Iraqi journalists targets of violence

In the violence that has swept the country more than three years after the US-led invasion, journalists in Iraq have become targets of violence.

    Amjad Hameed, an Iraqi state TV editor, was killed in March

    This climate of fear has forced Iraqi journalists to lead double lives. Most of the journalists here do not tell their relatives or friends what they do. Some even write in daily newspapers without by-lines.
    Others use pseudonyms to avoid angry readers, who might include armed fighters or government officials. 
    Before the war, Iraqi journalists had to register with the ministry of information and had to abide by its repressive rules and regulations.
    No one could criticise the government or Saddam Hussein, the then president. Media professionals lived in horror of crackdowns that could land them in jail or worse.

    Changing enemies

    "We recognised our enemy before the war in 2003," an Iraqi print media journalist says on condition of anonymity for fear of assassination.

    "We knew our limits. The government was our limits. Stay away from the red lines, stay safe."

    According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 67 journalists have been killed in Iraq since 2003, 48 of them Iraqis. Forty journalists have been kidnapped since 2004, seven of them Iraqis.

    But shortly after Saddam's government was overthrown, on April 9, 2003, the ministry was dismantled and journalists were de-shackled for the first time in decades.
    Suddenly, Iraqi journalists could freely report and write in the dozens of newspapers and channels which sprouted almost overnight. 
    However, as the invasion wore on, the obstacles and hazards increased.
    Whereas under Saddam, journalists were paid salaries and pensions, now they were entirely on their own.

    Journalist Rasha al-Tayar, of the Iraqi radio station Nawa, broadcasting from the northern region of Kurdistan, says: "There is no one to appeal to in case of emergency.

    "No one protects us. Everyone risks their lives when they report events in the street."

    Unlike foreign journalists, whose employers often pay for insurance and medical care, Iraqi journalists do not have such benefits.

    Multi-source danger

    Journalists also find themselves caught between three sources of danger - the US-led forces, the Iraqi government, and the anti-US, anti-government fighters. 

    We do not know who to fear the most.

    On the one hand, we are careful not to praise the government because it might provoke the opposition.
    On the other, we have to be careful how we cover the violence and the activities of the fighters because this might anger the government and the US-led forces.

    There are many cases of journalists killed by fighters for the work they have done.

    Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat was
    killed in February

    Atwar Bahjat, who worked for many news outlets, the latest of which was Al Arabiya satellite channel, was kidnapped and killed by an unknown group while reporting on the February 22 attack on the Askariya shrine, in the city of Samarra.

    In other cases, journalists have been detained by Iraqi and US forces on suspicion of involvement in violent acts.
    Many of those who were later released without being charged, said they were detained simply because they were covering the other side of the story, the insurgency.

    As well, the intimidation by kidnappers

    seems to be working. Many journalists have either left the country or decreased their exposure.


    Tayar says she has stopped going to the convention centre - a building inside the fortified Green Zone, where most of the Iraqi and American officials hold their news conferences and meetings.
    Instead, she now relies mostly on her phone to get the news or set up appointments with government officials.
    "It is less dangerous to do that," she says.

    She also monitors the satellite channels for any live-aired conferences instead of going to them because they might be possible targets for car bombs or mortar attacks.

    And she refuses to report on activities of fighters because that might put her in danger.

    In January, reporters Reem Zayd and Marwan al-Majidi who work for al-Sumariya, a Lebanon-based Iraqi satellite channel, were abducted by unknown attackers a few minutes after they left the offices of one of the major Sunni parties in Baghdad.
    They have not been heard from since. 

    Before 2003, Iraq had two local channels, one satellite channel, three radio stations and less than 10 newspapers - a

    ll state owned.

    In post-war Iraq, every province has local TV and radio stations. The country has more than 10 satellite channels and nearly 200 newspapers, only one of each are owned by the government.

    Sectarian tensions have also made it dangerous for a Sunni journalist to work in a Shia area and vice versa. It is becoming more difficult to achieve balance in our stories.  

    "I have discovered now that I cannot change anything," says Tayar.

    She adds that it is becoming more frustrating that the dream of trying to make a change in a wounded country like ours has vanished. "I don't have the magic stick," she murmurs.

    But all the journalists I know, who are still in Iraq, have agreed on one thing: They all believe they have a role to play in rebuilding the country.
    They insist on continuing their work no matter what the result and what the risks.

    "If the intimidation against us continues, the media core will vanish in Iraq," a journalist who requested anonymity said.

    Omar Agha is an Iraqi journalist

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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