Helicopter Iraq

Image from 2007 shows a Black Hawk helicopter over Baghdad

Credit: By US Army on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
The second Iraq war has been described as the "most lethal" for journalists since World War Two. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 151 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992. Agencies in the country itself put the figure at closer to 400. No one has ever been convicted for their deaths.

Conflict and post-conflict areas are traditionally dangerous for journalists, for anyone, but the added factor of residual distrust of the press in the wake of Saddam's brutal regime has left journalism in Iraq on a knife edge.

Where once there was only state-controlled media, there is now the opportunity and ability for anyone to report the news, with all the turbulence that the communications revolution has brought with it. However, the removal of a figurehead, no matter how despotic, led to the sectarian violence and civil war that marked much of the last decade and continues to influence the media outlets and news agencies of the country's fledgling democracy.

To mark the ten year anniversary since the invasion of Iraq by US-led forces, we spoke to a number of journalists, both foreign and Iraqi, in order to hear their experiences of reporting from Iraq then, and now.

In conversations with Journalism.co.uk Nic Robertson, CNN's award-winning foreign correspondent who first reported from Iraq in 1990, and Steven Lee Myers, who was embedded with the US invasion forces of 2003 before becoming the New York Times' bureau chief in Baghdad from 2009 to 2011, both described how Iraq experienced an explosion in newspapers and new media outlets in the early months after the invasion.

"After Saddam fell there was a massive proliferation of newspapers," said Robertson. "It seemed like anyone who wanted to print, who could finance it, was printing. There was just a huge number of newspapers, obviously market forces tapered that off, but there were cases of radio stations being attacked in the early days because the messages they were broadcasting weren't liked."

As this sectarian violence flared and different groups sought to gain the upper hand, the insurgency turned into civil war and, Myers said, it became too dangerous for journalists, or anyone, to be on the streets.

"People returned to the embedding process as that was the only way, really, to get around," he explained.

While Myers could have the protection of heavily armed guards and properly-planned excursions into the more dangerous areas of Baghdad and Iraq on the whole, the majority of journalists did not have such reassurance.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iraq was the deadliest country in the world for journalists for six consecutive years from 2003 to 2008. It was during this time that journalists started receiving threats, not only from militias and insurgents but also government supporters, as Al-Jazeera's Dahr Jamail told Journalism.co.uk.

"On my last trip, which was a little over a year ago, I spoke with a man named Adnan Hussein, he's the editor-in-chief and deputy director of Iraq's Al-Madad newspaper, it's one of the biggest papers in the country," explained Jamail.

"He wrote a critical article back in 2006 about then prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari and he said something like 'Jaafari speaks too much'. He got an email from someone in the Jaafari camp basically saying 'if you're in Baghdad we're going to kill you and throw you in the garbage like the dogs'."

Jamail saw this as the start of a "disturbing trend" under interim prime ministers where journalists would be regularly threatened, a trend he said has intensified during current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's time in power since 2006. In the case of Hussein this turned out to be an empty threat.

Osama Mohammed, the Iraqi-born bureau chief of Al-Jazeera English in Baghdad, also highlighted the impact of the ownership of newspapers and television channels, which are largely run by political parties or sectarian groups, with their own agenda.

"The journalists are caught in the middle," said Mohammed. "Those who actually follow a certain set of agendas are actually being targeted and to some extent eliminated by the Iraqi government."

Myers detailed one case of a story he wrote for the New York Times in 2010 about radio talk show host Hadi Al-Mahdi. A playwright, filmmaker and columnist, Mahdi was a born contrarian and was jailed during Saddam's regime for staging an Iraqi re-imagining of Machiavelli's 'The Prince'.

"In my mind he sort of represented the great flourishing of new media or the new journalism," said Myers. "He wasn't a journalist per se, he was just a terrific guy, he was hilarious and his radio show was acerbic and humourous and he would just eviscerate the politicians. I don't want to demean him by saying he was like our Rush Limbaugh because he was better than that."

In late 2011 his body was found in his home. He had been shot twice in the head. No one has ever been prosecuted for his murder, or any other murder of a journalist in Iraq since the CPJ began monitoring this galling statistic in 1992. Iraq has topped this impunity index for the last five years.

With so many political groups attempting to rally support and silence detractors in the wake of the civil war, threats and intimidation have been a regular occurrence from all sides. In the month after Mahdi's murder, Reporters without Borders documented three cases of attacks or arrests on journalists: unidentified gunmen fired on a reporter for the state-owned Al-Iraqiya TV in Nasriyah, soldiers raided the home of a reporter for Al-Sharq in Fallujah - which authorities denied involvement with - and a TV executive was arrested on a charge of defamation in the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah.

This came within months of the Orwellian 'Journalist Protection Law' being passed into statute, a law drawn up in conjunction with the Saddam-era Iraqi Journalists Syndicate trade union for journalists, which Mohammed says is firmly in the government's pocket.

"I'm so sorry to speak of that but anyone who wants to climb the ladder of fame and be the head of the journalist's syndicate needs to work hand-in-hand with the government," said Mohammed, "and the government needs to be pleased with his work and actually please him as well. So we end up, as journalists, not getting all our rights."

The law offers $500 compensation to the families of full-time journalists who are injured or killed in the line of duty but conditions all journalistic rights on "respect for the law".

As Reporters without Borders explains in more detail, specific law or laws are never referenced and when articles in the law refer to publishing rights, journalist's tools and accessing information, amongst others, feature this caveat of "respect for the law".

For example, one section, Article 8, states that "the journalist cannot be held responsible for his opinions or the information he publishes, and these opinions or this information cannot be regarded as reasons for causing him any prejudice, unless his actions are contrary to the law."

Jamail is concerned that the law change will give the government more power to restrict journalists, largely in the form of limiting access and journalists' ability to report on events.

In covering the protests in Anbar province, government checkpoints have been a particular problem, he said.

"I've spent four hours sitting on my rear end at check points waiting for Baghdad to "ok", give us the permission to go through, even though we were fully credentialled journalists with a fully operational bureau here in the country," said Jamail.

"So those type of tactics are being implemented as well. It doesn't make it impossible for us but it sends a very clear signal as to the stories they don't want you to cover."

Duraid Adnan, a young, enthusiastic Iraqi who was hired by Myers to work for the New York Times, experienced similar problems going to Anbar. Despite having the proper paperwork he was held at a checkpoint for two and a half hours waiting for "permission" from Baghdad. By that time the protest was over.

"For this case when it's hard to get the letter from the Baghdad operational command or something, I think it's about the protesting," Adnan told Journalism.co.uk. "He doesn't want more foreign media to cover this so the international media would cover it and the whole world would know what's going on here."

Despite the slippery slope back to "old habits of controlling the media", as Myers put it, the influx of new technology has revolutionised how journalists organise themselves and how they source stories, which leaves the door to greater freedoms in the future ajar.

As an example of such organisation, Adnan Hussein, who was threatened with being "thrown in the garbage", is now president of a new trade union, the National Syndicate for Journalists. This new syndicate rejects the new law and the restrictions on journalism outright and calls on journalists across the country to hold the government to account.

Al-Monitor goes into greater detail on the arguments between the rival organisations but in terms of progressing towards greater freedom of press and therefore greater freedom of expression, a legitimate challenge to the established norm is always the first step.

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