Attacks on the Press 2004: Iraq


For the second consecutive year, Iraq was the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist, and the conflict there remained one of the most deadly in recent history for the media. Twenty-three journalists were killed in action in 2004, along with 16 media workers.

Not quite two years after a U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, reporters in Iraq continued to face banditry, gunfire, bombings, and insurgent missile attacks. By midyear, escalating hostilities made most of the country a virtual no-go zone for foreign reporters. As a result, international news organizations began relying heavily on local Iraqi hires for newsgathering, putting them in increasing danger.

By year’s end, Iraqi nationals comprised 74 percent (17 of 23) of the journalists killed in 2004—a reversal from 2003, when all but two of the 15 confirmed media deaths were foreigners. In addition, all 16 of the media workers killed in 2004 were Iraqis.

Amid the rising violence, criminal and insurgent groups launched a hostage-taking campaign in 2004, seizing hundreds of foreigners and Iraqis, including at least 22 journalists. Twenty-one of the 22 were released, but one, Italian freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni, was executed in August by a group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq. In a videotape aired on the Qatar-based, Arabic-language satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera, Baldoni’s kidnappers had demanded that Italy withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq. Two French journalists kidnapped in August, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, were freed four months later in December.

Faced with these conditions, few foreign journalists ventured beyond Baghdad unless embedded with U.S. military forces, and trips outside guarded compounds were taken with considerable precautions. By the fall, most international news organizations had significantly scaled back their operations in Iraq, while some had pulled out altogether. The London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat temporarily closed its Baghdad bureau in December after receiving threats from militants; German stations ARD and ZDF pulled out in September; and France’s TF1 said in September it would not send reporters to the country as long as the two French hostages remained in captivity.

Insurgents killed several Iraqi media workers in 2004 in apparent reprisal for their perceived collaboration with Western or coalition organizations, or in retaliation for their journalistic work. In October, Dina Mohammed Hassan, a reporter for the local TV station Al-Hurriya, and Karam Hussein, a photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency, were shot dead just hours apart in Baghdad by suspected insurgents. Hassan’s colleagues said she had received three letters warning her to stop working for Al-Hurriya, and that when she was attacked, her assailants shouted, “Collaborator! Collaborator!” Hussein had received a written threat about six months before the attack, when he worked for another international news organization, warning him to quit and accusing him of being a “traitor.”

In one of 2004’s most serious insurgent attack on the media, a car bomb ripped through the Baghdad bureau of the Dubai-based satellite broadcaster Al-Arabiya in November, killing five employees and wounding several others. An Islamist Web site carried a claim of responsibility from a previously unknown group that called the attack “just a warning” and threatened more on Al-Arabiya and other media outlets in Iraq. Al-Arabiya said that prior to the bombing, it had received numerous threats from people describing themselves as supporters of Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, protesting its coverage, and demanding that the station support the “jihad” against the U.S occupation and Iraqi government.

Insurgent actions were far from the only source of peril for journalists. At least five journalists—all of them Iraqis—were killed by fire from U.S. forces, the second most common cause of death for journalists in Iraq in 2004. The rising toll of media deaths at the hands of American soldiers reinforced the view among some journalists, particularly Arab ones, that U.S. troops often use reckless or indiscriminate force and fail to take into account the presence of journalists in combat areas.

At a Baghdad checkpoint in March, U.S. soldiers shot dead two Iraqi journalists working for Al-Arabiya. Ali Abdel Aziz and Ali al-Khatib had gone to cover the aftermath of a rocket attack on a nearby hotel and were killed while leaving the scene when troops fired on what they called a “suspicious” vehicle, and the journalists’ car was hit in the shooting. In September, another Al-Arabiya journalist, reporter Mazen al-Tumeizi, was killed when a U.S. air strike hit a disabled U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle near where al-Tumeizi was conducting a stand-up report. Several other journalists and civilians near the wrecked vehicle were wounded in the attack.

The Pentagon made public investigations into the deaths of three journalists—the August 2003 shooting of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, and the U.S. tank shelling of the Palestine Hotel on April 8, 2003, which killed Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso, cameramen working for Reuters and Telecinco, respectively. However, the military’s report on the Palestine Hotel shelling failed to address the central question of why U.S. troops on the ground were not made aware that the hotel was full of international journalists at the time. According to CPJ research, the military failed to implement its own recommendations made in the Dana investigation to improve journalist safety in conflict areas. In the cases of the remaining journalist deaths caused by U.S. forces, official investigations remained classified, or the military did not open inquiries at all.

U.S. troops continued to detain journalists—mostly Arab and Iraqi nationals—working in the vicinity of U.S. forces. Reuters news agency revealed that three of its Iraqi employees were subjected to sexual abuse and humiliation when U.S. troops arrested them near Fallujah on January 2 while they were covering the downing of a U.S. helicopter. A cameraman working for the U.S. TV network NBC, Ali Mohammed Hussein al-Badrani, was also detained at the same time. Reuters cameraman Salem Ureibi, reporter Ahmad Mohammad Hussein al-Badrani, and their driver, Sattar Jabar al-Badrani, were held for three days. According to Reuters, “two of the three said they had been forced to insert a finger into their anus and then lick it, and were forced to put shoes in their mouths.” Reuters also reported that, “All three said they were forced to make demeaning gestures as soldiers laughed, taunted them and took photographs.” The Reuters employees also claimed that soldiers said they would take them to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that the soldiers “deprived them of sleep, placed bags over their heads, kicked and hit them and forced them to remain in stress positions for long periods.” One of the Reuters journalists said he feared that he would be raped because soldiers told him they wanted to have sex with him.

The NBC cameraman who was detained with the Reuters journalists said that U.S. troops put bags over his head and kicked him, but that he was not sexually abused. A military investigation absolved U.S. troops of any wrongdoing, despite the fact that investigators did not interview any of the victims. When their cases received scrutiny in the U.S. media in October, a Pentagon spokesman told The New York Times that Pentagon lawyers were examining the cases to determine if a follow-up review was required.

Despite the serious risks for the media in post-Saddam Iraq, dozens of new independent and partisan publications and broadcast outlets have been launched, ranging from low-quality tabloids to professionally run national dailies. However, economic conditions have made it difficult for independent publications to survive, and local media must contend with various hardships, including threats from armed groups over news coverage.

Although U.S. occupation authorities and the Iraqi government have pledged their support for a free press in Iraq, both took steps to restrict the local media during 2004. In March, the now defunct U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) closed the Iraqi weekly newspaper Al-Hawza, which is affiliated with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, for allegedly inciting violence against coalition forces. CPA officials had objected to an article about a deadly car bomb in a Shiite city south of Baghdad that the paper claimed was a rocket fired by a U.S. Apache helicopter. The CPA also cited an article alleging that the CPA was “implementing a policy of starving the Iraqi public.” The newspaper’s closure was widely viewed as one of the events that helped spark the bloody April uprising by al-Sadr’s forces against U.S. troops.

Interim Iraqi authorities’ record on press freedom has also been spotty. In late January, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) barred Al-Jazeera from covering IGC activities in Iraq because the broadcaster had shown “disrespect to Iraq and its people and harmed prominent religious and national figures.” IGC officials objected to the airing on a popular talk show of allegations that Israel had attempted to assert political influence in Iraq, and that some IGC members and Iraqi political figures have had contacts with Israel or visited the country.

In July, the interim Iraqi government announced the formation of a Higher Media Commission with the authority to impose sanctions, including closure, against news outlets that cross unspecified “redlines” in their coverage. Ten days later, citing an unpublished report by the commission, Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced that Al-Jazeera had been banned from newsgathering in Iraq for 30 days, accusing the station of incitement to violence and hatred. Iraqi officials alleged that Al-Jazeera’s reporting on kidnappings had encouraged Iraqi militants, and a government statement on the ban accused Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for terrorist groups and contributing to instability in Iraq. In September, the ban was extended indefinitely because Al-Jazeera had failed to provide a written explanation for its coverage and had ignored the earlier ban on newsgathering, conducting interviews with people in Iraq. Al-Jazeera continued limited reporting from Iraq but said it was hamstrung by the restrictions.

When U.S.-led forces launched a military assault against insurgents in the northern city of Fallujah in November, the commission issued stern warnings to all media outlets that they should reflect the government’s positions in their reporting or face unspecified action. The commission directed the news organizations to differentiate between “innocent citizens of Fallujah” and insurgents. The commission also instructed journalists not to attach “patriotic descriptions to groups of killers and criminals” and asked the media to “set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear.”

Local and foreign journalists reported increasing incidents of assault, threats, detention, and interference by Iraqi police. In August, police attempted to seize the camera of Knight Ridder photographer Allison Long after she photographed officers beating a suspect near the Baghdad Convention Center. When Long resisted one plainclothes officer who attempted to wrest her camera from her, an officer pointed a gun at her and threatened to shoot her if she did not hand it over. Another officer intervened to halt the attack.

On August 15, during the U.S. military’s standoff against al-Sadr in Najaf, local Iraqi authorities ordered all journalists to leave the city within two hours, citing safety concerns. Police visited the main hotel that housed international media on two occasions and ordered journalists to leave or face arrest. Most eventually left. That same day in front of the Najaf governor’s office, a plainclothes security officer warned journalists to leave in two hours or they would be “shot,” according to British reporters on the scene.

Ten days later, several police, some of them masked and firing weapons, threatened and detained dozens of journalists at the same hotel, according to CPJ sources and international press reports. Officers kicked in hotel doors and pulled reporters out of rooms, with some police threatening to kill journalists who did not leave. The journalists were transported in flatbed trucks to a local police station, where they were held for an hour. Iraqi police told the journalists that they had been detained in response to an Al-Arabiya report that senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was to arrive in Najaf to lead a demonstration.