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

An Iraqi police officer inspects the car of two foreign journalists killed in Baghdad (photo: AP)
The greatest danger facing Iraqis in the media remains unforeseen acts of violence, such as bombings, but they also have to deal with incidents of internal media censorship

​​According to the human rights organization Reporters Without Borders, 86 people with media related jobs have been killed since the outbreak of war in Iraq in March 2003.

The country on the Euphrates and Tigris has thereby become the most dangerous region in the world for journalists. In only three years, more journalists have lost their lives here than in over twenty years of war in Vietnam.

The fate of murdered or kidnapped foreign journalists has itself become the object of news. Take Giuliana Sgrena, for example. The reporter for the newspaper il manifesto was kidnapped in February 2005 in Baghdad and was seriously wounded by American fire during her release.

Her rescuer, Nicola Calipari, an Italian secret agent, was killed under the rain of bullets. The latest release of a foreign journalist, Jill Carroll, was accompanied by the news that her Iraqi interpreter had been killed during the kidnapping.

Iraqi journalists as victims of terror

Those most at risk, however, are local reporters, photographers, cameramen, and freelance correspondents. Last February, a three-person team from the broadcaster al-Arabiya was killed in an attack at the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

The reporter Atwar Bahjat made two live broadcasts from the destroyed Shiite holy site. Upon departure, she, her cameraman, and her sound technician were kidnapped by unknown assailants and murdered. Al Iraqiya, the Pentagon-financed news channel in Iraq, has also lost twelve of its staff.

Likewise kidnapped were the Iraqi journalists Reem Zeid and his colleague Marwan Khazaal from the local Sumariya TV channel as they were leaving a press conference of the Iraqi Islamic Party in the west Baghdad district of Yarmuk last February. There has been no trace of them since.

The latest tragic case is that of Salah Jalil al-Gharrawi, an Iraqi with the AFP news agency, who on April 4th was torn from his car in downtown Baghdad and taken away.

Targeted intimidation

International media organizations are desperately dependant on local journalists and their freelance news providers (stringers), while many European journalists have since abandoned Iraq. The big broadcasters now cover the region from Jordan or Egypt. For many Iraqis, work as a stringer often offers the only way to earn a living.

Those who have chosen this line of work, however, find themselves enmeshed in a zone of conflict, in which they can face targeted intimidation by insurgent groups to outright attacks.

These groups deliberately aim to set examples. An interpreter who worked for an American journalist found her family murdered. The perpetrators accused her of "collaborating with the enemy."

Official censorship has indeed been abolished, yet, in formerly dictatorial Iraq with a press used to towing the political line, the right to freely express one’s opinion appears to be at the discretion of local politicians.

In Kut, 200 kilometers south of Baghdad, two journalists were charged with libel against the police and justice officials. The two had published a report in a local paper accusing district officials of incompetence and corruption. If found guilty, they face ten years in prison.

Detention by the US Army

Even the US military has jailed a number of Iraqi journalists. The cameraman Samir Noor, who worked for the Reuters news agency, is but one such case. In June 2005, American soldiers arrested him during a raid on his hometown of Tal Afar. He then spent eight months in the Abu Ghraib prison and at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

A similar fate was also met by Majed Hameed, a correspondent for Reuters and al-Arabiya, and TV cameraman Ali al-Mashhadani. They were both freed early this year, yet it still remains unclear why they were arrested and charges were never filed.

In addition, no reparations have ever been offered to the Iraqi journalists. There are currently no Iraqi journalists in American custody, reports Lynn Tehini, Iraqi spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders.

The greatest danger facing Iraqis in the media remains unforeseen acts of violence, such as bombings, but they also have to deal with incidents of internal media censorship.

Although Iraqi journalists now live in a "liberated" country, as President Bush likes to claim, much of the media is deeply split along political and religious lines and, correspondingly, reporting conforms to the respective viewpoints. A democratic solution towards media diversity in Iraq continues to be a long way off.

Petra Tabeling

© 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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Website "Reporters Without Borders"