Photos of children who lost their documents while fleeing militants in Mosul are displayed at an Iraqi passport office. Many journalists fled the violence but the fate of those who remained is hard to determine. (AFP/Safin Hamed)
Photos of children who lost their documents while fleeing militants in Mosul are displayed at an Iraqi passport office. Many journalists fled the violence but the fate of those who remained is hard to determine. (AFP/Safin Hamed)

Chasing ghosts: Tracking Iraq’s missing journalists in Islamic State stranglehold of Mosul

Amar hasn’t left his house in five days. Every evening he fears a knock on the door will bring militants who have been searching for him. He hasn’t earned a salary in more than a year and relies on a few trusted neighbors to bring him food.

Amar lives in Mosul, the Iraqi city seized by the militant group Islamic State last year, and although he has committed no crime, he is a wanted man. He told CPJ his story by phone earlier this month. To protect his identity we have used a pseudonym here.

For many years Amar was employed as a writer and stringer. But on June 10, 2014 the Iraqi army melted away during a determined offensive by Islamic State fighters on the city. By nightfall, almost every local newspaper and TV station had closed its doors. Journalists who are now living in exile told CPJ that in the following days, many of them packed up and fled to neighboring cities.

The fate of those who remained has been largely unknown during Islamic State’s 16-month stranglehold on the city, with stories of news outlets ransacked and employees kidnapped from their homes and murdered. A CPJ investigative trip to Irbil in October tried to uncover what happened to about 35 of those who have been reported missing, presumed detained or dead.

In the past 16 months, Islamic State has created a virtual monopoly over the information leaving what it refers to as its territory. Accounts of life inside Mosul have become almost impossible to verify and the militant group’s fighters will kidnap or kill anyone who tries to tell an alternative story, some of the journalists who have escaped said. According to the dozens of former Mosul media workers interviewed by CPJ in Irbil, the number of professional journalists still living in the city is estimated to be no higher than 10, none of whom still report.

Amar is one of the 10 and, through a crackly Facebook phone call, he explained how he has survived. “I do not go out into the streets. As a former journalist, people might recognize me and report me to the police. Daesh has created such a climate of paranoia that I don’t even trust some people in my family [not to turn me in],” he said, using the name Daesh to refer to Islamic State.

“Journalism is of course impossible. If people see you asking questions they will be suspicious. I also cannot get another job like other people have done because my face is known.”

Amar says that his name appeared on a list of “40 most wanted people” that Islamic State distributed within a month of seizing the city. The majority of those on it were members of the security services or journalists during the eras of Saddam Hussein and Nouri al-Maliki, he said. That media workers were considered targets alongside the police boils down to the complex system of patronage, state control, and foreign funding that propped up the city’s media infrastructure, giving the impression that local news outlets were little more than mouthpieces for local politicians or the Baghdad government and its U.S. backers.

Journalists from channels across the political spectrum, including those close to Mosul governor Atheel al-Nujaifi and his rival al-Maliki, have been attacked and threatened by Islamic State and its predecessors, according to CPJ research. Since 1992, CPJ has documented 105 cases of journalists who were murdered in Iraq, the majority by political groups, making it the deadliest country for journalists.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. poured millions of dollars into establishing TV channels in Iraq. The stations were supposed to be independent outlets, distinct from the privately owned channels of politicians during Saddam Hussein’s rule. As Islamic State fighters swept through Mosul, Tikrit and Anbar, those outlets with financial and ideological links to the U.S. were particularly aggressively targeted, half a dozen former staff at American-funded channels told CPJ.

A former producer at Al-Mosuliya television, who lives in exile in Irbil and says his name also appeared on the 40 most wanted list, told CPJ that even though the channel’s U.S. funding ceased in 2009, a perception that its staff were agents of America stuck. “From day one [of Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul] we were more under threat because of our American links… They smashed our technical equipment and arrested our staff. One of the first journalists to be murdered was presenter Maisloon al-Jawady. She was the public face of the channel, everyone knew her so they went for her first,” the producer, who has not been named to protect his identity, said.

That journalists were targeted for their links to the U.S. and Baghdad is highly likely, but verifying each case as part of this CPJ investigation has been a challenge. For most reports of a journalist murdered by Islamic State, another story exists — that the reporter is alive and living safely in exile; that they are still detained; or even that they never existed. CPJ has been investigating the case of al-Jawady for more than a year, for example, and has heard multiple stories about her fate.

In at least eight cases CPJ is investigating, the names of journalists who were reported by local media and press freedom groups as killed by Islamic State since June 2014 were not recognized by any of their colleagues we interviewed.

Ahmad al-Rubaie, from the Iraqi monitoring group the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said: “These random names appear because unprofessional news outlets are paying people inside the city for information. Civilians in Mosul are desperate and people will make up stories if that is the only way to survive.”

Desperation persists for those who escape. Journalists living in exile in Irbil who spoke to CPJ say the majority of their colleagues are unemployed or working in other industries. The fate of a video editor was one that several journalists said symbolizes the plight of the Mosul media community. The 25-year-old, who was the sole breadwinner for his family and who has not been named for security reasons, escaped Mosul after the TV station he worked for closed down. He traveled to Baghdad in search of work, then to Irbil. After several weeks of being jobless and sleeping rough, he snuck back into Mosul in July 2014.

From there his story has at least three endings: that he survives by working as a street vendor; that he lives in hiding; and that he was killed. “Like most of our colleagues now, [he] is currently just another unknown,” the former Al-Mosuliya producer told CPJ.

[Reporting from Irbil, Iraq]