At an impromptu meeting in the Abu Kamal restaurant near the Najma (Star) Square in downtown Damascus, three members of a new crop of journalists discuss the hopes for press freedoms they had after the government of the former president, Saddam Hussein, was overthrown.
They asked for their real names not to be published and some admitted writing under different tribal names when working with foreign media to protect their identities from reprisal attacks and kidnappings.
MF, once a theatre enthusiast, told how he and his colleagues at Mosul University had believed the US military presence in Iraq would transform the country into a post-World War II Japan.
In the first few months after the US invasion, dozens of Iraqi newspapers, websites, blogs, satellite and terrestrial television stations sprung up with unprecedented buoyancy.
“I joined one of the new television stations for the province of Nineveh as a television producer for their arts and culture programming,” MF tells Aljazeera.net.
“But soon it became evident that our idea of media reform was rather different from those who took over the media in the country.”
His colleagues complain that the press in Iraq has become increasingly politicised and affiliated with sectarian political blocs in parliament.
Threats and intimidation
MF says he drove to work every morning from the Meidan sector of the city picking up two colleagues on his way to the Al-Iraqiya Nineveh station in Karma district near the Arbil checkpoint.
But then the threats came.
In November 2004, MF received a note promising him certain death if he continued to work for “the agent’s media”.
Former Aljazeera reporter Atwar
MF’s colleague, Yasser Zaid, was kidnapped in Baghdad and beaten. He was told not to work with the new media organisations or US forces. His family paid a $15,000 ransom and he was let go – many consider him lucky.
He escaped via Syria to Lebanon and the last any of his former colleagues heard of him, he had fled to the US.
But another aspiring presenter working with MF persisted. She refused to allow fear and intimidation to affect her work. A Christian, divorced and 40, she was particularly vulnerable but did not heed her friends’ warnings.
She was killed in late November 2004, her throat slit, her corpse bundled up near the road leading to the northern village of Bahzani. A translator who worked with her and had been in hiding for more than two years was hunted down and executed in June 2006.
Walking on coals
Another journalist with 12 years reporting experience says anyone working for the media in Iraq is living on borrowed time.
“We are all walking on coals, slowly burning away, but what can we do? Someone has to tell the stories happening in Iraq,” he told Aljazeera.net.
With two children and a wife in Amman, life will not be easy, he knows. He says he plans to travel back and forth every one or two months, giving himself a reprieve till the security situation in Iraq improves.
“My life … in Allah’s hands,” he says.
Nir Rosen, an American freelance writer who spent more than two years covering Iraq and author of In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, says many Iraqi journalists keep their work secret from their families.
“I have a good friend who just a few months ago was beaten by the police. He has worked with various Western publications and television outlets and has to hide the fact he is a journalist from his family because one person could tell another and eventually he could wind up dead.”
Shooting the messenger
In February 2006, former Aljazeera reporter Atwar Bahjat was found murdered a day after reporting on the Samarra Askariya shrine bombings, which later plunged the country into a virtual civil war.
At the time, Iraqis speculated that there had been sectarian as well as political motives behind her death – she was of mixed Shia-Sunni parentage.
Journalists in Iraq face danger
Lynn Tehini, the Maghreb and Middle East desk officer for Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans frontiers – RSF), says of the 107 journalists killed in Iraq in the past three years, nearly 80% were Iraqi.
“We have correspondents in Iraq … more than one … but no one knows they are working for us, gathering data and reporting on the situation in the country, because it is very dangerous,” she told Aljazeera.net.
Tehini said sectarian vengeance was behind most of the killing of Iraqi journalists. As Iraqi media outlets begin to take sides on such issues as federalism and the amending of the constitution, journalists and commentators find themselves at higher risk.
“If a Sunni journalist is killed because his newspaper says something others do not like, there will be a killing of a Shia journalist to take revenge … and so on,” she says.
The sectarian strife has led to the perception that journalists are working as spies for armed groups or political parties.
“Whether you are an Iraqi or foreign journalist, you are perceived as being a spy, especially if you are working with foreign outlets. If you are working for Iraqi outlets, you can get killed for sectarian reasons,” Rosen told Aljazeera.net.
A Pentagon policy?
But Iraqi journalists have also been detained by US forces on suspicion of working with resistance groups and, in some cases, US soldiers have fired at and killed Iraqi cameramen.
“Iraqi forces are very violent against Iraqi journalists,” says Tehini, “but the American army also detains journalists without explanation.”
According to RSF, five Iraqi journalists were detained for months without charge and without access to their families or lawyers in 2005. The US military would later release the men.
American Jill Carroll spent three
In recent weeks, several Iraqi journalists were detained and later released by US forces. Bilal Hussein, an Associated Press photographer, has been detained since April 12.
Dahr Jamail, an independent American journalist who spent eight months reporting from Iraq, believes the US military is mostly to blame for the killing of journalists.
“It has been clear since the US invasion that the policy of the Pentagon has been to target non-embedded reporters. More journalists have died in Iraq than did during the entire Vietnam War, and even world war two.
“It is so dangerous because not only must one be careful from the US military, but also the criminal element. One never knows if a criminal gang will decide to kidnap you and sell you to some militia or resistance group,” he told Aljazeera.net.
But for Ali F, who reports from Baghdad and surrounding towns, it is not the US soldier he is worried about.
“Now I am mostly worried about being killed or strangled by those who are dressed in ministry of interior uniforms or men in black who move freely because of their ties to the security forces.”