatic psychological wounds and truncating the life possibilities of Iraqis for generations: in a word, genocide.

Though Iraqis are the main victims, journalists also suffered their share of losses, and it should be remembered that journalists are defined as civilians in the Geneva Conventions. It is essential to defend journalists in war zones from the attacks of those who would seek to cover up their crimes by silencing reporters and thereby depriving the world of first-hand knowledge of what’s really happening in war. This is especially true for non-US journalists, as they are less prone to simply pass on the servings of mess-hall slop dished out by the US military, but called "reporting" by US retail media outlets. To stop future wars, we must work to fully bring home the horror it entails and defend those in the field working tell the truth.

Given Washington’s hostility towards media it does not control (witness Rumsfeld and the Arab satellite stations), the issue is crucial for them and for us, because more wars are coming down the pike, friends, and they would like nothing better than to make the next invasion off-limits to anyone not "embedded," and thus prevent ghastly pictures of the victims from making the rounds on the net, Al-Jazeera or anywhere else.

The death of José Couso, a TV cameraman for Tele 5, is a case in point on the treatment meted out to troublesome witnesses to the outrages of the US empire. It also tells us something about the impunity demanded by US forces, its insistence on the freedom to act with no restraints or accountability for the consequences of its actions, in effect turning the entire planet into a free-fire zone. Moreover, the nature of the one-way "alliance" between the US and Spain, sealed at the Bush-Blair-Aznar summit in the Azores Islands three days before the war, comes into plain and sordid view. Most important, though, the mighty struggle for justice being waged by the family, friends and colleagues of Jose Couso should serve as an inspiration and example for all.

As the fall of Baghdad approached, some 300 international journalists were based in the Palestine Hotel, on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. They had relocated from the Al-Rashid when CNN left and moved to the Palestine. Most reporters assumed that the presence of CNN would provide a sort of cover, that the US military wouldn’t bomb CNN. José Couso and reporter Jon Sistiaga, reporting the war for Spanish TV channel Tele 5, followed suit.

Early in the morning of April 8, the day before the fall of Baghdad, a tank with the Third Infantry Division’s Fourth Brigade, 64th Armor Regiment standing on the Al-Jumuriya bridge over the Tigris River aims its turret and knocks out a camera on the roof of the offices of Abu-Dhabi Television. From room 1403 in the Palestine across the river, José Couso’s camera captures the tank carefully aiming at the "target," even though Abu-Dhabi TV had already given the coordinates of its offices to the Pentagon before the war.

Some time later, Al-Jazeera comes under attack. Though in a more conflictive area, they had also alerted the Pentagon to the exact GPS position of their Baghdad bureau. To no avail: a missile takes the life of Tarek Ayyoub, a Jordanian reporter with the network. Al-Jazeera is once again a target for US forces, as its bureau in Kabul had been hit in November 2001.

Later that morning, a lull in the fighting reigns in the district of Baghdad immediately surrounding the Palestine Hotel, where, as the Pentagon knows the international media is based. Throughout the early morning, US tanks and planes have been cleaning up the last scattered remnants of Iraqi forces still putting up some find of fight, almost entirely on the western bank of the Tigris river, where the presidential palaces and ministries are found. A calm seems to take hold, as no shooting occurs for a good while. The Spanish reporter, Carlos Hernández of Antena 3, says that they seemed to have run out of targets. Some reporters go inside and begin to file reports, and many cameras stop shooting. Sistiaga: "I even left the balcony because I saw that a whole half-hour had gone by with a single shot, and it seemed that the battle was at a halt." But not José Couso, who continues to aim his camera at the tanks on the Al-Jumuriya bridge.

Then, Couso sees and records an Abrams M1A1 tank as it swings its turret round and points toward the Palestine; it pauses, then fires a single round at the hotel, some three quarters of a mile away, striking the 15th floor. This is the third attack on the media of the day, and it’s not yet quite 12 noon. Couso himself and the Ukrainian reporter for Reuters, Tara Protsyuk, are struck by debris and shrapnel. Protsyuk dies almost immediately from his wounds. Severely wounded in the leg, Couso is rushed to the hospital by his partner Jon Sistiaga and Mexican cameraman Jorge Pliego, in scenes shown on Spanish TV. Couso holds on for a couple of hours, but succumbs to a massive state of shock, though doctors have done all they could despite the chaos and sheer number of Iraqi civilians coming in.

The explanations were murky and contradictory. Clearly underwhelmed by the need to explain what would be a minor incident in the victorious conquest of Baghdad, media general Vincent Brooks in Qatar lied, using the all-purpose "responding to enemy fire" defense. Radio communications up and down the chain of command, as overheard by embedded reporters, and a personal appeal to journalists from brigade commander Col. David Perkins suggested that there had been an attempt to prevent the Palestine from being targeted, but somehow it did not succeed, if in earnest (See report by the Committee to Protect Journalists: www.cpj.org/Briefings/2003/palestine_hotel/palestine_hotel.html).

The Spanish media erupted. Appearances by Prime Minister Aznar and Foreign Minister Ana Palacio were met with the protests of cameramen and women, who laid down their cameras and refused to film their press conferences. Immediate protests by colleagues, friends and family were organized in front of the US embassy in Madrid. The family filed a suit in Spanish court charging a war crime under Spanish and international law against Sergeant Shawn Gibson, who fired the deadly shot, Captain Philip Wolford, commander of the tank unit, and Lieutenant Colonel Philip Decamp, commander of the 64th Armor Regiment.

The CPJ report is actually somewhat charitable, concluding that the death of Couso and Protsyuk was "avoidable," though not "deliberate."

Their Spanish colleagues have a clearer vision, and mince no words in spelling it out. Jon Sistiaga: "I think they deliberately fired on the journalists’ hotel First they take out Al-Jazeera, then Abu-Dhabi a half hour later, and a half hour after that, why not, with the same tank they shoot at the hotel housing the rest of the international media." Monica G. Prieto, once more: "They’d been holding those positions since the early hours of the morning, they must have had us extremely well located."

A month later, Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar was in Washington to reassure Bush of his fealty. At a joint press conference, a Spanish journalist had the temerity to disturb George with the issue of José Couso, and whether the US should apologize, whereupon Bush half-murmured the hideous malapropism found at the head of this article. Aznar then said that the US recognized that it had been a mistake, which was simply false, as the US has done no such thing. That should be enough, Aznar stated, showing a clear willingness to sacrifice as many of his countrymen as necessary on the altar of loyalty to his imperial master (See www.cnn.com/. Oh, and Aznar probably wanted to send down the memory hole his own reception of Tariq Aziz at the presidential palace in Madrid in 1998, or the meeting as late as February 2000 of then Spanish Foreign Minister Abel Matutes with then Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf. Or the negotiations for an oil deal until 2000.

Foreign Minister Palacio does get Colin Powell to promise an "investigation," the results of which are sent in August. The Spanish Foreign Ministry sends the Couso family two typewritten pages with no heading or signature, with no translation into Spanish. Therein, a new explanation arises: a spotter for Iraqi forces appeared to be using the Palestine Hotel (See http://www.josecouso.info/, bottom of the page). Falsely claiming that US forces were under "heavy attack," the shot at the hotel therefore constituted "self-defense." More lies: "the Palestine Hotel and the areas immediately around it [were utilized] as a platform for military operations." The 300 journalists at the hotel insist time and again that no Iraqi soldiers or militia had ever been operating from either the hotel or its surroundings.

Even more ominously perhaps, the text takes an "I-told-you-so" approach, asserting that since journalists were warned before the war that Baghdad would be a "dangerous place," well, what do you expect. In another words, US forces cannot be expected to comply with the requirements of the Geneva conventions to distinguish between military and civilian targets.

The Spanish government declared that it was satisfied with the half-baked "investigation" by the Pentagon and declared the issue closed. It has treated any further questions raised about the case with contempt and annoyance, as if they were mere insolence.

But the struggle goes on. The family, friends and colleagues of José Couso, defying the pain and loss they have been forced to bear, have mounted a unrelenting campaign to demand justice for José, starting with a full investigation of the events of April 8, and a trial for the killers of José Couso and Tara Protsyuk. Dozens of Spanish towns and even regions have called for justice, and demonstrations are held every week in front of the headquarters of Aznar’s ruling PP party, and on the eighth of every month in front of the US embassy in Madrid.

José Couso was an accomplished professional with immense personal dedication to what he saw as his mission: to tell the truth with his camera and pierce through the official line with the simplicity yet depth of images. Jon Sistiaga says: "he wanted to go beyond the sheer news event. He tried to make the images speak for themselves so that the journalist has to say as little as possible." In the days before the start of the some reporters are nervous about staying in Baghdad, but Couso urges them to stay. Carlos Hernández: "Couso told us ‘you’ve got to stay, we have to be here to tell people what’s happening, we can’t let there be a war without any witnesses.’ " José’s testament is a 24-minute stretch of video wherein he captures the war crime that ended his own life.

In a public statement, the family of José Couso ask a question that not only exposes the masters of war, but also poses a challenge to us all: "If they’re capable of murdering a journalist with credentials like our brother in the very center of Baghdad in full view of the international community, what won’t they do to civilians or supposed enemies who get in their way?"

JAMES HOLLANDER is a translator living in Madrid. He can be contacted at antiwar@ya.com.

The campaign by family, friends and colleagues of José Couso is at www.josecouso.info/. Those visiting Madrid are urged to join the Tuesday demos at noon at the HQ of the PP on Calle Genova, and in front of the US embassy on the eighth of every month at eight in the evening.


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