Deaths Down, But Iraq Still Top Danger Zone

The improved security in Iraq has had benefits for everyone there. This has included fewer Iraqi civilian deaths, US casualties, and, says a new report, journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) release said that 41 journalists worldwide were killed this year. And while Iraq has improved, it is still the deadliest nation in the world for journalists, as it has been for nearly six years.

"The 11 deaths recorded in Iraq in 2008, while a sharp drop from prior years, remained among the highest annual tolls in CPJ history," said the release from the New York-based group dedicated to protecting press freedom worldwide.

News media workers had their best year, down to the lowest number killed since 2003 when the Iraq invasion was launched. Forty-one journalists were also killed that year.

But the years between have been trying ones for journalists across the globe, and particularly in Iraq.

A record 32 journalists working in Iraq were killed each year in 2006 and 2007, said the release. Globally, 56 and 65 journalists were killed each year, respectively, according to CPJ.

In 2004 and 2005, 60 and 46 journalists, respectively, were killed worldwide. In the five years before 2003, between 20 and 40 journalists were killed each year, according to CPJ reports from previous years.

The journalists who CPJ interviewed said that the lower death totals in Iraq reflect several elements of a new US counterinsurgency strategy undertaken in 2007, collectively known by the moniker of its massive troop escalation aspect: the "surge".

These factors were the troop escalation itself, tens of thousands of extra US boots on the ground; the Sahwa, or Awakening, the rejection of al Qaeda by Sunni groups that cooperated with and were supported by the US; a ceasefire declared by anti-occupation Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr and his followers; and the de facto ethnic cleansing that began with the post-invasion chaos and came to fruition as a stabilizing force once largely accomplished.

And as things cooled off in Iraq, so did the Western media presence, said CPJ. Fewer journalists meant fewer media targets and fewer journalists in dangerous situations.

But even with a smaller Western presence, Iraqi journalists remained at work, and, often, it seems, in danger.

"All of the journalists killed in Iraq in 2008 were local reporters working for domestic news outlets," said the CPJ release.

The deaths included Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate head Shihab al-Tamimi in Baghdad, and Livin magazine reporter Soran Mama Hama in Kirkuk. Both were targeted attacks.

Two media support workers were also killed in Iraq this year.

But Iraq wasn’t the only place where local reporters were killed, said the CPJ report.

"More than 90 percent of those killed were local journalists covering the news for local, regional, and international news outlets," it said.

The danger to journalists, as one might expect, also follows the geographic ebb and flow of fighting around the globe.

"The 2008 death toll reflected a shift in global hotspots, as high numbers of deaths were reported in restive areas of Asia and Caucasus," said the CPJ release.

Three journalists were killed in the five days of fighting between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway proving of South Ossetia.

Three reporters also died in the civil unrest in Thailand this year, where the prime minister was ousted and demonstrations later in the year closed the Bangkok airport.

Attacks aimed at journalists remain the greatest threat to their lives.

"Murder remained the leading cause of work-related deaths: Twenty-eight of those killed in 2008 were targeted," said the report.

Journalists often became targets after they had reported on controversial stories, such as local prostitution rings or the Afghan drug trade.

Mexico, which, according to CPJ, is the most dangerous location for reporters in the Americas, saw one journalist "killed in direct relation to his work", and four others were killed in unclear circumstances.

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Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.