"You work against us. In your work, you criticize militias. We watched your videos and you talk against us. You will pay the price for it," an anonymous voice said on the other end of the line to freelance reporter Azhar Al-Rubaie.
The call came in September, a few days after a video showing al-Rubaei interviewing a protester went viral. Al-Rubaie had been covering one of the many demonstrations held in the southern Iraqi city of Basra since July to protest deteriorating living standards, when a masked protester carrying a portrait of adult actress Mia Khalifa drew his attention.
"I asked him what message he was trying to convey by carrying that photo and he asked me to point him to a single politician in Iraq that was more honorable than Khalifa, so he could go complain to him about the lack of water, electricity, sanitation, and jobs in Basra. He said that Khalifa gave him more comfort than any politician," Al-Rubaie, who works for the London-based The Arab Weekly and the independent Iraqi broadcaster Sky Michigan TV, told CPJ.
Al-Rubaie tried, to no avail, to find out who was behind the threatening call. He said he believes the caller is linked to one of the Iran-backed militias operating in Basra.
Iraqi authorities chiefly relied on militias, some of which are funded by Iran and prominent Iraqi religious figures, to oust the militant group Islamic State. After defeating the extremists in 2017, those militias were recognized by the then Iraqi prime minister as an official security force. Militia leaders, including Hadi al-Amari, the head of the Iran-backed militia Badr Organization, have taken advantage of the militias' popularity to enter politics.
Up until the threatening call, Al-Rubaie said he had felt safe covering the protests and the heavy-handed response to them by security forces and militias that have targeted activists and protesters, but he was also acquainted with the dangers for journalists in Basra.
Between the beginning of the protests in July and the release of its findings on September 18, the Iraqi press freedom group Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) documented at least 15 instances of journalists who were assaulted, detained, or prevented from covering the protests by security forces and armed groups. Some, including a Reuters photographer, Essam al-Sudani, were cited by JFO as saying that the security forces had seized their equipment and erased footage or pictures of the protests.
"The SWAT police prevented me from covering a protest in September, but I insisted on filming, so they hit me in the back with their truncheons, broke my phone, and seized all my equipment, which they returned hours later," Al-Rubaie said, referring to the police emergency response unit.
In response to the threats, Al-Rubaie decided first to move house in Basra and eventually to leave for the United States in December. CPJ is aware of at least four other journalists who left Basra because of threats and abuse by security forces and militias.
Two of those declined to comment for this article, out of fear that family members still in Basra could be attacked.
Safaa Khalaf, an exiled investigative journalist and scholar from Basra, said, "Security forces and militias are targeting journalists working for foreign media and local journalists working for semi-independent local outlets to prevent them from covering not only the protests, but also corruption, the proliferation of illegal weapons and drugs, and the increasing influence of Iran."
Khalaf added, "However, those working for outlets owned by political parties and Shia militias enjoy generous funding and the protection of militias, which is why protesters torched the offices of several media outlets affiliated with Shia parties and militias, as well as the state-owned broadcaster, simply for their stance against the protests or for neglecting to cover them."
Last year, CPJ documented how protesters targeted outlets owned by political parties or Shia militias, including the state-owned broadcaster Al-Iraqiya TV and Al-Forat TV, which is affiliated with the Hikma Movement of the Iraqi Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim. According to JFO, masked protesters also torched the Basra office of Al-Ghadeer TV, a broadcaster affiliated with the Iran-backed Badr Organization, in September.
The Badr Organization didn't immediately reply to CPJ's emailed request for comment for this article.
Laura Yousuf, a reporter and human rights and LGBTIQ activist who fled Basra in October, told CPJ that the Iran-backed militias, including the Badr Organization and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, pose a threat to journalists.
Yousuf, who was reporting for Al-Janoob News Agency and monitoring human rights violations for Al-Amal Organization, a local non-governmental organization that promotes human rights and gender equality across Iraq, said SWAT forces arrested and beat her for filming the protests on September 4. Less than an hour later she was released after claiming she worked for the pro-Iran broadcaster Al-Marbad TV and signing a document saying she would never take part in protests again.
Barely a week later, an unknown person on the street threatened to kill her. Yousuf told CPJ that her partner was warned that they were on a Badr Organization "hit list" for promoting civic engagement and LGBTIQ rights in Iraq. That's when Yousuf left Iraq.
The Basra journalists with whom CPJ spoke described a feeling of helplessness as these abuses go unpunished, even when evidence is on their side.
"Journalists are insulted almost every day. If our reports don't appeal to those in power, we are threatened. Since the protests began, I have been detained three times by security forces and militias," one journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told CPJ. "While covering a demonstration in December 2018, I was detained for more than three hours. When I told them I was a journalist and produced my press card, they insulted me, put a bag over my head and beat me with a rope. They threatened to arrest me again if I kept covering protests. A few days later, a threatening letter was left at my doorstep. It was the third," the journalist, who showed CPJ pictures and videos of his injuries, said.
Their accounts are in line with a 2018 report by the National Union of Iraqi Journalists, which identified authorities, armed groups, and political parties as the main threats to Iraqi journalists and highlighted the government's failure to hold perpetrators of violations against journalists accountable for their crimes.
An assault by Walid Kitan, the head of the Basra Provincial Council, on Safaa al-Furaiji, a correspondent for Al-Amal radio, while he was covering a news conference in Basra in November illustrates the impunity with which press freedom violations are committed in Basra.
According to the local press freedom group Iraqi Center for Supporting Freedom of Speech and Mohammad al-Jabri, a reporter for Radio al-Rasheed who was with al-Furaiji at the time, Kitan punched al-Furaiji for no reason in a corridor at the Basra governorate building and asked his bodyguards to take out him and al-Jabri.
When contacted for comment, the Basra Governorate Council's Media Center referred CPJ to the Journalist Syndicate in Basra. The syndicate is a government-affiliated group with no power to investigate assaults. Kitan's office did not immediately reply to CPJ's request for comment, sent via social media.