Iraq’s Endangered Journalists

By Ali Fadhil. He worked for National Public Radio, Guardian Films and The New Yorker in Iraq and is a Fulbright scholar at New York University (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 06/09/2006):

IN today’s Iraq, intellectuals are targets of a widespread, often ethnically driven campaign of murder. Many have fled their homes, or even the country, to protect their families. Doctors, engineers, professors and even teachers seek new careers in parts of Iraq where their ethnic or sectarian group is in the majority. But one class of professionals cannot escape the violence because its work is connected to it, and it is a group that has been attracted to, and cultivated by, the new Iraq. They are the news media workers. And I am one of them.

Under Saddam Hussein, I was a doctor. But I took up journalism in late 2003, when it was clear that the best jobs in post-Hussein Iraq were those in the news media. Building a free press in Iraq was one of America’s greatest achievements. When the American-led coalition installed itself in the Green Zone, it created the Combined International Press Center, where American soldiers issued press passes to Iraqis and Westerners alike.

Just like American reporters, we could embed ourselves with the United States Army and we could attend coalition press conferences, where we addressed critical questions to American officials as well as to Iraqi officials. Many of the biggest stories were either written by Iraqis or reported by them.

With American encouragement, Iraq produced a generation of young journalists who are decades ahead of their counterparts elsewhere in the region. Those who had the opportunity to work for Western publications or broadcast companies advanced the furthest, but many journalists working for local news media organizations also catapulted ahead in their careers. The two groups complemented each other, succeeding in the midst of violence and confusion to reveal the hidden atrocities in our country to Iraqis and the world.

In the last year, however, as successive short-term governments have taken power in Baghdad, American support for the Iraqi news media has waned. In May the United States ambassador announced the transfer of the International Media Center, which has served as a headquarters for the international and local news media, into the hands of the new Iraqi government, which is dominated by militias and regards the news media as akin to the insurgency, something that it must defeat and suppress. In mid-July, the Iraqi prime minister threatened to close any news media outlet that insufficiently supports the Iraqi government in its fight against sectarian violence. I fear that if this government survives, the press in Iraq will become similar to that in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Syria.

This is bad news at a time when the Iraqi press needs protection more than ever. Last week, the office of the state-owned daily newspaper, Al Sabah, was torn apart by an enormous bomb that killed at least two people and wounded 20. Nearly four months ago, the same newspaper had been hit with a car bomb. Going into the office must be like walking into a lion’s cage for Al Sabah journalists. And they are not alone. Any newspaper in Iraq could suffer the same fate at any time.

Last February, Atwar Bahjat, a well-known reporter for the Arabic satellite news channel Al Arabiya, was murdered with her cameraman and sound technician in Samarra, where they were reporting on the aftermath of the bombing of the Shiite shrine there.

On Aug. 8, two Iraqi journalists were killed by militants. One of them was riddled with bullets as he was leaving his house in my old neighborhood in western Baghdad. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 56 Iraqi journalists have been killed since the war began in 2003.

Today journalists in Iraq face death threats from all sides. The most substantial menace comes from the insurgency and from Islamic extremists who regard journalists as infidels doing the bidding of Jews and Zionists. Many Sunnis think that we are collaborating with the Americans or working as spies for them. So do members of Shiite militias like Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

As for the government, many of its employees, who come from the old regime, deny us access, rightly fearing that they will be punished by their superiors for anything they say to us.

Finally, the American soldiers who were so helpful to us in the early days of the occupation now have a different attitude. By 2005, if an Iraqi journalist aimed a camera at a United States Army convoy, the soldiers’ rules of engagement allowed them to shoot. American soldiers have been responsible for the deaths of about 14 journalists in Iraq, the majority of them Iraqis.

I have experienced nearly all of these threats firsthand. In May 2004, a Canadian journalist and I were seized by insurgents inside Falluja. I was able to convince our captors that the Canadian, who spoke no Arabic, was not a Westerner but my older brother, and that he had suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak.

A month later, National Public Radio sent me to Najaf to report on a protest against the fighting between the Americans and the Mahdi Army. Iraqi police officers handcuffed me, beat me and dragged me into the main government building. The governor’s deputy released me on the condition that I not take Mr. Sadr’s side in my reporting.

The Mahdi Army then arrested me that September, in the Sadr City slum of northeastern Baghdad. I had been reporting from the hospital, where I was interviewing injured civilians. The militia men took me to a mosque, where a very young sheik questioned me. I lied about my employer, which was still National Public Radio, saying instead that I worked for a German station. He told me that I had better not be a spy, or else. My identity papers were copied and returned to me.

Finally, last Jan. 8, my house was raided by American forces, who blew out the doors with explosives and shot several bullets into the bedroom where my wife, 3-year-old daughter, 6-month-old son and I were sleeping. They destroyed our furniture, and I was hand-flexed, hooded and taken to an unknown place. It turned out that the raid was connected to the kidnapping of Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor reporter who had been abducted in my neighborhood the day before. The Americans apologized and gave me $500 for the time I spent with them and $1,000 for the damage to the house. I was released the next morning.

My early release aroused suspicion among my neighbors. Other people from the same block had been arrested and not released. And so it was that two days later, I got a threatening phone call from someone who said I had been identified as working with Americans. I took my family to a hotel, where we stayed until we left Iraq for New York at the end of January.

As dangerous as Iraq is for foreign reporters, they at least have the advantage of being considered untouchable by the Iraqi police and security forces. The same is not true for us. In September 2005, I was working on a film when I found myself driving down a closed street in the upscale Mansour district. A gang had attacked a bus that was carrying bank employees home at the end of the day. Foolishly, the bank officials had hidden $1 million in cash inside the employees’ bus. Someone had tipped off the gang, which murdered several of the passengers.

As I approached with my camera, I saw that that a boy who had been selling Pepsi by the side of the road was trapped in the middle of heavy fire. I knew that he should figure in the documentary I was making. But the police threatened to break my camera and forced me and other Iraqi journalists out of the street. An Iraqi cameraman for the American-backed Al Hurra television argued that he should at least be allowed to film from a distance. In seconds, he was handcuffed and led away, his camera thrown to the ground, his tapes confiscated.

FROM the beginning of my work as a journalist, I was careful to conceal my professional identity from everyone I knew, including my relatives. I told everyone I worked in a private hospital, and no one in our neighborhood suspected otherwise. I would leave the house with my white coat hanging in the car as though I were going to the hospital.

As a general rule, all Iraqi journalists found ways of keeping their work a secret. And yet, we still ran to report on car bombs in the morning, knocked on doors to talk to people in dangerous neighborhoods, and raced to fatal areas to be the first to break stories.

The Western news media could not function in Iraq without the dedication of Iraqi journalists. And those Iraqis were first inspired to become journalists because of the United States. Now the United States has turned our fate over to Iraqi politicians. If our government continues to be dominated by militias and to draw closer to the insurgency and the Islamic extremists, then in just a few months, no news will be reported from Iraq at all.

The Iraqi people, however, will continue to suffer. There will be new mass murders, committed or encouraged by the very same people who denounced the killings under Saddam Hussein. And just as back then, there will be no news media to inform the world.