Journalism in Iraq

by Lucy Blomfield

Iraqi Journalists at Risk  

Western journalists encounter many dangers in Iraq.  However, many work embedded (and therefore somewhat protected) with US soldiers *, or from their motel rooms in the relative safety of the Green Zone.  It is their Iraqi colleagues who are on the front lines, gathering information (often for Western news organizations) and writing stories.  Iraqi journalists and their families are at constant risk of kidnapping, torture and death from both Sunnis and Shiites.  They are seen as traitors if they associate with the West.  They are prey to the senseless chaos in Iraq that has taken the lives of thousands of innocent people.  Here are the statistics:

• Iraqis constitute 78 percent of the journalists and support staffers killed for their work in Iraq.

• Overall, 60 percent of journalists and support workers killed in Iraq were murdered.

Fifty-four percent of journalists and support staffers who died were working for international news organizations.

• Baghdad province is the most dangerous, with 34 journalists and 15 media workers killed.

• Insurgent actions are behind 68 percent of journalist and support worker deaths.

Compiled by The Committee to Protect Journalists May 2006  1

What is The U.S. Doing to Protect Iraqi Journalists?  

Western news organizations must go to extreme measures to protect their sources.

However, Iraqi journalists are at risk not only from Sunni and Shiites militias, but also from the U.S. military as well.  They might be imprisoned for their work. Here is an example, from an article by Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists:

“Ali Omar Abrahem al-Mashhadani, a 36-year-old freelance cameraman and photographer who worked for the Reuters news agency in Ramadi, was taken from his home on August 8 during a general sweep of his neighborhood by U.S. Marines. His family says the Marines were suspicious of photos he stored in his cameras. He was sent to Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, held without charge, and denied access to his family and a lawyer.”  2

“Open-ended and unsubstantiated detentions of journalists in Iraq have undermined the ability of the press to report on the conflict. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented seven cases in 2005 alone in which reporters, photographers, and camera operators were detained by U.S. forces for prolonged periods without charge or the disclosure of any supporting evidence. These detentions have involved journalists working for CBS News, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse, among others.

Most of the confirmed detainees are Iraqis—local journalists covering the conflict in their own country. These journalists are vulnerable because they are most frequently in the field reporting from places deemed too dangerous for Western reporters. They are often the first on the scene to report on clashes or insurgent attacks. In at least five cases documented by CPJ, the detainees were photojournalists who initially drew the military’s attention because of what they had filmed or photographed.”3

Ms. Cooper writes at the end of her article, about the lack of  “responsiveness and accountability” that the Pentagon has shown “with issues involving the security of Iraqi journalists and citizens.” 4

George Packer’s writings such as “Betrayed – The Iraqis Who Trusted America the Most”  (The New Yorker, March 26, 2007) 5 currently a play presented by the Culture Project in New York City,  gives further information  “about the suffering of Iraqis who have risked everything to help” America in Iraq (in this instance the American government & military – but the experience of journalists is the same) — “and have, all too often, received insufficient protection in return.” 6

A Noble Profession  

Why are Iraqis, at such peril, at such cost, telling their stories?  This is an example of what they experience, and a reason why they continue reporting:

“Stress is an unforgiving companion. Body parts scattered in the streets and children weeping over dead parents are common scenes in my daily life. Covering the news on the ground and then watching it on television have left these vivid pictures in my mind, and they play like a videotape over and over.” 7

“A few months after I joined the press corps, after I told these stories every day over dinner, my parents begged me to quit. By then, it was too late. I am infected by this job. I believe that my country needs me and that journalism is a noble profession, a mirror in which people can see what is happening in their world.”  8

Saharissa

The International Women’s Media Foundation awarded its “courage in journalism” awards on October 23, 2007.  One award was given to six Iraqi women who work in the McClatchy Newspapers bureau in Baghdad, a job so dangerous that they cannot take the chance of being photographed, not even in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue. 9   Here is Sahar Issa’s acceptance speech.  It is so important and powerful, that it is quoted in its entirety.    

It is a great honor for me to stand here today.

To me, this award means that my colleagues and I have succeeded in what we set out to do; and that our voices have carried, through war, through death and sorrow, through sleepless nights and fear driven days in an effort to reflect the picture of our country as we see it, and of our people as only we can truly know them.

To be a journalist in violence-ridden Iraq today, ladies and gentlemen, is not a matter lightly undertaken. Every path is strewn with danger, every checkpoint, every question a direct threat.

Every interview we conduct may be our last. So much is happening in Iraq. So much that is questionable. So much that we, as journalists, try to fathom and portray to the people who care to know.

In every society there is good and bad. Laws regulate the conduct of the society. My country is now lawless. Innocent blood is shed every day, seemingly without purpose. Hundreds of thousands have been killed for seemingly no reason. It is our responsibility as journalists to do our utmost to acquire the answers, to dig them up with our bare hands if we must.

But that knowledge comes at a dear price, for since the war started, four and a half years ago, an average of about one reporter and media assistant killed every week is something we have to live with.

We live double lives. None of our friends or relatives know what we do. My children must lie about my profession. They cannot under any circumstance boast of my accomplishments, and neither can I.

Every morning, as I leave my home, I look back with a heavy heart, for I may not see it again – today may be the day that the eyes of an enemy will see me for what I am, a journalist, rather than the appropriately bewildered elderly lady who goes to look after ailing parents, across the river every day. Not for a moment can I let down my guard.

I smile as I give my children hugs and send them off to school; it's only after they turn their backs to me that my eyes fill to overflowing with the knowledge that they are just as much at risk as I am.

So why continue? Why not put down my proverbial pen and sit back? It's because I'm tired of being branded a terrorist: tired that a human life lost in my country is no loss at all in the eyes of the world. This is not the future I envision for my children. They are not terrorists, and their lives are not valueless.

I have pledged my life – and much, much more, in an effort to open a window through which the good people in the international community may look in and see us for what we are, ordinary human beings with ordinary aspirations, and not what we have been portrayed to be.

Allow me, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to reach out. Help us to build bridges of understanding and acceptance. Even though the war has cast a dark shadow upon your nation and mine – it is not too late. I thank my bureau chief and our editors for retaining a high standard of balance and credibility, and I thank you all for being here today. Good Day.  10

America's and The World's Responsibility

America invaded Iraq.  We cannot be coolly indifferent to Iraqis now.  Iraqi journalists are the eyes and ears for the world to know their country.  When we read an article about Iraq, it was probably written by someone who has intermittent water and electricity.  Someone who has no sense of security for himself or his family now or in the future when America leaves.  So we, the West, and the rest of the world, must  “care to know” what these reporters are risking their lives to tell us.  We must see, through them, the value of all human life.  Beyond that, we must each follow our own conscience to know what we should do – what is the “ethical thing to do” as Iraqi Washington Post Reporter Bassam Sebti expresses it.  

 A character in George Packer’s play "Betrayed", maintains that her dearest wish has always been to ride a bike through the streets of Baghdad, an activity forbidden girls and women. 11   Could we help to make this happen one day?  

*  An embedded jouralist is a news reporter who is attached to a military unit involved in an armed conflict. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embedded_journalist)

1        http://cpj.org/Briefings/2006/DA_spring_06/bassam/bassam_DA.html

2        Jailing Iraqi Journalists by Ann Cooper, from Dangerous Assignments, Fall/Winter 2005, The Committee To Protect Journalists,

http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2005/DA_fall05/comment/comment_DA_fall05.html

3        Ibid.

4        Ibid.

5        http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/03/26/070326fa_fact_packer?currentPage=1

6        http://theater2.nytimes.com/2008/02/07/theater/reviews/07betr.html

7    Heading into Danger, by Bassam Sebti, from Dangerous Assignments, Fall/Winter 2005, The Committee To Protect Journalists,  http://cpj.org/Briefings/2006/DA_spring_06/bassam/bassam_DA.html

8        Ibid.

9        Editorial:  To Be a Journalist in Iraq, New York Times, October 24, 2007,  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/24/opinion/24wed2.html

    10    Press Release - Courage Acceptance Speech -- Sahar Issa      http://www.iwmf.org/press/10247     

11   http://theater2.nytimes.com/2008/02/07/theater/reviews/07betr.html

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