In the early hours of Monday morning, cameraman Arkan Sharif became the latest casualty of Iraq’s perilous media environment.
Eight masked men burst into the 54-year-old’s family home in a village south of Kirkuk and stabbed him to death, his employers at the Kurdistan Satellite Corporation said in a statement. The killers left his half-dressed body lying on the floor, blood pooled around his head and shoulders and a knife embedded in his cheek – an apparent warning.
The previous night, an armed mob attacked a television crew outside the regional parliament in Erbil, beating them with sticks.
Meanwhile, the Baghdad-based Communication and Media Commission has banned two media outlets linked to the ruling party in Iraq’s Kurdish region, Rudaw and Kurdistan 24, accusing them of inciting violence.
The incidents highlight the risks and difficulties of reporting in what is regularly named the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. A total of 185 media workers have been killed in Iraq since 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some died on the battlefield covering battles between security forces and armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). But most, 111 in all, were murdered – shot or blown up by those their reporting angered.
For Iraqi journalists, there are few safe topics. The killers range from militias associated with security forces to groups such as ISIL or its precursor organisations. But the culprits almost always escape justice, says Alexandra el-Khazen, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East desk.
Working in such an environment means that journalists tend to self-censor. Taboo topics include corruption allegations levelled at senior figures in Baghdad or Erbil, or abuses by armed groups, particularly the Iran-backed mainly Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
“If you mention their leaders in a way they think is bad, they will be upset and they may kill you or do something else to you,” said one Baghdad-based journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity after having been previously targeted.
“There are many militias [in the PMF], but with some, especially Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq or Kata’ib Hezbollah, you must take care,” the journalist said, naming groups that were previously involved in attacks on US forces. “The others are probably not going to harm you.”
You really want to tell the story, you want to tell the truth, but to do it you have to leave the country or stay and risk your life.
Kurdish media outlets, including Rudaw, have blamed the PMF for Sharif’s death, although this has yet to be independently confirmed, as has whether he was killed because of his work. Fear of the PMF is also the reason that a number of Kirkuk-based journalists fled the city when Iraqi forces seized it from Kurdish control on October 16. Several are now in Erbil and believe they will be specifically targeted if they return.
Journalists develop different strategies to deal with these threats. An armed group once sent Baghdad-based journalist Mouataz Majid threats, included a letter with a bullet in it. He moved to a different house and started riding partway to work in the back of an ambulance, then eventually left the country for a time. When he returned home and began to work again, he asked that his name not be included on controversial reports in international media outlets.
“We are always here,” Majid told Al Jazeera. “When the foreign journalists are finished, they go and they leave us behind.”
Bribes and blackmail
Sometimes, anonymity does not provide enough protection, and the decision of whether to pursue certain stories can be wrenching, noted Hawre Khalid, a photographer who claimed asylum in Europe after repeated death threats from al-Qaeda in response to a story he was working on.
“That’s the worst feeling as a journalist. You really want to tell the story, you want to tell the truth, but to do it you have to leave the country or stay and risk your life,” said Khalid, who ultimately decided to return to Iraq to cover the fight against ISIL.
Aside from the direct risk of violence, working conditions can be crippling. Laeth Alrashdy, a journalist from Mosul, says that he and his colleagues are regularly threatened by security forces and allied militias who block them from working.
“They forbid us from filming because they say we don’t have any authorisation even when we do … then the security personnel ask for bribes or blackmail us,” Alrashdy said.
In some cases, the situation has been exacerbated by partisan media outlets with links to political blocs or armed factions, Khazen noted: “In Kirkuk, some media outlets were following a specific agenda. Biased reports and photos multiplied and were a contributing factor to raising tensions still further.”