Eleven journalists were killed because of their work, making Iraq the most dangerous nation for the press for the sixth consecutive year. Nevertheless, the figure was the lowest yearly toll since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003–and two-thirds lower than the annual figures for 2007 or 2006.
The marked decrease in fatalities was consistent with an overall decline in violence that began in 2007. Analysts pointed to a variety of factors: the increase in U.S. troop levels that began in 2007; the turning of Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters in Anbar province and elsewhere in western Iraq; a cease-fire declared by independent Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr against U.S.-led coalition forces; a sophisticated U.S. campaign to kill al-Qaeda and other armed opposition leaders; and the consolidation of sectarian control of neighborhoods in the wake of widespread ethnic cleansing.
All of the journalists killed in 2008 were Iraqis working for domestic news outlets, underscoring the declining presence of Western news media. Domestic media continued to cover the news aggressively. “There are still plenty of Iraqi journalists out doing their jobs,” Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief Sudarsan Raghavan told CPJ. “The Iraqi media seem pretty vibrant.”
The decline in media deaths, Raghavan and others said, was consistent with overall trends. With the relative decrease in violence, foreign journalists found conditions more secure than they had been since the first year of the war. “They could travel in ways they had not done in years,” said NPR correspondent Anne Garrels, a CPJ board member. “Very gradually, reporters began venturing out in the city, and then farther afield,” she said, while noting that it remained “hard to know what’s safe and what is not.”
In November, the Iraqi parliament approved a security agreement that calls for full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011, a vote that signaled a potential winding down of the war. That, along with the inauguration of Barack Obama as U.S. president in January 2009, was expected to generate renewed interest from news media in covering a new chapter in the war.
Journalists newly arriving in Iraq will still find an unpredictable security landscape. ”If security continues to improve or at least is maintained at its current rate, it will make it easier for both foreign and local journalists to operate here,” Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon told CPJ in November. “But whether the reduction in violence is sustainable remains unclear.”
Despite an overall decline in violence, two trends from previous years continued: Most media victims were singled out and murdered, and Iraqi authorities remained unable to apprehend and punish those responsible. Iraq is ranked first worldwide on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of the population.
In one potentially encouraging step, Iraqi authorities arrested five suspects in the September killings of three journalists and a media worker in Mosul. If convicted, the suspects would be the first to be apprehended and punished out of more than 130 murders of journalists and media workers since the conflict began in 2003. Authorities said Al-Sharqiya correspondent Musab Mahmood al-Ezawi, camera operators Ahmed Salim and Ihab Mu’d, and driver Qaydar Sulaiman were slain after being abducted as they filmed a story about families breaking the Ramadan fast.
CPJ documented six abductions in 2008, a decline from prior years when abductions averaged more than a dozen a year. One notable case was the February kidnapping in Basra of Richard Butler, a producer and photographer on assignment for the CBS News program “60 Minutes.” Butler was freed, unharmed, in April when Iraqi forces raided the house where he was being held.
An attempted kidnapping in May led to the slaying of Sarwa Abdul-Wahab, a freelance contributor for the Iraqi Web site Muraslon. Gunmen shot Abdul-Wahab on a Mosul street when she resisted their attempts to bundle her into a passing car, the journalist’s mother, Amira Wasfi, told CPJ. “I was screaming and shouting to leave her alone. They hit me on my head with the end of a machine gun and I fell on the street.” Wasfi said. “The neighbors were there watching, but nobody helped me save my daughter.” Abdul-Wahab had received telephone threats in which she was told to quit her job or face reprisal.
In all, five journalists were slain in Mosul, making it the deadliest Iraqi city for the press in 2008. Mosul was the scene of numerous bombings, murders, and ethnic-based attacks during the year as insurgents and Iraqi security forces vied for control, according to press reports.
Mohieldin al-Naqeeb, a news presenter for Al-Iraqiya television, was murdered in Mosul in a drive-by shooting in July. He, too, had received unspecified death threats. At least 27 employees of the Iraq Media Network, the U.S.-funded network that includes Al-Iraqiya, have been killed in direct relation to their work since 2003, CPJ research shows. No other news outlet has lost as many employees.
One death in Iraq was of disputed origin. Witnesses said Wisam Ali Ouda, a cameraman for Al-Afaq television, was hit by U.S. sniper fire as he was walking home in Baghdad in May, the station reported. U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder disputed the statements, telling CPJ that no U.S. forces were conducting operations in the area at the time. Over the course of the war, U.S. forces’ fire has accounted for about 12 percent of journalist deaths.
While overall violence declined, major press freedom concerns arose in Iraqi Kurdistan. Regarded by many as the nation’s success story, Iraqi Kurdistan has boasted a relatively stable government and a growing economy. Although it had seen sporadic terrorist bombings, the region avoided the sustained violence that beset central and southern Iraq for years.
But in a May special report, “The Other Iraq,” CPJ documented an ominous, three-year rise in repression in Iraqi Kurdistan, a trend that included detentions and legal harassment, along with a wave of unsolved abductions and assaults. Some of the most forceful actions targeted journalists who reported critically on Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Talabani himself sent an alarming message in January, when he filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against the editor of the Kurdish weekly Hawlati for translating and publishing a critical article by Michael Rubin of the nonprofit American Enterprise Institute.
A CPJ delegation traveled to Arbil in May to release the organization’s special report and meet with Barzani and other top officials. CPJ board member Michael Massing, Deputy Director Robert Mahoney, and Senior Program Coordinator Joel Campagna urged Barzani to investigate violent attacks against the press, to end official harassment of journalists, and to support legislation that conformed to international standards of press freedom.
Barzani told CPJ that his government was committed to creating an atmosphere “conducive to journalism” and that “it would be intolerable to have someone arrested in freedom of expression cases.” Asked about harassment of journalists by security forces, he said that agents were clearly instructed “not to violate the rights of individuals.” Still, Barzani bemoaned what he called a lack of professionalism among journalists and said the news media “should not be used as a tool for denigrating others.”
In September, the Kurdistan regional parliament adopted press legislation that removed prison penalties for defamation. But the law, which took effect in October, was not without problems. The measure barred journalists from reporting material that “creates instability and spreads fear and intimidation,” that is considered provocative to religious faiths, or that entails information about a person’s “private life … if publishing would damage his reputation.” The law set monetary penalties of up to five million Iraqi dinars (US$4,271) for individual journalists and up to 20 million (US$17,085) for news outlets.
Throughout much of the past two years, delegates in the Iraqi Kurdistan regional parliament had pushed for even harsher press legislation. Barzani had resisted a previous version of the bill that retained prison penalties and allowed the government to close news outlets.
Problems arose with enforcement of the new legislation. Within weeks of the law’s enactment, trial courts in Iraqi Kurdistan defied new provisions barring prison penalties. An appeals court quickly freed Shwan Dawdi, editor of the Kirkuk newspaper Hawal, after he was unlawfully jailed in November on a defamation charge. Adel Hussein, a freelance contributor to the weekly Hawlati, was jailed on an obsolete charge of violating “public custom” when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. He was later freed after Barzani intervened and issued a presidential pardon.
The Sulaymaniyah-based magazine Livin was among the regional publications that faced reprisals, CPJ found. In July, one of its reporters was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in front of his Kirkuk home. Soran Mama Hama, 23, had received threatening messages before the slaying, local journalists told CPJ. His last article in Livin recounted the prevalence of prostitution in Kirkuk and alleged the complicity of police and security officials. In the article, Mama Hama claimed that he had collected the names of ”police brigadiers, many lieutenants, colonels, and many police and security officers” who were clients.
Ahmed Mira, Livin’s editor-in-chief, told CPJ that the slaying was intended to “silence the free voices in Kirkuk.” He called the murder “a very dangerous” development for the region’s news media. No arrests were reported.
Journalists in central and southern Iraq faced harassment from national security forces. In March, Iraqi national authorities in Baghdad announced that journalists must stay away from the scenes of explosions because access could lead to further injuries. Iraqi security forces interpreted this as a green light to interfere with the press, many journalists told CPJ. In May, Iraqi security forces at the scene of an explosion in Basra assaulted Agence France-Presse photographer Isam al-Sudani and deleted his images, the journalist told CPJ. Imad al-Khuzaei, a freelance camera operator for Reuters and Al-Baghdadiya, said police in Diwaniya detained him and destroyed his equipment under similar circumstances in June. The same month, more than a dozen Iraqi journalists working for various media were roughed up and detained by security guards while they were trying to interview bombing victims at the Al-Karkh Hospital in Baghdad.
U.S. military forces continued to hold journalists in open-ended detention without charge, although they released Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein after holding him for two years without due process.
Hussein, an Iraqi who shared in the AP’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize for photography, was detained by U.S. forces in April 2006 and held on vague and shifting allegations that he had ties to Iraqi insurgents. U.S. authorities never charged Hussein with a crime or publicly disclosed evidence against him. In November 2007, the U.S. military informed AP that it would refer Hussein’s case to the Iraqi justice system for possible prosecution. By April 2008, an Iraqi judicial committee dropped legal proceedings against him and ordered him freed under the country’s amnesty law, which closes a case and does not reflect guilt. A separate Iraqi panel ordered a “halt to all legal proceedings” against Hussein. The U.S. military agreed to release the journalist after determining that he “no longer presents an imperative threat to security.” In November, CPJ honored Hussein with an International Press Freedom Award.
Over the last five years, dozens of journalists–mostly Iraqis–have been detained by U.S. troops without charge, according to CPJ research. In at least 12 cases, journalists were held for prolonged periods in Iraq. No charges have been substantiated in any of the cases.
U.S. military forces held Associated Press Television News camera operator Ahmed Nouri Raziak for three months after arresting him in June at his home in Tikrit. A U.S. military review board ordered that Raziak be held “for imperative reasons of security” but did not reveal the allegations or evidence against him. Raziak was freed in August. The month before, U.S. forces detained Reuters camera operator Ali al-Mashhadani for three weeks after arresting him inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, where he had gone to renew his press card. He, too, was freed without charge.
One journalist remained in U.S. custody when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam was arrested in September near his home in Mahmoodiya, south of Baghdad. A U.S. military spokesman told CPJ that he was deemed “a threat to the security of Iraq and coalition forces.” No charges or evidence were disclosed.
“Any accusations against a journalist should be aired publicly and dealt with fairly and swiftly, with the journalist having the right to counsel and to present a defense,” Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger said in a statement.
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