Attacks on the Press   |   Iraq

Attacks on the Press 2007: Iraq

IRAQ

The war in Iraq, the deadliest conflict for journalists in recent history, kept the country at the top of the world’s most dangerous places for the press. Thirty-two journalists and 12 media support staffers were killed during the year, bringing the record toll to 174 media personnel killed in the line of duty since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Improving security conditions in parts of the country in 2007 may have had an effect on media deaths, as most occurred in the first seven months of the year.

The vast majority of victims continued to be Iraqis, most of whom were singled out by armed groups and murdered with impunity. Since the war began, nearly nine in 10 media deaths have been Iraqi journalists working for the numerous local media outlets that sprouted after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, or serving as frontline reporters for international media organizations.

Armed groups such as Sunni insurgents, Sunni and Shiite militias, and other, unidentified armed assailants were responsible for most of the killings. The motives were typically murky. The disorder that prevailed in much of the country made it difficult to determine whether the victims were singled out for their work, their sect, or their political allegiances—or were simply caught up in the general violence. In some cases, journalists may have been targeted because of their past work as translators for the U.S. military, complicating the task of determining a motive.

Still, there was ample evidence of armed groups and militias ruthlessly targeting journalists because of their reporting or editorial views. Working for a Western news organization, where Iraqis might be suspected of being spies, or for a news outlet deemed hostile to a certain group, could mean a death sentence. Threats have forced many Iraqi journalists to live clandestinely, leave the profession altogether, or flee the country.

In a case emblematic of the danger, Sahar Hussein Ali al-Haydari, a correspondent for the National Iraqi News Agency (NINA) and the independent news agency Aswat al-Iraq and a contributor to a number of other Iraqi media outlets, was slain by gunmen in her hometown of Mosul in June. Al-Haydari was shopping in Mosul’s Al-Hadbaa neighborhood when four unidentified men got out of a vehicle, shot her, and fled the scene, taking her cell phone with them. Al-Haydari had been covering a suicide attack on a police station in the nearby town of Al-Rabiya, according to NINA. When a police captain called later that day to give her more information on the story, the killers answered her phone and said: “She went to hell.” Al-Haydari had received multiple death threats. In an e-mail to CPJ on March 22, al-Haydari said her name was fourth on a death list composed of journalists and police officers. The list had been circulated throughout Mosul and posted on the door to her home. According to Aswat al-Iraq, it was issued by the “Emir of the Islamic State in Mosul,” the local leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq.

Abductions continued to plague the press, as they did for much of the population at large. Radio Free Iraq correspondent Jumana al-Obaidi, for example, was held by kidnappers for nearly two weeks after gunmen seized her from a car taking her to an assignment at the Ministry of Environment on October 22. Her driver was slain.

Due to the perilous situation in Baghdad, the number of foreign correspondents continued to dwindle, and those who remained were often heavily circumscribed in their movements for fear of abduction or attack. For many, the only way to visit parts of the country was to embed with the military or travel with considerable calculation and the aid of security details. The danger eroded the ability of journalists—especially the more conspicuous television crews—to report from the field, and it forced news organizations to rely increasingly on Iraqis for news and information from areas deemed too dangerous for Westerners.

The heightened role of Iraqi journalists as frontline correspondents took a toll. Khalid W. Hassan, 23, a reporter and interpreter for The New York Times, was slain in July while driving to work in the south-central Seiydia district of Baghdad. That same month, Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his assistant, Saeed Chmagh, were killed in eastern Baghdad during what witnesses described as a U.S. helicopter attack. And in May, ABC News cameraman Alaa Uldeen Aziz and soundman Saif Laith Yousuf were shot and killed in an ambush on their way home from the network’s Baghdad bureau.

Some international news organizations have found it difficult to find local journalists willing to work for them. Former New York Times Baghdad Bureau Chief John F. Burns told the New York Observer that “the pool of available people is shrinking,” and noted that “working for an American institution in Iraq—whether the embassy, armed forces, or media organizations—carries with it a considerable hazard.” Burns said that numerous Iraqi staff members had fled to Jordan and Syria.

Deaths of foreign reporters have become less frequent as these journalists keep lower profiles and step up security precautions. One foreign journalist was killed in 2007. On May 6, Dmitry Chebotayev, a Russian freelance photographer embedded with U.S. forces, was killed along with six American soldiers when a roadside bomb struck a U.S. military vehicle in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.

The U.S. military poses another threat to journalist safety. At least 16 journalists have been killed by U.S. forces’ fire since March 2003. The July attack that killed the Reuters photographer and his assistant—as well as nine other Iraqis in the Al-Amin al-Thaniyah neighborhood—came during an American air strike. The military said in a statement that troops had come under fire and “were clearly engaged” with hostile forces when the Reuters employees were killed. In July, Reuters demanded an investigation after it said new evidence had emerged that contradicted the U.S. description of events. According to eyewitnesses, Reuters said, the U.S. forces fired indiscriminately.

The U.S. military has failed to fully investigate or properly account for the killings of journalists in Iraq, CPJ found. After a CPJ Freedom of Information Act request, the Pentagon disclosed its 2004 investigation exonerating U.S. troops in the killings of two Al-Arabiya journalists at a Baghdad checkpoint that year. The report failed to address contradictory witness reports, including statements from Al-Arabiya employees, that at least two U.S. soldiers fired directly on the journalists’ vehicle. Neither did it address testimony from Al-Arabiya employees that a U.S. tank may have briefly collided with the press vehicle moments before soldiers opened fire. The report also failed to reconcile the military’s conclusions with statements by Al-Arabiya employees that the checkpoint was poorly illuminated.

Elsewhere, U.S. forces harassed or obstructed the work of journalists in a number of instances. In February, the U.S. military raided the headquarters of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate and ransacked the premises while briefly detaining staff, according to local journalists. The military continued its practice of open-ended detentions of journalists. In April, Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein marked his one-year anniversary in U.S. military custody without charge.

Hussein was taken by U.S. forces on April 12, 2006, in the western city of Ramadi and placed in a U.S. prison in Iraq for “imperative reasons of security.” But he was not tried or charged with a crime, and the military disclosed no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. U.S. officials have since made numerous, shifting allegations against the journalist. U.S. military officials accused Hussein of having prior knowledge of insurgent attacks, but they did not substantiate the accusation. According to the AP, officials at one point alleged that Hussein was involved in the insurgent kidnapping of two Arab journalists in Ramadi—a claim the AP said it had investigated and discredited. The two journalists had not implicated Hussein in their abduction; they had instead praised him for his assistance when they were released. The military’s only evidence supporting its claim, according to the AP, appeared to be images of the journalists, taken after their release, that were found in Hussein’s camera. The AP said it believed Hussein was being held because of his photographic work documenting combat in Anbar province. Finally, in November 2007, the U.S. military said it would refer Hussein’s case to the Iraqi justice system because “new evidence [had] come to light.” That evidence remained a secret in late year.

Hussein’s detention was not an isolated incident. Dozens of journalists, mostly Iraqis, have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ, Iraqi journalists were held for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In all of those detentions, the journalists were released without charges being substantiated.

The Iraqi government continued to commit a wide range of press freedom abuses that included censorship, arbitrary detentions, threats, physical attacks, and harassment. On January 1, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, which operates a special unit charged with monitoring coverage for “inaccurate” news, ordered the closure of Al-Sharqiya TV’s Baghdad office for fomenting sectarian violence and reporting false news. The ban followed Al-Sharqiya’s coverage of Saddam Hussein’s execution on December 30, 2006, during which the presenter wore black clothing in mourning for the former Iraqi president. The channel referred to Saddam as “president,” while state-owned television broadcasts called him a “tyrant” and a “criminal.” The satellite channel had already decided to close its Baghdad bureau because of security concerns but continued broadcasting from its Dubai headquarters.

Officials again obstructed the press on May 13, when Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, announced that journalists would be barred from the scenes of bomb attacks for one hour. Khalaf said the ban would protect journalists from a second bomb attack at the same site. “We do not want evidence to be disturbed before the arrival of detectives,” he said, adding that he did “not want to give terrorists information that they achieved their goals.” Journalists told CPJ they viewed the ban as an attempt to limit coverage of the violence. Iraqi police enforced the order two days later, when they prevented journalists from covering the aftermath of a twin bomb attack at Baghdad’s Tayaran Square. Camera operators and photographers who sought to report at the scene were met by Iraqi police, who fired shots in the air to disperse the press. The restrictions remained in place and continued to be enforced in late year.

Throughout the year there were numerous reports that security forces harassed journalists by physically assaulting them, seizing their footage, interrogating them, and expelling them from press conferences or from official offices.

On February 25, Ministry of Interior forces raided the Baghdad offices of Wasan Media and detained 11 employees. The ministry claimed that Wasan, which provides technical support to news organizations, supplied the banned satellite station Al-Jazeera with footage of an Iraqi woman who alleged she was raped by three Iraqi police officers. Wasan denied supplying footage to Al-Jazeera and noted that the interview was filmed by several news organizations and was widely available. The Wasan workers were charged with incitement to terror under Iraq’s antiterrorism law, but a criminal court in Baghdad dismissed the charges and freed the men several months later.

Iraq’s Kurdistan region has been spared much of the violence that has consumed other parts of the country, and independent journalists have carved out space for critical reporting. But in 2007 outspoken writers were plagued by several violent attacks perpetrated by suspected government agents, as well as criminal lawsuits filed by thin-skinned politicians. In one October attack, four armed men wearing military uniforms abducted and assaulted Nasseh Abdel Raheem Rashid, a Halabja-based journalist who writes for the expatriate online news site Kurdistanpost. The men, driving a Nissan truck, placed a sack over Rashid’s head, handcuffed him, tied his legs with a scarf, and drove him around for two hours before stopping in a remote area. There, the men began to punch, kick, and threaten him. In his writings for Kurdistanpost, Rashid had frequently criticized Kurdish authorities and the practices of the Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish.

In November, a CPJ delegation to the northern city of Arbil expressed alarm over the attacks and concern about a press bill before the Kurdistan parliament. A bill passed in late year would set fines of up to 10 million dinars (US$8,200) for vaguely worded offenses such as disturbing security, spreading fear, or encouraging terrorism, according to local journalists. Given the tenuous financial situation of independent papers—several operate at losses or barely break even—the elastic language could be exploited to put critical publications out of business. The bill would also allow the government to suspend newspapers and jail journalists under other criminal code provisions. Masoud Barazani, president of the regional government, said in December that he would veto the bill and send it back to parliament for revision.

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