Attacks on the Press 2006: Iraq


For the fourth consecutive year, Iraq was the most dangerous reporting assignment in the world, exacting a frightening toll on local and foreign journalists. Thirty-two journalists and 15 media support staffers were killed during the year, bringing to 129 the number of media personnel killed in action since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Those numbers easily made Iraq the deadliest conflict for the press in CPJ’s 25-year history. For the first time, murder overtook crossfire as the leading cause of journalist deaths in Iraq, with insurgent groups ruthlessly targeting journalists for political, sectarian, and Western affiliations.

Setting Iraq apart from earlier conflicts was the scale and ubiquity of the danger. For journalists as well as ordinary Iraqis, just stepping out the front door was risky. Suicide bombers, car bombs, murders, and abduction were among the dangers facing reporters, hindering their ability to travel and gather the news. “I don’t drive a car to work because I don’t want to be identified going in and out of the compound where The Washington Post bureau is based. I hail taxis instead, examining each driver’s face in hopes that I can somehow discern whether he is a threat. … Paranoia has become my shield,” Post reporter Bassam Sebti wrote in a first-person account in CPJ’s magazine, Dangerous Assignments, published in May.

Highly visible foreign journalists were obvious targets and increasingly unable to report on the street. The cost of security and insurance to maintain a foreign correspondent in Baghdad was so high that only major outlets could afford to do so. Iraqis took over the primary newsgathering role, and, whether working for a Western media company or one of the new Iraqi outlets that flourished after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they bore the brunt of the appalling violence. All but two of the journalists and media workers killed in 2006 were Iraqis; since 2003, more than 80 percent of all media fatalities were locals. Of the seven journalists kidnapped in 2006, six were Iraqis. At least three were still missing in late year.

The plight of Iraqi journalists became apparent in February, when gunmen murdered one of Arab television’s best-known war correspondents. Atwar Bahjat, a reporter for Dubai-based Al-Arabiya who had gained renown reporting on post-conflict Iraq for Al-Jazeera in 2003, was gunned down along with her cameraman and engineer near Samarra. The crew had been on the outskirts of the city covering the bombing of the Shiite Askariya shrine. The gunmen drove up and demanded to know the whereabouts of “the presenter.” CPJ honored Bahjat posthumously with its International Press Freedom Award in November.

The killings of Iraqi journalists peaked in October with an attack on the Baghdad offices of the fledgling satellite TV channel Al-Shaabiya. Masked gunmen stormed the station, which had not even begun broadcasting, and killed 11 employees. It was the deadliest assault on the press in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Al-Shaabiya was owned by the secular National Justice and Progress Party, which had failed to win any seats in the preceding election.

Western journalists who ventured out on assignment were also targets. Gunmen seized freelance U.S. reporter Jill Carroll, who was on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor, on January 7 as she left the office of a prominent Sunni politician in the Adil neighborhood of western Baghdad. The kidnappers murdered her interpreter, Alan Enwiyah. Carroll’s abduction triggered sympathy and a storm of international protest from journalists, politicians, and religious figures from around the world. She was freed unharmed on March 30.

Similarly, the January bombing that gravely wounded embedded ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt, along with the May attack that killed CBS News cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan and wounded reporter Kimberly Dozier, brought home to the American public the risks journalists faced in telling the Iraq story.

While violence by insurgents posed the greatest threat to reporters, Iraqi journalists said that the U.S. military continued to endanger them and inhibit their work. At least 14 journalists have died from U.S. forces’ fire since the war began, and CPJ is investigating a 2006 death that also may have stemmed from U.S. actions. The U.S. military has failed to fully investigate or properly account for the killings of journalists by its forces in Iraq, CPJ research shows. Nor has it implemented its own recommendations to improve media safety, particularly at U.S. checkpoints. In October, a British inquest into the March 2003 death of ITN journalist Terry Lloyd concluded that Lloyd was unlawfully killed by U.S. troops in southern Iraq three years ago. The Pentagon said an investigation in May 2003 found that U.S. forces had acted in accordance with their rules of engagement. The findings of the U.S. inquiry, however, were not made public.

In October, CPJ filed an appeal under the Freedom of Information Act after the Pentagon refused to release information about the 2003 U.S. bombing of Al-Jazeera television’s Baghdad bureau, which killed reporter Tareq Ayyoub. The appeal followed the revelation by Britain’s Channel 4 that former British Home Secretary David Blunkett had suggested around the time of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq that bombing Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad transmitters might be justified.

Iraqi journalists also faced harassment and detention at the hands of U.S. troops. PBS Frontline producer and former New York Times reporter and photographer Warzer Jaff told CPJ that U.S. troops detained him in early November as he attempted to film the aftermath of a car bombing in Baghdad’s Al-Bataween neighborhood. Soldiers verbally abused him for an hour, cursing his work as a journalist, and confiscated his tape, which was later returned, he said. A U.S. soldier later recorded an obscene gesture on Jaff’s cell phone camera before handing it back to him.

More troubling was the open-ended detention of reporters in the field by U.S. troops. Since March 2003, dozens of journalists—mostly Iraqis—have been held. While most were quickly released, CPJ has documented at least eight cases in which Iraqi journalists were detained for weeks or months before being freed without charges ever being substantiated. One of those was Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, who was detained after being wounded by U.S. forces’ fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials said footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces, but it took them nearly a year to bring any charges. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents.

As Hussein’s ordeal ended, that of another Iraqi journalist began. Associated Press freelance photographer Bilal Hussein was taken by U.S. forces on April 12 in Ramadi and held for “imperative reasons of security.” Yet he was not tried or charged with a crime, and the military disclosed no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. U.S. officials put forward vague accusations against Hussein, such as his alleged close ties to Iraqi insurgents. According to the AP, one of the most specific allegations cited by U.S. officials—that Hussein was involved in the kidnapping of two Arab journalists in Ramadi by Iraqi insurgents—was discredited after the AP investigated the claim. The two abducted journalists had not implicated Hussein in the kidnapping; they had instead singled him out for praise for his assistance when they were released. The military’s only evidence supporting its claim appeared to be images of the released journalists that were found in Hussein’s camera, the AP said.

Only a month before Hussein’s arrest, U.S. Maj. Gen. John Gardner announced a new process to ensure high-level, 36-hour reviews of all journalist detentions. U.S. troops across Iraq, he said, were ordered to report the arrest of anyone claiming to be a journalist to Gardner personally; he said news organizations would be given the chance to vouch for their journalists. “Once a journalist is detained,” Gardner told Reuters, “it comes to me.” The change, he added, was designed to ensure that “we don’t hold someone for six or eight months.” But the new policy applied only to journalists whom the military did not label “security threats,” and it set no apparent standards of due process. Hussein’s detention showed that Iraqi journalists remained vulnerable to long-term detentions without charge.

The Iraqi government was no better in its treatment of journalists. Although media have enjoyed unprecedented freedom since Saddam’s ouster, Iraqi officials harassed, censored, and dragged journalists to court in reprisal for their work.

Iraqi journalists continued to complain about the behavior of Iraqi security forces that threatened or detained reporters or confiscated their equipment. In September, Iraqi authorities detained Tikrit-based Al-Hayat correspondent Kalshan al-Bayati and held her without charge for 26 days. Officials said they suspected her of having ties to insurgents. The journalist had gone to security forces headquarters in Tikrit to retrieve a personal computer confiscated during a raid on her home weeks earlier, when she was also detained. Al-Bayati was working on an article for the Saudi-owned newspaper about insurgents in Saleheddin province, and her prior reporting had been critical of security forces in Tikrit.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continued a disturbing trend of his predecessors by closing down broadcast outlets on vague charges that they were engaged in “incitement.” On September 7, the government closed the Baghdad bureau of Al-Arabiya for one month. Al-Arabiya Executive Editor Nabil Khatib said the government accused the station of fomenting “sectarian violence and war in Iraq” but did not provide evidence. It was the second time Al-Arabiya had been closed by the government in three years. In November 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council, the provisional government appointed by the United States, banned the station from broadcasting in Iraq. Authorities accused it of incitement after it aired an audiotape in which Saddam purportedly urged Iraqis to resist the U.S.-led occupation.

The government continued to enforce the closure of the Baghdad bureau of Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera. It was closed in July 2004 after former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accused the station of incitement to violence and hatred. Iraqi officials alleged that Al-Jazeera’s reporting on kidnappings had encouraged Iraqi militants; a government statement also accused the station of being a mouthpiece for terrorist groups. Al-Jazeera operated openly in the Kurdish-ruled area in northern Iraq and still managed to cover news from other parts of the country through local sources and a network of contacts.

A number of Iraqi journalists faced prosecution for their work under restrictive laws. Editor-in-Chief Ayad Mahmoud al-Tamimi and Managing Editor Ahmed Mutair Abbas of Sada Wasit, a now-defunct daily in the southern city of Kut, faced more than 10 years in prison and heavy fines on defamation charges filed under a law revived from Saddam’s penal code. The case, which drew international attention, languished in the courts throughout the year. Before a court hearing in September, Abbas was mysteriously abducted by unknown gunmen and held for several days.

A surge in criminal prosecutions and draconian penalties against journalists working in Kurdistan signaled an alarming deterioration in press freedom in that region. In January, Kurdish-Austrian writer Kamal Karim was sentenced to 30 years in prison for articles he wrote on Kurdistanpost, an independent Kurdish news Web site, criticizing the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its leader, Masoud Barzani, whom he accused of corruption and abuse of power. Karim was eventually pardoned and released.

Elsewhere in the north, Hawez Hawezi, a high school teacher who wrote for the weekly Hawlati, was summoned by security forces in Sulaymaniyah and arrested. This followed an article criticizing his treatment by security forces when he was held March 17-19 in connection with a separate report critical of the region’s two main political parties. Hawezi had accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of governing the region badly, referring to them as pharaohs.

Also in May, a criminal court in Sulaymaniyah sentenced Twana Osman, editor-in-chief of Hawlati, and Asos Hardi, the paper’s former editor, to six-month suspended jail terms and fines of 75,000 dinars each (US$50) for having published an article alleging that Prime Minister Omer Fatah of the Kurdish regional government ordered the dismissal of two telephone company employees after they cut his phone line for failing to pay a bill.