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Iraq’s Press: A Status Report

Author: Lionel Beehner
May 2, 2006

Introduction

The recent saga of journalist Jill Carroll's eighty-two-day captivity has renewed focus on the perils of the press in Iraq. Both local and foreign journalists face daily harassment, death threats, kidnappings, and other dangers. Sixty-seven journalists have been killed in Iraq since the war began, making the conflict the most dangerous for reporters since World War II. Because of the lack of security, foreign media outlets must rely on local stringers, making news gathering more burdensome and putting local stringers at greater risk. Dangers aside, press freedoms have expanded enormously since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, experts say, as the number of news outlets has expanded exponentially. Hundreds of newspapers—some independent, some merely mouthpieces for powerful political groups—are now circulating. Iraqis also enjoy a wide array of options for television and radio news. And blogs, while still the preserve of a digital elite, are slowly growing in importance.

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What are the biggest dangers facing journalists in Iraq?

Death and kidnapping remain concerns for journalists, both local and foreign, in Iraq. Of the sixty-seven journalists killed in Iraq since March 2003, forty-eight have been native Iraqis. About half of them were murdered; the other half caught in crossfire. One of the most widely televised deaths was that of Atwar Bahjat, a thirty-year-old reporter with Al-Arabiya, killed by insurgents while covering the February 2006 bombing of a shrine in Samarra. The breakdown between those journalists killed while working for local versus foreign news agencies is about half and half. At least twenty-three media assistants, such as drivers and translators, have also been killed since the war began. Hostage-taking is on the rise, too; thirty-eight journalists have been kidnapped since the war began (five of whom were executed), more than in any other conflict, according to Reporters without Borders.

How are Western news organizations adjusting to these dangers?

By relying more on Iraqi stringers for reporting in danger zones, experts say. Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says this practice has led to the targeting of Iraqi stringers [journalists hired by foreign organizations to do leg work in Iraq] by insurgents who label them "collaborators" with the U.S.-led coalition. Hence, stringers often do not even tell their families their true professions for fear of being murdered by insurgents, says Paul McLeary, staff writer with the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), who recently spent time in Iraq covering the work of reporters there. "Iraqis think [the stringers are] spies for the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]," he says. Many of them are journalists or have connections to Saddam's former information agencies. Some are English-speaking professionals—doctors, professors, accountants—drawn to the profession's above-average salaries. "One guy even owned a chicken farm," McLeary says. Others have loftier motives. "This blunt economic incentive seems to have given way to a deeper—even passionate—appreciation for journalism's ability to tell important stories and, sometimes, make a difference," McLeary wrote recently in CJR.

Are journalistic standards high among Iraqi media?

In general, yes, experts say, particularly by regional standards. Iraq has a diverse range of satellite channels and independent newspapers, and many of the more prominent Iraqi media outlets are run by veteran reporters. Iraqi journalists are critical of accusations that Iraqi editors and producers were paid by the U.S. military to print manufactured news stories. "We know about the ethics of journalism," says Basim Dibeyes, editor in chief of Ad-Dustour, an independent daily. "And these were clearly marked as paid ads." But Zeyad A., a dentist-turned-blogger based in Baghdad, was not surprised by the revelations of the ad-buying. "The majority of Iraqi newspapers are funded by governmental advertisements, so it's not a shocking affair, especially when you put in mind that a newspaper is paid $200 to $300 per article, and major newspapers publish two or more of them daily." Many of the stringers McLeary spoke with say they preferred working for Western news organizations because most Iraqi media outlets are bankrolled by powerful political groups [i.e. former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi's Al-Mu'tamar, or former Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi's Al Adala]. "They all have some political bent," McLeary says. "There's no real objective news source there."

How free is the Iraqi press?

Much freer than it was under Saddam, experts say. Local journalists say the Iraqi government does not place restrictions on press freedoms. Nor do authorities press them to put a positive spin on news. The biggest obstacle to their reporting, they say, is the lack of security. Some journalists admit they face indirect pressure in the form of death threats by political forces linked to armed militias. "Many have learned self-censorship after a few writers and journalists received threats from militias and people close to the government," Zeyad A. says. Others are restricted by Iraqi—and U.S.—security forces from covering certain events like suicide bombings and government meetings.

How is the relationship between the Iraqi press and the U.S. military?

"Pretty strained," McLeary says. Members of the Iraqi press often are not given the same treatment as foreign journalists nor are they granted the same access. "Whenever a U.S. convoy is targeted, U.S. troops prevent us from covering the scene," says Dibeyes, of Ad-Dustour. "After they remove all the dead and wounded, then they allow journalists to enter." U.S. troops have unintentionally killed at least fourteen journalists, though an independent investigation by British-based risk-management consultancy The Risk Amanagement Group (TRAG), found that the August 2005 killing by American forces of an Iraqi cameraman who worked for Reuters was "unlawful," according to the Christian Science Monitor.

A growing number of Iraqi photojournalists have been detained for weeks, sometimes months, by U.S. military forces. "Sometimes these journalists have been detained after soldiers look at the contents of their digital cameras or some of their video footage and decide these pictures give them reason to suspect the cameramen may be something more than just journalists," Cooper says. Military officials say it is illegal to photograph damaged U.S. vehicles because the information could prove useful to insurgents.

How does the local media coverage of Iraqi events differ from the foreign coverage?

Iraqi journalists are generally critical of the coverage by Western and American news outlets in Iraq. "The U.S. media is not dealing with events in Iraq in an objective way," Dibeyes says. "It covers what relates to U.S. interests only." He says that many of the suicide bombings go unreported by foreign journalists and that the accuracy and magnitude of these attacks are often downplayed. Part of the problem, experts say, is the greater reliance by Western news organizations on Iraqi stringers to report from dangerous regions, including much of Baghdad. The Iraqi press is also generally able to cover everyday events—both good and bad—outside Baghdad more thoroughly than the foreign media. "We carry the good news and the bad news," Dibeyes says. Local editors are conscious of not giving too much coverage to the daily attacks by insurgents. "We know if we keep reporting bad news it will be bad for the morale of the Iraqi people," says Walid Ali, managing director of Baghdad TV Satellite Channel.

What role do Iraqi bloggers play?

Blogs in Iraq are gaining momentum, however slowly, experts say. Some of more influential ones written in English—including Treasure of Baghdad, The Mesopotamian, and Twenty-Four Steps to Liberty—are widely read by journalists and policymakers. Riverbend, a blog written anonymously (most Iraqi blogs are anonymous) by a young Iraqi woman, won a 2006 Bloggie Award and later was published as a book (Baghdad Burning) that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for best nonfiction. Bloggers are valuable because, unlike journalists, there are no restrictions placed on them and most of them are written anonymously, says blogger Zeyad A. "Bloggers can offer a more man-on-the-street raw version of the situation, which is why they often break news before the media." They also "tend to focus on things that personally matter to them such as kidnappings, threats by insurgents or militias, the breakdown of basic services, fuel shortages, power cuts," he says, "and give a rare glimpse of the mundane details of daily life in Iraq."

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