Iraq was an assignment of unending danger for the hundreds of journalists covering the world’s biggest news story. Journalist murders, deaths in crossfire, abductions, and detentions continued apace, reinforcing Iraq’s distinction as the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist and as one of the deadliest conflicts for media in modern history.
Media casualties mounted at an alarming rate, with 22 journalists and three media workers killed in action in 2005. That brought the total to 60 journalists and 22 media support staff killed since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003. Continuing a trend that began in 2004, most of the casualties were Iraqis, who have assumed central roles in gathering news for local print and broadcast media as well as major international news organizations. More than 75 percent of all media deaths in Iraq since March 2003 have been local, front-line reporters on assignment in places deemed too dangerous for Westerners, or working local beats for domestic news outlets.
Insurgent attacks remained the leading cause of media deaths. In several cases, armed groups hunted down and murdered journalists. The motives for the murders were not always clear; however, some attacks appeared directed against news outlets perceived as supportive of U.S. and coalition forces. These include the national broadcaster, Al-Iraqiya, part of the Iraq Media Network (IMN), which receives funding from the U.S. government. Several of the station’s journalists were murdered or attacked by insurgents during the year, while the station’s offices came under constant artillery fire in cities such as Mosul. Other insurgent attacks on the media, such as attacks on Iraqis working for international news organizations, were interpreted by journalists as attempts by insurgents to intimidate local citizens who work with foreigners, or as efforts to single out people they believed worked with the coalition forces, or were “spies.” Still other attacks came in retaliation for specific news coverage or the editorial line of a reporter’s newspaper.
The case of Al-Iraqiya news anchor Raeda Wazzan underscored the peril. Wazzan was kidnapped in February and found dead five days later on a roadside in Mosul, where the journalist had lived and worked. She had been shot in the head repeatedly. Wazzan’s husband said that his wife had received several death threats with demands that she quit her job. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attacks in Internet postings, but those claims could not be independently verified. Other journalists narrowly escaped death in attacks by armed groups. Jawad Kadhem, an Iraqi correspondent for the Dubai-based satellite-TV channel Al-Arabiya, was shot and seriously injured at a Baghdad restaurant by men who tried to bundle him into a car. An obscure Sunni group calling itself Jund Al-Sahaba claimed responsibility in an Internet posting that called Kadhem “a malicious Shia.” It accused Al-Arabiya of “treason” and of being a “mouthpiece of the Americans.” Like other claims, its authenticity could not be confirmed. Iraqi journalists described several other close calls in which they survived threats or attacks from gunmen or insurgent groups.
Insurgent attacks and kidnappings were not limited to local reporters. In the first three months of 2005, armed groups seized at least seven foreign reporters. They included French reporter Florence Aubenas of the daily Libération, who was seized in Baghdad along with her interpreter and held for more than five months before her release on June 11. In February, Indonesian reporter Meutya Viada Hafid and cameraman Budiyanto, who work for Indonesia’s 24-hour news channel Metro TV, were abducted by gunmen along with their driver and freed after several days. Romanians Marie Jeanne Ion and Sorin Dumitru Miscoci, of the Bucharest-based Prima TV; and Ovidiu Ohanesian, of the daily Romania Libera, were taken with their driver in March and released two months later. And Italian reporter Giuliana Sgrena, of the Rome-based daily Il Manifesto, was held for a month after being abducted in Baghdad on February 4.
Due to the risk of abduction and attack by insurgent groups, foreign reporters, based mostly in Baghdad, sharply curtailed their movements beyond fortified residential compounds or hotels. Many traveled only with considerable calculation and the assistance of armed guards, staying at a location for short periods only. Few ventured on the dangerous insurgent-controlled roads outside Baghdad. In many instances, the only viable option to report from other parts of the country was to embed with the U.S. military. Journalists complained that the security situation had, in large measure, eroded their ability to cover many aspects of the conflict. The spate of abductions appeared to subside by fall, but in October, reporter Rory Carroll of the London daily The Guardian was kidnapped by armed men and released days later unharmed.
In Basra, the southern port city that had witnessed relatively few attacks on journalists, U.S. reporter Steven Vincent was abducted along with his translator and murdered in August. CPJ research found he may have been killed in retaliation for his sensitive reporting on Shiite religious groups in Basra and their infiltration of the local police force, or possibly because of his close relationship with his female Iraqi interpreter, who was gravely wounded in the attack. Fakher Haider, a stringer for The New York Times, was killed a month later in the same city.
Underscoring the vulnerability of the foreign press, three car bombs exploded in October outside the Palestine Hotel, which is widely used by foreigners, including journalists. More than a dozen people were killed. Although there were no media deaths, several journalists inside the hotel were injured. In a similar attack in November, suicide bombers detonated explosive-laden vehicles outside Baghdad’s Hamra Hotel, which houses journalists and contractors. Several Iraqis were killed in the blast, although there were no media casualties.
The 157,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, along with Iraqi armed forces, were yet another source of danger for the media. U.S. forces’ fire remained the second leading cause of journalist fatalities in Iraq. Three journalists were killed by U.S. fire in 2005—13 total since 2003—while several more came under fire. One of the fatalities, Waleed Khaled, a sound technician working for Reuters, was shot several times in the face and chest as he drove with cameraman Haidar Kadhem to investigate a report of clashes between armed men and police in Baghdad’s Hay al-Adil district. On September 1, chief military spokesman in Baghdad Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said soldiers had followed “established rules of engagement” and acted in an “appropriate” manner when they opened fire on Khaled’s vehicle, but military officials provided no further details, and it was unclear whether the results of the military’s investigation would be released.
The military’s record on investigating journalist deaths in Iraq suggested that they might never be made public. A CPJ study published in September showed that the U.S. military repeatedly failed to fully investigate, or properly account for, the killing of journalists by its forces in Iraq, or to implement its own recommendations to improve media safety, particularly at U.S. checkpoints.
Approaching U.S. checkpoints could at times be a hair-raising experience, according to journalists and other civilians. Protocols remained unclear more than two years after hostilities began, despite recommendations from CPJ, human rights groups, and the military itself for improving safety. Several journalists described coming under fire when approaching checkpoints or when operating near U.S. troops.
CPJ and Human Rights Watch wrote to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in June, expressing “ongoing concern about the U.S. military’s failure to develop and implement adequate procedures at military checkpoints in Iraq.” This followed the release of a military investigation into the checkpoint killing of an Italian agent shot by U.S. troops while spiriting journalist Sgrena to safety.
The two organizations noted, “More than two years after the March 2003 invasion, flawed checkpoint procedures continue to unnecessarily endanger the lives of civilians and U.S. service members.” The letter to Rumsfeld also pointed out that in its own report on the Sgrena shooting the U.S. military recommended installing temporary speed bumps and spike strips at checkpoints to slow down vehicles, launching a public awareness campaign to educate the Iraqi population about how to safely approach checkpoints, and using signs in both Arabic and English to warn drivers. However, none of these recommendations appeared to have been implemented by year’s end. This became apparent in October when several reporters came under fire without warning from U.S. and Iraqi forces at checkpoints near the International Zone in Baghdad.
Working around U.S. and Iraqi troops carried other risks. Troops routinely detained Iraqi journalists who operated near U.S. and Iraqi forces. Others were detained in neighborhood sweeps by the military. In 2005, CPJ documented seven cases in which reporters, photographers, and cameramen were detained for prolonged periods by U.S. forces without charge or the disclosure of any supporting evidence. The detentions involved journalists working for CBS News, Reuters, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse, among others. At least three documented detentions exceeded 100 days; the others spanned many weeks.
In at least five cases documented by CPJ, the detainees were photojournalists who initially drew the military’s attention because of what they had filmed or photographed. In several cases, U.S. military officials voiced suspicions that some Iraqi journalists collaborated with Iraqi insurgents and had advance knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. But the military did not provide evidence to substantiate its claims, despite repeated inquiries over many months, and journalists previously detained on such suspicions were released without charge.
When CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1, at least four detainees were in U.S. custody. One of them, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, an Iraqi cameraman working for CBS News, was taken into custody after being wounded by U.S. forces’ fire on April 5 while he filmed clashes in Mosul, in northern Iraq. CBS News reported at the time that the U.S. military said footage in the journalist’s camera led them to suspect he had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. AFP cited U.S. officials as saying the journalist “tested positive for explosive residue.” No charges were made public, and the evidence used to hold him remained classified. The New York Times reported that the U.S. military referred Hussein’s case to Iraqi justice officials, who reviewed Hussein’s file but declined to prosecute him. Nevertheless, Hussein remained in U.S. custody. U.S. military officials issued unspecified accusations that Hussein was “engaged in anti-coalition activity,” and that he had been “recruiting and inciting Iraqi nationals to violence against coalition forces and participating in attacks against coalition forces.” Military officials did not provide evidence to support those accusations.
Even Iraqi officials took exception to the detentions. In September, Justice Minister Abdul Hussein Shandal criticized prolonged detentions by the U.S. military and expressed concerns that journalists were not being afforded appropriate protection in reporting on Iraq.
In March, the U.S. military said it would not reopen a military investigation that cleared U.S. troops of allegations that they abused three Reuters employees in Fallujah in January 2004. Reuters said military investigators never interviewed the three employees—cameraman Salem Ureibi, journalist Ahmad Mohammad Hussein al-Badrani, and driver Sattar Jabar al-Badrani—but had them fill out a written questionnaire. The three Reuters employees, along with Ali Mohammed Hussein al-Badrani, a cameraman working for NBC, were covering the aftermath of the downing of a U.S. helicopter when they were detained by U.S. troops on January 2, 2004. The four were taken to a U.S. base near Fallujah and released three days later without charge. The Reuters employees alleged that they were beaten and deprived of sleep. They said they were forced to make demeaning gestures as soldiers laughed, taunted them, and took photographs, Reuters reported. Two alleged they were forced to put a shoe in their mouths, and to insert a finger into their anus and then lick it.
Despite the military’s indifference, the issue of journalist deaths, checkpoint safety, and journalist detentions at the hands of the U.S. military did get the attention of the U.S. Congress. In October, U.S. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced concerns at a hearing in Washington with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and senior commanders. “I raised the question of the safety of the press in Iraq and their ability to carry out the very important function of reporting to the American people,” Warner told reporters after the hearing. “I’ve discussed it with the secretary. He’s going to take it under immediate consideration.” By December, though, there was little indication that the Pentagon had taken steps to address journalists’ concerns.
The overall press freedom situation in Iraq wasn’t entirely bleak. Iraqi media have flourished since the fall of President Saddam Hussein, who controlled the media with an iron fist, brooking no independent news or opinions. Today, dozens of newspapers and magazines, ranging from political broadsheets to independent dailies, compete for readers and offer a multitude of opinions to citizens. Private radio and television stations also provide local programming, complementing that of the state broadcaster, which is part of the U.S.-backed IMN. A new generation of independent Iraqi journalists serves a growing number of domestic outlets and international news organizations.
Still, Iraqi officials harassed journalists in a number of instances. Ayad Mahmoud al-Tammimi and Ahmed Mutare Abbas of the daily Sada Wasit were detained in April after being sentenced to two and four months in prison, respectively, for allegedly defaming former Wasit provincial governor Mohammad Reda al-Jashamy. The newspaper had published articles accusing al-Jashamy of corruption and human rights abuses. Both men were released from jail, but faced new charges of defaming al-Jashamy, the police, and the judiciary in other articles published in the paper. If convicted, they face seven to 10 years in prison.
The government also kept in place its indefinite ban against Al-Jazeera, which has been prohibited from newsgathering in Iraq since former Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced in July 2004 that the station had been barred for 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. Al-Jazeera was still able to cover news from Iraq through local sources, stringers, and a network of contacts.