Iraqi journalists rejoiced at their new-found freedom of expression when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in March 2003, despite the chaotic security situation. Nearly five years later, things are more dangerous than ever. At least 56 media workers were killed in 2007 and journalists faced increasing restrictions imposed by the Iraqi authorities.
Violence has not abated in Iraq and the toll among journalists continues to grow. The UN Security Council resolution (1738) of December 2006 on protection of journalists in war zones did not lead to Iraqi efforts to punish those attacking media workers. At least 47 journalists and nine media assistants were killed during 2007. More than half the recorded physical attacks on the media were in Baghdad despite the huge presence there of Iraqi forces and US troops.
A Reporters Without Borders delegation went to Baghdad in May 2007 bringing money for the families of murdered journalists. The organisation’s secretary-general, Robert Ménard, met President Jalal Talabani and asked his government to ensure that killers of journalists were punished.
Foreign journalists have still not returned to Iraq, mainly for safety reasons but also because insurance coverage can cost thousands of dollars a day.
Reporters Without Borders officials went twice in 2007 to Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to encourage and promote a draft law proposed by the journalists union. In December, the Kurdish parliament passed a bill curbing various freedoms, but Kurdish President Massud Barzani, refused to sign it into law and called in January 2008 for it to be amended.
Courage of Iraqi journalists
The violence of the past five years has driven very many Iraqi journalists into exile, where safety problems are replaced by administrative and financial ones.
Those who stay behind are taking more precautions - looking under their vehicle every morning, taking different routes all the time, only using drivers they know very well and concealing that they are journalists, even from their neighbours.
Taking a taxi can also be dangerous and journalist Jumana al-Obaidi, of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty was kidnapped on 4 November 2007 as she went to the environment ministry in Baghdad to do an interview. Her taxi-driver was murdered.
Some parts of the country and neighbourhoods of major cities have become no-go areas for media workers and on-the-spot work must be done extremely carefully. Photographers and cameramen are handicapped by their equipment. Freelance photographer Munjid al-Tumaimi was killed in Najaf (160 km south of Baghdad) on 28 January as he took pictures of patients at a local hospital.
Physical attacks on journalists increased even in Kurdistan, which is fairly safe for the media. Nabaz Goran, who works for several local media outlets, was kidnapped in Erbil in April and beaten for several hours before being freed.
Iraqi journalists again accounted for nearly all media casualties in 2007 and only one foreigner, Russian photographer Dimitri Chebotayev, was killed. He was embedded in a US military unit and died in a bomb explosion in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, on 6 May.
Iraqi journalists mostly died in ambushes set by unidentified armed groups and were victims of political-religious-ethnic faction fighting. The government was unable to protect them, though some deaths, preceded by death-threats, could probably have been avoided. Mahmud Hassib al-Kassab, editor of the weekly Al-Hawadith, was shot dead on 28 May in front of his home in northern Kirkuk (250 km north of Baghdad). He had been wounded six weeks before in another bid to kill him.
The killers’ motives
Hardly anyone ever claims responsibility for the murders of journalists and lack of serious investigation means the motives for them remain unknown. The political or ethnic affiliation of the media outlets they work for seems to account for the choice of most targets. Only media outlets backed by political parties, religious interests or the government continue to operate. Their employees are exposed to the violence and hatred of groups that oppose their employers’ affiliation. Two journalists of the official daily Al-Sabah were kidnapped on 12 January in front of their office and their bodies, with throats cut, were found next day near a hospital.
Stringers for foreign media have to take extra precautions and nine working for US media outlets were killed in 2007. Salih Saif Aldin, for the Washington Post, was shot dead point-blank on 14 October while covering religious fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in southern Baghdad’s Saidiya neighbourhood. His body, covered with newspapers, was found in the gutter. He had worked for the Washington Post for three years and had left his home town of Tikrit in 2005 after getting threats. City officials reportedly put a €35,000 price on his head after he investigated their embezzlement.
25 journalists were kidnapped in 2007 and most were freed unharmed. Iraqi media are now much quicker to react to help the victims. Muntadhar al-Zaidi, correspondent for the Iraqi TV station Al-Baghdadiyah, was held for three days before being released without a ransom. Iraqi organisations such as the Press Freedom Observatory (a Reporters Without Borders partner) and its TV station put out messages and a special programme about the journalist. The fate of 14 other kidnapped media workers, some of them held since 2006, was unknown and lack of information did not inspire optimism.
Access to information: a new battle
On top of the violence, Iraqi journalists face new restrictions imposed by the authorities, including a ban in May 2007 on filming the sites of bomb attacks and another in November on going to the Kandil mountains, near the Iraqi-Turkish border, to talk to Kurdish PKK rebels. Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki several times stressed the importance of the media in fighting terrorism and he seemed to regard the media’s role as reassuring and encouraging Iraqis who had fled the country to return home. Local media are under pressure to give a positive image of the country. “We have no problems if we only make constructive criticism,” a journalist from Kurdistan told Reporters Without Borders.
Dozens of journalists were arrested either for a few hours or several days. Faisal Abbas Ghazala, of the TV station Kolsat, was arrested at the end of the year and held for 31 days in prison in the Kurdish town of Dohuk before being released without charge. The trial began in November of Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who has been held by the US military since April 2006. The charges against him have never been clearly stated.