Independence Carries a Heavy Price

On Jun. 28, IPS reporter Alaa Hassan was ambushed and shot six times as he drove to work in Baghdad, bringing to 75 the number of reporters who have been killed while working in the country since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

The figure quoted by the International Federation of Journalists is even higher: 131.

The evidence so far indicates that Hassan was not deliberately murdered for his work, which included interviews with people like As’aad Kareem, president of the Iraqi oil workers union in Basra, Fadil el-Sharaa, spokesman for Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, and Sheikh Abu Yasin al-Zawi, a 62-year-old cleric who was arrested by the U.S. military after calling Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in 2004 "state terrorism."

Rather, like many other journalists covering the conflict, Hassan’s worst fears were realized when without warning, armed men sprayed his vehicle with machine-gun fire as he crossed a bridge where many others had been killed before.

Originally from Babylon, in central Iraq, Hassan, 35, left behind a new wife who is pregnant with their first child.

IPS spoke with Frank Smyth, the Washington representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, about the difficulties faced by reporters working in Iraq, particularly those who are local freelancers and lack the protections afforded to Western reporters who "embed" themselves with military forces.

IPS: The vast majority of the reporters and media workers killed have been Iraqi; what are some of the additional dangers faced by local reporters in covering the conflict, compared to their foreign colleagues?

FS: In fact, 53 out of 74 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003, or more than 70 percent, have been Iraqis. This ratio rises even higher one considers media workers or journalist support personnel, as 26 out of 27 media workers killed in Iraq since 2003 have been Iraqis.

Iraqi journalists, fixers and other support personnel face far greater risks than foreign correspondents. In addition to doing much of the frontline reporting for their foreign colleagues, Iraqi journalists run the further risk of being targeted for their work in their own communities.

IPS: Baghdad Province is probably the most dangerous place to report from. Yet courageous journalists continue to risk their lives to file stories on the situation there. How important is it to publish this kind of information – particularly from "unembedded" journalists?

FS: I am not sure that I would necessarily agree that Baghdad province is the most dangerous place to report from. Instead, many journalists and others have been injured or killed there as this central province is the area nearest to journalists, as most of them are based in Baghdad. And it is therefore the area where many journalists end up reporting from. It might well be more dangerous to travel from Baghdad province to Anbar province, for example, and attempt to report from there. Any kind of travel, but especially a long journey, only raises the risks.

Nonetheless, it is absolutely vital for journalists to continue to report independently as much as the security of the situation may permit. Only by going out and talking to different Iraqis in different locations will journalists be able to convey a reasonably accurate picture to their readers or audience. Moreover, opinions may well be different in different regions. And only by going out to these regions can the complexity of events and views be accurately portrayed.

IPS: CPJ published a report last September charging that the U.S. Military has failed to fully investigate the killing of some 13 journalists by its forces in Iraq and to implement its own recommendations to improve media safety. Has the U.S. government taken any steps to address this situation?

FS: The U.S. Military has failed to investigate most cases where journalists have been killed by U.S. forces in Iraq. In a few of these cases, including the Palestine Hotel tank rocket attack in 2003 and the shooting by a U.S. soldier of Reuters journalist and CPJ International Press Freedom Award Winner, Mazen Dana, later the same year, the U.S. Military did issue reports that exonerated the specific U.S. troops involved. But in each of these cases, the same U.S. Military investigations failed to consider other considerations, namely why the tank unit in the Palestine Hotel attack was apparently unaware of the presence of journalists in the hotel. In the Mazen Dana case, the U.S. military’s own investigation recommended that the U.S. Military review its own rules-of-engagement to make troops more aware of the presence of journalists. But it still remains unclear whether the military has done so.

While in the other cases, no investigations are known to have been conducted at all.

The U.S. Military has reportedly made some changes to improve security at checkpoints by U.S. Military forces where many civilians including journalists have been wounded or killed. CPJ and Human Rights Watch have together written to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld asking the military to improve checkpoint security in Iraq. The military has not responded to these concerns, although, if recent reports are to be believed, the military has quietly taken at least some positive steps along the same lines.

IPS: And what about the Iraqi authorities? Are you satisfied with their handling of these investigations?

FS: So far CPJ has found only case where a journalist was killed by Iraqi forces, and, even in that case, the circumstances remain unclear. Most journalists who have been killed in Iraq have been murdered by insurgent forces or have otherwise been killed in insurgent attacks. Incidents involving U.S. Military forces have been the second-leading-cause of death for journalists in Iraq.

IPS: So far, the number of journalists deliberately targeted (38) and those killed in crossfire or other acts of war (36) are roughly equivalent. Do you see a trend in either direction?

FS: Indeed, most journalists killed in Iraq have been murdered, usually gangland-style, in direct retaliation for their work. While nearly as many journalists have been killed in crossfire and many other acts of war. I don’t think the trend in Iraq is necessarily changing. But here is food for thought. If one looks at CPJ’s archives going back over the past decade, or even the previous decade, one consistent and alarming trend stands out: about three out of four journalists killed on the job are not killed on the battlefield; they have instead been murdered outright in direct reprisal for their reporting. Most of these journalists are local, investigative reporters. Even more alarming, in nearly nine out of 10 of these journalist murder cases, no alleged perpetrators have been prosecuted at all. The most murderous nations since 2000 are the Philippines, Iraq, Colombia, Bangladesh and Russia.

IPS: How bad is the situation on the ground in terms of the control, or lack of it, of the various armed forces? It appears that outside the bunkers that protect the occupying forces and their allies, widespread chaos and violence reign without restraint. How can a journalist, especially a local journalist, prepare for such coverage? What does it mean to be a freelancer in Iraq? What is possible for a freelancer in terms of making a living, securing some degree of freedom of expression and covering the conflict?

FS: Iraq today is the most dangerous conflict to cover in memory, and there is no easy or guaranteed way to cover the war and stay safe. The risks are tremendous from foreign correspondents including even well-known Western news anchors on a Baghdad assignment to Iraqi fixers working closer to home. Freelancers whether foreign or local face additional risks. CPJ encourages freelancers especially to make sure that they have adequate health insurance, and we encourage news organizations to provide health insurance, in particular, to those whom they rely on. Security training is another important element that we also recommend. There is an organization, the International News Safety Institute (that includes CPJ), that has been providing subsidized training for Iraqi fixers and others in Iraq.

IPS: Is there some way of accrediting journalists who are Iraq-based? The trouble is that when they are independent, they get nowhere, and when they work in tandem with journalists outside, they are termed "fixers." Are you aware of any contact point in the government that has to respond to questions put by journalists?

FS: Accreditation is a tricky and ongoing issue. Many journalists say they need credentials from the U.S. Military in order to safely navigate U.S. Military checkpoints. But the U.S. Military has been reluctant to provide credentials to many Iraqis working for Western media. News organizations have organized themselves to negotiate with U.S. Military representatives with mixed results. Another issue that seems at least to be somewhat resolved is the long lines journalists had to wait in to get inside U.S. Military press conferences, as the journalists standing in line outside were themselves at risk from attacks, including suicide bombings.

The U.S. Military, to its credit, has also recently appointed a senior commander in charge of dealing with queries from news organizations whenever a journalist is detained. This is one clear step forward that the U.S. Military took in response to pressure from CPJ and others.