NEW YORK — José Couso, a Spanish journalist, died April 8, 2003, when an American tank fired on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. The hotel was housing 300 journalists, and was considered an oasis of safety in a city that had been under heavy bombardment since the war’s opening. Baghdad had become a sea of fire and Couso was there “to bear witness,” as his brother Javier put it at a recent event here.

The circumstances behind Couso’s death are the subject of a new documentary, “Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness,” a meticulously researched and carefully narrated exposé produced by Telecinco Spanish television, Couso’s network. The spirit of journalistic integrity that defined Couso’s life, and that was so brazenly assaulted by his murderers, lives on in this labor of love.

Ultimately, the film makes the case that the attack on the hotel was neither an accident nor an error. The in-depth investigation points out the contradictions and inconsistencies in every explanation put forward by the Pentagon or the soldiers involved.

For instance, the first official explanation was that the tank was only returning sniper fire coming from the hotel. In an interview, the soldier who gave the order to fire on the hotel claims only that he saw someone with binoculars on the hotel’s balcony.

The tank was on a bridge, out of range for a sniper or even a rocket-propelled grenade from the hotel. All the journalists in the hotel stated that while the bridge had been under attack earlier in the day — from the opposite direction — the area had been extremely quiet for several hours. There was no fire from any direction immediately preceding the attack on the hotel.

The film also strongly rejects the military’s assertion that the tank’s commanders on the ground would not have known that the hotel was filled with journalists.

Were journalists targeted for what they saw? The same tank company on the same day destroyed the headquarters of Abu Dhabi television and fired on the offices of Al-Jazeera. The film strongly suggests that in an illegal war — characterized by mass civilian death, torture and war crimes — journalists and the truth they seek are premeditated targets.

One of Couso’s fellow reporters explains in the film that if journalists are threatened enough, then they will not be present in times of war and atrocity to report massacres and human rights abuses that perpetrators like the U.S. military want to keep covered up.

The International Press Institute recently released its “Death Watch 2004” report, which finds that “with 78 journalists killed, 2004 has been one of the worst years since IPI first started keeping records.” With 23 journalists killed in Iraq, “it remains the deadliest place in the world to practice journalism.”

The recent shooting of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and the killing of her bodyguard by U.S. troops only underscores this point.

In attacking the Hotel Palestine, the U.S. military did not follow the procedure for firing on a civilian target, which makes the cameraman’s murder a war crime. Couso’s family is calling for an independent investigation and prosecution of the murderers. The Spanish government condemned the attack and last month awarded posthumously to Couso the “Gold Medal for Professional Merit.”

“My brother is no more important than any other civilian killed by the ‘coalition,’” Javier said after the film. “He was also a civilian. But the death of a journalist is different.” For more info: