Flight into Exile

After five years of war in Iraq, the situation looks grim for Iraqi journalists. Many have fled from the daily violence in their country to Syria or Jordan – usually without a visa or work permit. Those who remain behind continue to report on events only at great danger to their lives. By Petra Tabeling

A journalist in Najaf (Photo: dpa)
A journalist in Najaf: in the past five years, 210 journalists and other media personnel have died in Iraq

​​Iraqi journalists have many enemies. Not only do they face attacks by militant Sunni and Shiite groups or terrorist networks; even the national authorities, the police and US troops massively hamper their work. According to the human rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the five-year war has so far cost over 210 journalists and media assistants their lives.

Organizations such as the Iraq Media Safety Group count as many as 270 victims or more. Although the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior has initiated investigations into these crimes, only a few arrests have been made. The risk journalists face of being abducted remains high: 90 media representatives have been kidnapped since the war broke out, with 15 cases still not solved.

Threats from all sides

Due to the many murders and kidnappings and the resulting unsafe situation in Iraq, many local journalists have in the meantime left the country or brought their family members to safety outside Iraq. Fear of hit squads and terrorist violence compels many to use a pseudonym. Journalists regularly change their place of residence, keeping their contact data secret.

RWB has now issued a report describing the precarious situation faced by Iraqi journalists five years into the war. Reporters without Borders conducted interviews with many of those who were forced to flee the country and are now trying to make a living in Damascus or Amman. Some of them told of finding their name on lists and thus feeling compelled to leave the country.

A former cameraman for a US station fled when he heard that soldiers in the Mahdi Army had been asking his neighbors about him. As an employee working for a US station and a Sunni, he had become a target for the Shiite militia. And for Hassan Hafidh as well, who once directed the Reuters office in Baghdad and was already kidnapped right at the beginning of the war, the danger after three years of working for the English news agency had simply become too great. Today he lives in Amman.

The Iraqi authorities and even the US troops also make the media’s work difficult. Journalist Hussein Al Maadidi was forced to leave Iraq in October 2007 after the police had searched his home 23 times. Al Maadidi had reported on how soldiers in the US Marines had shot 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in the city of Haditha in November 2005 – in retaliation for a Marine killed in the western province of al-Anbar. "My story about what was really happening in the western part of the country angered them," Al Maadidi told RWB.

Menaced in Iraq, out of work in exile

Iraqi refugees outside the UN office in Damascus (Photo: AP)
Iraqi exiles queue outside the UN office in Damascus, hoping for official refugee status.

​​While those who leave the country are no longer in imminent danger of losing their lives, their lives in exile are subject to many restrictions. According to RWB, Jordan, once the journalists’ first choice as destination, has taken in over 200 people thus far, but tightened immigration regulations drastically in 2006.

Only a few journalists have been allowed to live there legally and work for officially recognized Iraqi media, based on official letters from Western or Iraqi employers. Television stations that were forced to close their offices in Iraq, such as Baghdad TV, now report from Amman. But the authorities in both Amman and Damascus only allow Iraqi journalists to work freely there as long as they limit themselves to reporting on Iraq and do not criticize the country that has taken them in.

Without a visa, journalists have the status of refugees in Syria as well, without a residence permit – and thus without a work permit either. Their financial situation is precarious and the high cost of living in both Syria and Jordan makes it difficult to get by. This is joined by the fact that Jordanian media enterprises are only allowed to hire Iraqi journalists if they can’t find a native for the job.

Emigration to the West

Many journalists therefore try to obtain a visa for Europe or the USA. A hopeless undertaking, says RWB, since very few countries are willing to take in Iraqi refugees. To date, 20,000 Iraqis have been recognized as refugees in Europe, 9,300 of them in Sweden, 3,500 in Greece and only 63 in France. Many have hence resorted to arduous and illegal routes to escape the violence in their country.

Iraqi journalists frequently risk their lives for Western media employers who for security reasons do not deploy any of their own correspondents in the country. But the employers do little to ensure the safety of their Iraqi reporters in return.

RWB notes that, although the US State Department is currently looking into the possibility of issuing visas to journalists who have worked for an American media company in Iraq and were put at risk and kidnapped due to their “collaboration with the occupiers,” RWB as a human rights organization is demanding that these criteria be extended.

Critics point out that the European Union is currently placing too much emphasis on stabilizing the refugee problems in countries such as Syria and Jordan instead of working toward an urgently needed increase in the numbers of Iraqi refugees taken in by Western countries.

Petra Tabeling

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


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The Media in Iraq
Freedom of Expression under Attack
Kidnappings, murder, and terror – to date almost 90 journalists have been killed in Iraq, more than in any other conflict. Two thirds of the victims were Iraqi nationals. Petra Tabeling reports


  • Reporters Without Borders: www.rsf.org
  • The complete report on Journalists in Iraq by Reporters Without Borders is available here.