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“You have to be lucky to stay alive in Baghdad” – Dangerous reporting in Iraq

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Originally published for The Backbencher on June 16 2013

As a student in 2003, Mohamad Ali Harissi used to take part in protests against the Iraq war. “I was in love with the story of Iraq, this amazingly beautiful country,” he said. After working as a local reporter in Beirut, he joined Agence France-Presse in 2010. A year later, he was presented with the opportunity to work in Baghdad. “It was like a dream come true.”

But reporting in conflict zones is never easy. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 140 journalists, of whom 117 were Iraqi, were killed in Iraq from 2003 to 2009, making it one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.

baghdad_600x366

Being caught in crossfire was not the greatest risk – CPJ research shows that more journalists were murdered in targeted killings in Iraq than in combat. It is a country where many families will say goodbye to each other before leaving the house, not knowing if they will all come back alive.

“You have to be lucky to stay alive in Baghdad,” Mohamad said. “The worst thing is the sound of explosions, I can’t get used to it.

“In my first week, I heard an explosion. The hotel started shaking and I got scared. After the fifth time it was OK but I still can’t get used to the surprise.

“Each time I felt my heart was moving and it reminds you of the place you’re working in.”

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people felt that life would change drastically and liberty would play its role in the new Iraq. And, according to AFP journalist Ammar Karim, although it was ‘great’ in the first few months of the US led forces, the quality of reporting soon declined, due to the restrictions imposed by the US forces on the one hand and the risks that beset journalists on the other.

U.S. Marines pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad April 9, 2003. (Sean Smith/Getty Images)

Mohamad said that it is more difficult moving around the country, as journalists need to obtain more papers, from the municipalities, for example, for permission.

“If we want to go to do a story, let’s say, a feature about fishermen in Kerbala, I have to take permission from the Karbala Province, the approval of Baghdad, take papers to show at the checkpoints and send the car number plates beforehand,” he said.

“Our job is to write something fast, which is not easy to do here.”

A few weeks ago, Mohamad’s colleague was arrested for merely interviewing people and taking photos after an attack near his compound. While Iraq’s 2005 constitution guarantees freedom of the press in theory, courts have continued to rely on the highly restrictive 1969 penal code to prosecute reporters and media outlets on charges including libel and defamation.

Further to this, the Commission of Media and Communications monitors everything. It has forced media organisations to agree to regulations giving it the authority to halt broadcasts, confiscate equipment, and withdraw licenses, among other powers. Although it is slowly getting better, the beginning of the sectarian conflicts in 2006 meant that foreign journalists could not say who they worked for.

Mohamad has seen many good journalists quitting their jobs, the pressure too much for them to handle. A month ago, an independent newspaper said that it had closed down as there were no more funds. Most money comes from adverts and the government can put pressure on papers by denying them adverts.

It is quite a contrast to working in Beirut. Mohamad explained that it was easier to move around and talk to officials without being labelled a Ba’athist, as opposed to Iraq where officials will simply refuse to give a statement. What is disturbingly similar is the rise of sectarianism, growing rapidly given the conflict across the border in Syria. Many Shi’a fighters are making their way to Syria to fight in order to defend their religion’.

“Iraq is like a bigger Lebanon,” Mohamad laments. Many Iraqi journalists are not objective, reporting according to their religious sect or party. Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian militias continue to exist, and in some cases, are on a path to being recognised as part of Iraq’s security apparatus.

Ammar believes that falling into the hands of the government is much more easier than if they were to fall into the hands of any political or militia group. Most threats come from Islamist parties and the price of criticising them is their life.

“I think all the journalists who were killed was a result of expressing their opinions and this opinion, somehow, hurt a political party or militia group,” he said.

Ironically, people there are more suspicious of their own journalists, wondering if they are Sunni or Shi’a, or which party they belong to. But they are more than happy to talk to with foreign journalists, forgetting all things sectarian. It is funny but sad at the same time. Mohamad has learned a lot since reporting in Iraq. The news, he rightly insists, is never about the story itself, but how it will affect the people and the country. All journalists in Iraq are learning the same lesson.

A sectarian attack in Baghdad

 

With Iraq under sanctions for a decade, followed by the war and subsequent sectarian violence, journalism schools have not really improved, as other priorities include security. In spite of all this, Mohamad is happy to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

“I love this country,” he said. “You feel the history here. Each time I leave the compound, I worry thinking, maybe I won’t be lucky today, but once I start talking to people the tension goes.” To heal wounds is very hard and will take time.

“If society won’t change, the journalist won’t change,” Mohamad explains. “It is all related, the sectarianism. This is the case in the whole region. Everyday I see this war going on and the media is one of the main tools of this work.”

But with the current conflicts and tensions rising in Syria and Lebanon, Iraqis could be waiting a very long time for a freer press.

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Written by Iram Ramzan

June 16, 2013 at 9:29 pm

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