As journalists become targets more often,a reporter finds a bunker mentality taking hold among the press corps.
By P. Mitchell Prothero
Journalists, by necessity, are fixated on personal security. News organizations have established themselves in compounds of private homes surrounded by blast walls, or in large hotel complexes with extensive security checkpoints. Such precautions, though not unique to the media, reflect a change from a year ago, when journalists preferred lower-profile, less-secure accommodations on the theory that it would make them less likely to be targets.
This bunker mentality has taken hold among the press corps in Iraq for a few reasons. Insurgents have attacked less-secure hotels once used by Westerners, including journalists. The U.S.-led coalition is largely indifferent to journalist safety, and, worse, Iraqi authorities are openly hostile.
And with U.S. government contractors moving almost exclusively within heavily guarded compounds, journalists have become primary Western targets.
This year, a rash of kidnappings has occurred, with publicity-hungry insurgents grabbing the only foreigners consistently available to them: journalists and coalition drivers. “Who are [the insurgents] going to take?” Knight Ridder photographer David Gilkey asks. “They can’t get their hands on anyone else.”
By fall, at least 20 journalists have been abducted for extended periods in 2004, with numerous others held briefly by armed groups. Most were released, but in August, Italian freelance writer Enzo Baldoni became the first to be killed by kidnappers.
Naturally, Gilkey says, the abductions have affected coverage. “Look at the photo wires these days,” he says. “You see only Iraqi names on the photo credits. No breaking news is being shot by Western photogs because none can work these scenes like an Iraqi can.”
Much of the problem is a nationwide perception that Western journalists are spies or profiteers taking advantage of the considerable misery of the Iraqi people. Because almost every journalist under Saddam Hussien’s regime was either censored or compromised, there is little understanding among the public that Western reporters are not shills for their governments.
Many British and U.S. reporters lie to Iraqis about their nationalities and have elaborate cover stories in place should a problem arise with locals. Several journalists have managed to convince coalition officials to put false country-of-origin information on coalition-issued press credentials to lower their profiles. But in many cases, this is not enough. Insurgents have abducted or attacked reporters from a widening range of countries, including nations such as France–not normally considered hostile by Iraqis.
“We see the journalists come and helped them, but what came from it?” asks Omar, an insurgent sympathizer who ask that his full name not be used for safety reasons. He has helped some journalists make contact with more mainstream Iraqi resistance groups but ended up seeing little benefit.
“The journalists did nothing to help us, and now many mujahedeen consider them to be useless or targets,” Omar says. “We think many must be spies for the Americans or Jews.”
Some unexpected relationships have formed, if only as a matter of survival. The Mehdi Army, led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which battled U.S. and British forces in southern Iraq for months, made some efforts to protect reporters covering its activities. And its religious leadership attempted to be honest brokers with the media.
Yet even that has disintegrated since summer. The Mehdi Army is disorganized and has increasingly fallen under the control of gangsters looking to profit from journalists. In August, a Mehdi offshoot held U.S. documentary journalist Micah Garen for more than a week despite the efforts of al-Sadr himself to arrange a release. Garen was eventually freed unharmed and without a ransom, but only after kidnappers who wanted a ransom clashed with the Mehdi leadership, which opposed such a demand.
The breakdown of this most tenuous connection to Mehdi forces–and a rise of even more militant factions–bodes ill for journalists in Iraq. One U.S. photographer, who asked not to be named because he continues to work in Baghdad, says his Mehdi press contact has increasingly turned to financial demands that border on extortion.
“When we first started going in, he would meet us outside the neighborhood and ensure our safety while helping us access stories,” the photographer says. “Now he shows up whenever we enter the neighborhood, even if we don’t call him, and demands $100 even if we don’t need his help.” Such payments are often made.
Government attitudes have worsened the situation. Best-known is the interim government’s bald act of censorship in banning the Qatar-based news network Al-Jazeera from newsgathering in Iraq. Less publicized is the regular police harassment of reporters of every stripe. Such cases have escalated since the transfer of power from the U.S.-led occupation at the end of June.
Iraqi police openly threaten journalists at news events in an effort to block coverage. When Knight Ridder photographer Allison Long took pictures of police beating a suspect in August, she tells CPJ, a uniformed officer tried to wrench away her camera. When she resisted, a plainclothes officer came up from behind, drew and cocked his gun, and pointed it at her, saying he would kill her. A passing Iraqi government official had to intercede.
In June, I was chased and held at gunpoint after photographing Iraqi police and intelligence agents hitting prisoners. Police dragged me for several blocks before a commander finally ordered my release and apologized.
But the worst example of government attacks on the press happened during this summer’s siege at the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. At 10:30 p.m. on August 25, dozens of armed police, many of them masked, stormed a Najaf hotel widely used by journalists. Firing warning shots in the lobby and beating down doors to rooms, police forcibly removed some 60 journalists from the Bahr Najaf Hotel and packed them into waiting trucks without explanation.
“After I was put into the truck, one policeman leaned down and told me in Arabic, ‘Now we are going to take you out and kill you. You will all die.’ It was a clear attempt to terrify us,” freelance photographer Thorne Anderson says.
After being driven in an open truck through a city where major street fighting was continuing, the reporters were herded into a coerced press conference where the chief of police complained about coverage by the Dubai-based news channel Al-Arabiya. The journalists were held for an hour without basis or charge.
The U.S.-led coalition does not counteract such intimidation. One coalition press official privately acknowledges that it wants journalists to embed with its forces or leave Iraq. Otherwise, journalists are on their own. “This is a dangerous combat zone,” he says, “and we don’t need or want you here.”
Reporter and photographer P. Mitchell Prothero has served as CPJ’s Baghdad-based consultant. He has reported from Baghdad, Beirut, and throughout the Middle East for United Press International and other news outlets since 2000.