Killing Journalists Is Wrong When the Saudis Do It — and When the United States Does It, Too

There should be accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, and also for the 2003 U.S. bombing raid that killed Al Jazeera’s Tareq Ayoub in Iraq.

Fatima Ayyoub (top R), 4, daughter of Jordanian Al Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayyoub, is seen next to pictures of her father with Naeem Ayoub (L), father of Tareq Ayyoub, during a protest outside the Al Jazeera office in Amman Novmber 24, 2005. Ayyoub was a victim of a missile attack that hit the Al Jazeera bureau in Baghdad on April 8, 2003. Britain has warned media organisations they are breaking the law if they publish details of a leaked document said to show U.S. President George W. Bush wanted to bomb Arabic television station Al Jazeera. REUTERS/Majed Jaber - RP2DSFHMGFAD

Tareq Ayoub’s daughter, Fatima, 4, and father, Naeem Ayoub, during a protest outside the Al Jazeera office in Amman on Nov. 24, 2005.

Photo: Majed Jaber/Reuters

What lesson should be learned from the brutal murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing geopolitical fallout from his death? That governments cannot be allowed to kill journalists with impunity, correct? Everyone from the secretary general of the United Nations to hawkish Republican senators have lined up to make this point and to express their concern and anger.

But is this a lesson that only applies to Middle Eastern dictatorships? Or to Western democracies, too? The United States, perhaps? The reason I ask is that we all now know the name of Arab journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but very few of us know the name of Arab journalist Tareq Ayoub.

The difference between them? An unelected crown prince in the Gulf is blamed for killing Khashoggi, while an elected president of the United States has been blamed for killing Ayoub.

We rightly demand justice in the case of Khashoggi, so why not in the case of Ayoub?

On the morning of April 8, 2003, less than three weeks after U.S. President George W. Bush ordered the illegal invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayoub was on the rooftop of his network’s Baghdad bureau. The 35-year-old Palestinian from Jordan and his Iraqi cameraperson, Zoheir Nadhim, were reporting live on a pitched battle between U.S. and Iraqi forces for control of the capital. It was just three days after Ayoub had arrived in the country.

At around 7:45 a.m., an American A-10 Warthog attack jet appeared overhead during Ayoub’s broadcast. “The plane was flying so low that those of us downstairs thought it would land on the roof – that’s how close it was,” Maher Abdullah, the network’s Baghdad correspondent, later recalled. “We actually heard the rocket being launched. It was a direct hit.”

Ayoub was killed while Nadhim, the cameraman, was injured. Fifteen minutes later, a second American warplane launched a second missile at the building, blowing the front door off its hinges.

In an official statement, Al Jazeera denounced Ayoub’s death as a “tragic act” and referred to him as a “martyr.” The Committee to Protect Journalists, in a letter to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, condemned the killing and demanded an immediate investigation.

But the U.S. government, like the Saudi government in recent weeks, tried to duck responsibility for the attack. It was just a “grave mistake,” according to a State Department spokesperson. “This coalition does not target journalists,” a U.S. general told reporters in Baghdad, adding, “We don’t know every place journalists are operating on the battlefield.” The controversy passed quickly from public view; the U.S. military has never made public any sort of real investigation into what happened.

The U.S. statements about Ayoub’s killing were brazen lies of the sort that the Trump administration would be proud to tell. For a start, Al Jazeera’s managing director, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, had written a letter to the Pentagon less than two months earlier, on February 24, 2003, providing U.S. officials with the exact address and coordinates of the Baghdad bureau. The U.S. military had bombed Al Jazeera’s Kabul office in November 2001, and the network’s bosses wanted to prevent a repeat of such an incident in Iraq. To misquote Oscar Wilde, for the United States to bomb the bureau of a news organization once might be considered unfortunate; to bomb it twice was more than carelessness. (Full disclosure: In addition to my work as a staff columnist for The Intercept, I have presented shows on Al Jazeera English since 2012.)

Nor was Ayoub the only member of the media killed in Iraq that day. A U.S. Abrams tank fired a shell at Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel — which was filled with international journalists — and killed Ukrainian cameraperson Taras Protsyuk and Spanish cameraperson José Couso. According to the U.S. military at the time, the tank was returning fire from the hotel — a claim disputed by eyewitnesses inside the building. The U.S. secretary of state at the time, Colin Powell, said that “the use of force was justified” and “proportionate.” An investigation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, however, found no evidence that Iraqi forces were using the Palestine Hotel (a tank commander mistakenly believed a forward spotter was there), and that the attack on journalists there, “while not deliberate, was avoidable.” A later investigation by Reporters Without Borders found that “the soldiers in the field were never told the hotel was full of journalists,” and called the attack a “result of criminal negligence” for which, “at the top level, the U.S. government must bear some of the responsibility.”

The Bush administration’s animus toward Al Jazeera, in particular, was no secret in those years. Administration officials regularly accused the network of broadcasting terrorist propaganda, and Rumsfeld even called the network a “mouthpiece of Al Qaeda.” In fact, the United Kingdom’s Daily Mirror newspaper reported in 2005 on a “top-secret” British government memo that said Bush had expressed a desire to bomb the Qatar headquarters of Al Jazeera during a White House meeting with Tony Blair on April 16, 2004. The British prime minister had to talk him out of it, according to the Daily Mirror. “He made clear he wanted to bomb Al Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere. Blair replied that would cause a big problem,” a source told the Daily Mirror. “There’s no doubt what Bush wanted to do — and no doubt Blair didn’t want him to do it.” This was no joke. “Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair,” another source confirmed to the paper. “That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men.”

You think the Saudi crown prince is the only thin-skinned world leader who might take deadly action against journalists? As the Daily Mirror noted in 2005, Al Jazeera had “infuriated Washington and London by reporting from behind rebel lines and broadcasting pictures of dead soldiers, private contractors and Iraqi victims.”

To recap: The United States bombed an Al Jazeera bureau in Kabul in 2001; then bombed an Al Jazeera bureau in Baghdad in 2003, killing a reporter in the process; and then considered bombing the Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, where hundreds of journalists worked, in 2004.

Yet all of this has been buried in the media memory hole. Killing journalists, or trying to kill them, is inexcusable — even when the United States does it. It’s easy to condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and demand #JusticeForJamal; it’s much harder for U.S. media organizations to condemn President George W. Bush and demand justice for Tareq.

Fifteen years later, Bush is being celebrated by liberals for sharing a cough drop with Michelle Obama, and Powell is making guest appearances on prime-time TV dramas. But Ayoub is dead. His daughter, Fatima, now a teenager, never got to know her own father.

“Tell me, please, what should I do when my daughter, just 20 months old, starts calling her late father’s name and looking for him all around the house?” wrote Ayoub’s widow, the academic Dima Tareq Tahboub, in a poignant essay for The Guardian in October 2003. “What should I do when the clock strikes five and I keep waiting for Tareq to open the door with his smiling face but he never comes in? When the only way to have some rest is to cry myself to sleep? When I see my mother-in-law vomiting four times in less than half an hour? When my daughter brings her toys to play with me, as she used to do with her father, and I can’t even hold her? When my tears fall on my daughter’s face when I give her milk, remembering how her father used to do it? When I feel ruined and desperate, with no hope in life?

“How should I raise my daughter? Allow me to answer the last question. I will raise her never to forgive or forget. Never to forget her father and never to forgive those who killed him.”

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