Too many triggermen, too little justice in Iraq

The Iraqi city of Mosul is once again one of the world’s deadliest places for journalists. In the past two months, the capital of Nineveh province has witnessed a series of targeted assassinations that, according to local press freedom groups, have led to an exodus of journalists from the city fearing for their safety.

In the latest incident, gunmen shot Alaa Edward Butros near his home in northern Mosul on November 24, killing him instantly (some reports said his name was Alaa Edwar). Butros worked as a freelancer for multiple local channels, including most recently al-Rasheed and Nineveh al-Ghad.  

A local journalist who knew Butros told CPJ that he had received anonymous death threats in the days before his death demanding he quit his work. Yet, as is typical in Iraq, the government does not seem willing or capable of conducting a serious investigation. Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that witnesses and family members had not yet been contacted by the authorities about the killing.

The murder of Butros comes after two journalists for the independent TV channel al-Sharqiya, Mohammed Ghanem and Mohammed Karim al-Badrani, were shot and killed while filming a market in Mosul on October 5. Two weeks later, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Bashar al-Nuaimi, a cameraman for the local Al-Mosuliya TV channel. The identities of the culprits remain unknown.

According to the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, Iraqi security forces recently discovered a purported assassination list of 44 journalists during a raid on a building housing militants.  It is not clear if any of the most recent killings were related to this list, but several journalists in Mosul say anti-government militants are targeting journalists considered supportive of the government.

At least three former journalists working for the Iraqi government also was targeted recently. On Monday, unknown gunmen shot and killed Adel Muhsin Hussein, who is both an adviser to Nineveh Governor Atheel Nujaifi and a representative of the Iraq Journalists Right Defence Association, according to the association and news reports. Two others working as spokesmen for Governor Nujaifi, Saad Zaghloul and Qahtan Sami, have also been killed in recent months, news reports said.

While not likely targeted specifically for any journalistic work, their killings form part of a larger context of violence and impunity in Mosul that threatens journalists and non-journalists alike. This violent trend hearkens back to the darkest days of the Iraq War, when one in six journalists killed in the country died while working in Mosul, according to CPJ research. Iraq remains the worst country in the world on CPJ’s Impunity Index, for failing to hold to justice a single killer for the murder of at least 93 journalists in the past decade.

The fear is that this recent trend not only hearkens back to dark days but foreshadows more to come. Mosul, with all of its sectarian divisions, has long acted as a bellwether for the rest of the country. It was only a matter of time before the spike of general violence across the country that has led to at least 6,000 deaths would also affect journalists.

Even the relatively stable Kurdish region witnessed deadly violence against a journalist on Thursday, when unknown gunmen shot and killed Kawa Garmyane outside his home in Kalar. News reports said Garmyane, an editor for the news website Rayel, had received threats in relation to his coverage of corruption.

These killings are a significant deterioration from 2012, a landmark year in which no journalists were killed for their work in Iraq for the first time since the 2003 American invasion. That brief reprieve was part of a larger decrease in overall political violence, but that reprieve now seems to be over. And just as the underlying causes of political violence in Iraq were never resolved, neither have the underlying drivers of violence against journalists. There are simply too many triggermen ready to silence journalists, knowing full well that there is little that can stop them.