For nearly three years, Mosul journalist Mohammad Talal al-Nuaimi lived in constant fear of being discovered and killed. The seizure of Mosul by the militant group Islamic State, or IS, in early June 2014 and the subsequent targeting of local journalists had forced him into hiding. He was unable to do any media-related work under threat of arrest and execution. Secluded indoors, life in hiding was, in his words, full of boredom and terror.
“It was a dull life. I looked at the world through a peephole. … Many of my friends were arrested or killed. I feared for my family,” the journalist told CPJ.
Al-Nuaimi is one of the handful of journalists who stayed inside IS-held Mosul until the eastern side was retaken by the Iraqi Army in late January 2017, CPJ found during a recent visit to Iraq. Now that he has safely emerged from hiding, he–like other journalists in Mosul–faces a new set of challenges. According to journalists and their advocates, there are no job opportunities, and even as communications are slowly being restored in Mosul, media personnel face censorship and fear.
A radio announcer at the semi-independent FM Shabab and news editor for Sama Mosul TV– which was owned and funded by Atheel al-Nujaifi, then the governor of Nineveh province–al-Nuaimi had received death threats from IS long before the militant group took Mosul, demanding that he stopped reporting the news. Despite the increasing hardship facing journalists then–including targeted assassinations, such as those of Bashar al-Nuaimi, Mohammed Ghanem or Mohammed Karin al-Badrani–he ignored the threats and continued to cover his usual beats, politics and security. However, he also concealed his identity on air behind the pseudonym “Sarmad” to protect himself and his family.
When the Iraqi Army fled Mosul on June 10, 2014, IS took control of eight local TV and radio stations and seized their technical equipment, according to the Iraqi press freedom group Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO). It also began to round up journalists and media workers during raids on their homes and media outlets. JFO said that, as a result, Mosul journalists fled the city en masse.
Al-Nuaimi unsuccessfully tried to flee Mosul three times. When he barely managed to escape an IS night raid on his house in July by fleeing to his neighbor’s, he realized that his attempt to hide behind an alias had been in vain. His name was on an IS’s list of 40 most wanted people because of his jobs as a radio announcer and news editor at the two outlets.
He went into hiding in July 2014 in an area far from his home.
Communications in Mosul had been cut off. Research conducted by CPJ in 2015 showed that, upon capturing the city, IS created a monopoly over information in the territory under its control and accounts of life inside Mosul, including the fate of missing and abducted journalists, became heavily censored and almost impossible to verify.
One Mosul journalist, who prefers to be identified only by initials W.M. for fear of retribution, was not as lucky as Al-Nuaimi. A photographer for Sama Mosul TV since 2011, he used to cover varied beats, ranging from politics to sports, across Nineveh province.
Although he had survived in hiding for a few months, he was taken from his home on October 17, 2014, under a ruling by an IS Sharia court that accused the remaining Mosul journalists of violating the ban on reporting and leaking information to local and foreign media, according to JFO.
For 27 days, W.M. was held in a basement in western Mosul along with six of his Sama Mosul co-workers. JFO said they were charged with providing Nineveh Al-Ghad TV, funded by the former governor al-Nujaifi, with news reports from inside Mosul. In an attempt to make him confess to leaking information about the situation in Mosul, IS militants tortured W.M. physically and psychologically, the journalist told CPJ, but declined to provide further details.
W.M. was eventually released, along with four co-workers, for lack of evidence. Until the retaking of eastern Mosul by Iraqi forces, he stayed at home for fear of being identified and detained again.
Meanwhile, al-Nuaimi remained safe but isolated from the outside world in the house of a relative, on whom he relied for food and supplies. He couldn’t use the phone to talk to his family or friends for fear of retribution on them. Every two or three months, his family would venture out onto the streets of Mosul under the cover of darkness and visit him.
“[IS] searched my house three times and threatened to kill [my family] lest they reveal my whereabouts. They told them I had fled to Baghdad,” he said.
With loneliness taking a toll on his soundness and depression looming over him, al-Nuaimi turned to writing. “I read books and novels. I wrote a book that I hope to publish soon. I couldn’t do my job as a journalist, because journalists were being persecuted,” he said.
Now, he is theoretically free to work, but, he said: “There are no job opportunities for Mosul journalists. Many journalists have returned, but there are no media outlets to employ them. Local TV channels broadcast from outside the city. There are no radio stations or TV channels inside Mosul. I am unemployed.”
Dlovan Barwari, director of the Iraqi journalists’ support group Legal Defense for Crimes Against Press Freedom, told CPJ that the chances of finding jobs for Mosul journalists are slim in the areas retaken from IS.
“Journalists are marginalized and have no chance of working,” Barwari said. “They are often accused of having joined [IS]. The fate of dozens of other Mosul journalists remains unknown. We don´t know if they have been killed or imprisoned or are hiding in their houses. Few journalists are now working again. Probably less than 10.”
With the offensive on western Mosul still underway, CPJ tried to contact by email and phone five other journalists in Mosul, but none replied.
Under IS, civilians in Mosul relied primarily on satellite TV for news from the outside world. According to media reports, as the Iraqi Army began to close in on Mosul, IS, which had already banned the use of mobile phones, restricted access to television in May 2016 and shut down all internet providers in July the same year, thus leaving weak mobile networks on the city outskirts as the only potential source of information and imposing a de facto news blackout.
Since eastern Mosul was retaken, satellite dishes have begun to mushroom again on the rooftops, allowing residents to track the advances of Iraqi forces in western Mosul. News reports confirmed that cellphone services and internet are being restored, but bans on media coverage of military operations are being occasionally imposed. In late March 2017, journalists were banned by Iraqi military authorities from entering the Mosul Jadida neighborhood following an airstrike that killed 150 people.
Direct censorship by the state is only one of several obstacles for the media.
“Almost everything has been destroyed. Journalists are trying to stay safe, but snipers and landmines prevent them from moving freely. There is no stability and they cannot return to their normal lives,” JFO representative Bashar Mandalawi said. “Furthermore, there is no media in Mosul. For instance, Mosuliya TV broadcasts from Irbil and Radio al-Iraq from Qayarah. There are attempts underway to bring back Rasheed Radio, an independent radio headed by Iraqi politician Saad Assem, but that is all. “
Saad Assem and Rasheed Radio did not immediately reply to CPJ’s requests for comment via Facebook and email.
Mandalawi does not expect the situation to improve soon. “Mosul will remain unsafe for journalists in the coming years. We will witness plenty of revenge killings,” he said.
Barwari of Legal Defense for Crimes Against Press Freedom also cited fears of sectarian violence, saying two questions loom over the future of Mosul media: how to resume work without fanning the fires of sectarianism and how to report the news without giving in to political pressure.
As for W.M, the feeling of insecurity has not left him.
“I am still in Mosul. I work for a local news agency,” he said. “I wish I could be elsewhere and feel safe. I have a difficult psychological condition and cannot forget the past. I never feel safe for fear of the future.”
[Reporting from Irbil]