The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein's government dangled the prospect of an Iraq with freedoms of the press unparalleled in the country's history and indeed in the Arab world. The fall of Saddam's regime spawned dozens of new publications and broadcast outlets staffed by Iraqi journalists. Al Arabiyya, Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language news channels descended on Iraq, hiring local talent and introducing new ideas and technologies. But the initial euphoria has faded as working conditions for Iraqi journalists have descended into a nightmare.
Under Saddam, most Iraqi journalists worried about trouble from the state security apparatus and from Saddam's psychotic and capricious son, Uday, who ran wide swaths of the official media. Nowadays, they are subject to violence and harassment from all directions: guerrillas who deem journalists Western propaganda tools, U.S. soldiers, who often view Arab media as mouthpieces of the insurgency, and officials of the Iraqi interim government, who often do not respect the role of local journalists.
"We face different dangers now and there is no law to protect journalists in Iraq," says Hussein Muhammad Ajeel, the head of investigative reporting at Al Mada, a new Baghdad daily. "There are threats from three sides: the Americans might shoot you if they're ambushed; the Iraqi security forces might stop you or beat you if they suspect you're with the resistance; and the resistance might kill you if they think you're a spy."
According to Reporters Without Borders, the French media advocacy organization, at least 24 Iraqi journalists have been killed in Iraq this year. Among them were several likely killed inadvertently by American soldiers, including Iraqi freelance television cameraman Diaa Najm, killed in the crossfire between American soldiers and insurgents on November 1 in Ramadi, and Al Arabiyya correspondent Ali Al Khatib, killed amid American gunfire in Baghdad on March 18.
I first began to realize the troubles Iraqi journalists face while giving an informal talk on Western standards of accuracy and fairness to broadcast journalists in the central Iraqi city of Baqubah last January in a forum organized by an officer of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division. During my talk, I spoke high-mindedly of balanced, impartial journalism. But during the question-and-answer session, Iraqis asked how to dodge political attacks and violence from militants and U.S. soldiers alike. They were concerned with mundane matters, like getting past U.S. checkpoints without getting hurt. "We're unable to get access to anybody," one journalist said. "We're frightened."
This was before the country was convulsed by the violent outbreaks of April and August, before the November confrontation between U.S. troops and fighters in Falluja turned Iraqi cities into ghost towns, and before a spate of cold-blooded killings of ordinary Iraqi journalists.
All Iraqi journalists are targets, especially those brave enough to attend press conferences held by the interim government or the U.S. military at the Baghdad Convention Center just inside the Green Zone, the American-controlled administrative center of the country. "If the resistance sees you leaving the press conference, they might think that you work with the Americans and they might kill you," says Ali Khaleel, a reporter for Azzaman, a Baghdad daily.
But even short of street-side executions, such as that of Al Sharqiyya television reporter Likaa Abdel-Razak in Baghdad on October 27, or kidnappings, such as that of Sada Wasit newspaper reporter Raad Beriaej Al Azzawi south of the capital on November 26, intimidation is rife. One reporter at Al Mada was threatened with death after he wrote about alleged corruption in an Iraqi government ministry. Terrified, the reporter sought help from the Ministry of Interior, which advised him to leave Iraq or face death. He's now in Syria. Another Iraqi journalist reporting on police patrols in the town of Allawi was caught by the resistance. They took his notes and tapes and told him to get out of town. Instead of angry letters to the editor, Iraqi media critics launch rockets like the Katyusha that crashed through Al Mada's offices earlier this year.
Adding insult to injury is the disrespect Iraqi journalists get from senior officials of their own government. Many blithely ignore any representative from the local media while welcoming foreign reporters with tea and sweets. Muhammad Abdullah Shahawani, head of Iraqi intelligence, boasted to a French researcher that he refused to speak to any Iraqi journalist. "I don't trust them," he said. "They're not serious, and they never use the information we give them well." One reporter said he was denied an interview with the Minister of Defense, Hazem Shalan, only to find out that the minister granted an exclusive to the Washington Post days later.
Such disrespect for local media can only serve to undermine journalists' standing and to create an atmosphere that makes it easier for violent groups to act with impunity against reporters trying to do their jobs.
Borzou Daragahi is a journalist based in Baghdad and Tehran.