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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 March, 2003, 16:26 GMT
Television: Civilian or military target?

Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The bombing of Iraqi television raises the issue of whether a radio or television station in a country at war can be seen as a military target or whether it is purely civilian.

Iraqi people watch a TV address by Saddam Hussein on Monday
Iraqi TV: a crucial tool in the propaganda war

Does a station mainly given over to propaganda on behalf of a dictatorship lose its right not to be regarded as a civilian target?

The attack has been condemned by media organisations worldwide and justified by the US and UK military.

It is reminiscent of the attack on Serbian state TV in Belgrade in April 1999 in which 16 people, most of them television production workers, were killed.

And it did not come as a surprise following the use by Iraqi television of the pictures of American prisoners of war and the appearance by Saddam Hussein himself to rally his followers.

Last Sunday, the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, enraged by the use of the POW pictures, said: "It would be highly desirable to have completely, totally ended their ability to communicate."

Geneva doubt

The bombing of a television station cannot be condoned. It is a civilian object and thus protected under international law
Amnesty International

Attacks on purely civilian targets are outlawed by the Geneva Conventions.

Protocol 1, Article 52, paragraph 2 states: "Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives." These objectives are defined as "those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make effective contribution to military action".

This leaves open the possibility that civilians might be targeted if they are within or close to something which is a military objective.

Amnesty International, however, is in no doubt about the interpretation of the convention. It said: "The bombing of a television station cannot be condoned. It is a civilian object and thus protected under international law."

The same view is taken by other media groups. The London representative of Reporters Sans Frontieres, Veronica Forwood, herself a former foreign correspondent, said that it was "completely unacceptable".

"We denounce it utterly," she said.

Call for inquiry

Index on Censorship, which monitors media restrictions around the world, joined the criticism. Its web editor Rohan Jayasekera said: "We've been here before with the bombing of Serbian TV and television in Afghanistan. These are civilian targets.

"It is the responsibility of the military to ensure that civilians are not targeted. There is no justification for this."

The general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels, Aidan White, said that there should be an investigation into whether the bombing violated the Geneva Conventions.

"We have every reason to believe this is an act of censorship against media that US politicians and military strategists don't like."

Governments responsible for such attacks tend to emphasise that the Geneva Convention allows attacks with "military objectives".

Our targets are military command and control facilities. There was no deliberate attempt to take Iraqi TV off the air
British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon

The justification therefore is usually that the television station is part of the "command and control" apparatus of a government, through which it issues calls to arms, as Iraqi TV has certainly been doing.

In the case of Serbia television it was also claimed that the station was inciting the population against Kosovan Albanians.

The Baghdad attack was part of a wider overnight bombing of communications targets and was consequently justified on those grounds. A spokesman for the US Central Command said: "These targets are key regime command-and control assets."

The British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon denied that the aim had been specifically against television. "Our targets are military command and control facilities. There was no deliberate attempt to take Iraqi TV off the air," he said.

Left unclear by such statement is whether the station itself is part of the "command and control" or whether it just happens to be in the same complex.

Since the station is back on the air as is the other channel, a satellite station, it will be interesting to see if there is another attack to try to close them down.

Serbian TV lawsuit

The bombing of Serbian television was the subject of a lawsuit brought by families of the victims and one of the survivors.

However, the European Court of Human Rights rejected the case, saying that it did not have jurisdiction.

Afterwards, Tony Fisher, a British lawyer representing the families, commented: "I hope that the debate on the legitimacy of selecting civilian targets in such an international military conflict will continue. At some level individual states have to remain accountable for their actions."

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