Kidnappings, Killings Continue; Danger Highest for Iraqis
Nearly five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was launched in 2003, journalists continue to face dangerous reporting conditions in Iraq. On the heels of reports from free press advocacy groups in early 2008 concluding that Iraq remains the deadliest place in the world for journalists, two CBS News reporters were kidnapped in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Feb. 10, 2008.
Negotiations are underway in Iraq for the release of the British journalist, who was kidnapped with his Iraqi interpreter from a hotel in Basra. Reuters reported on Feb. 17, 2008 that the Iraqi interpreter was released on February 13. According to a Feb. 13, 2008 story in The Times of London, an Iraqi police officer confirmed that the Iraqi interpreter was unharmed but was not permitted to talk to the media.
Reuters also reported on Feb. 17, 2008 that the negotiations concerning the British hostage had stalled over the question of how the journalist should be released. A spokesman for Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been involved in the negotiations to free the journalist, told Reuters that the kidnappers did not want to be caught by the police when they released him.
Provincial Police Chief Brig. Gen. Jalil Khahlaf told The Washington Post for a Feb. 11, 2008 story that the two journalists were taken from their hotel in Basra by gunmen wearing the uniforms of Iraq’s security services. A Times story on February 13 stated that the gunmen were posing as policemen. The identity of the kidnappers is unknown, according to the Post. The kidnapped photojournalist is a British citizen whose photographs have been published in The Sunday Telegraph of London, The New York Times, and The Financial Times, but his identity has not been confirmed by CBS News, according to the Times of London.
A senior Iraqi politician told the Times for a Feb. 13, 2008 story that hostage-taking is on the increase in Basra. The southern Iraqi city was originally under British control after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but in December control was handed over to Iraqi authorities. The New York Times reported on Feb. 12, 2008 that before 2005, Western journalists often stayed in the Qasr al-Sultan, the hotel where the two hostages stayed before they were abducted. However, after American journalist Steven Vincent and Iraqi journalist Fakher Haider were killed in Basra in 2005, journalists have preferred to stay in American or British military compounds near the airport.
Recent reports from organizations advocating press freedom indicate that Iraq is the deadliest country in the world for journalists. A year-end report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organization dedicated to defending press freedom, found that Iraq has been the most dangerous country for the media for five consecutive years. CPJ reported that the 31 journalists killed in Iraq in 2007 made up nearly half of the total number of journalists killed world-wide and contributed to making 2007 the deadliest year for journalists in more than a decade.
“Working as a journalist in Iraq remains one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon stated in the report, which is available on the CPJ Web site at http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2007/killed_07/killed_07.html.
The dangerous climate for journalists in Iraq has affected Iraqi journalists in particular. According to CPJ, all but one of the 31 journalists killed in Iraq in 2007 were Iraqi. Most were targeted and murdered. Seven journalists were killed in combat-related crossfire.
CPJ found that a total of 64 journalists were killed in 2007. That number represents an increase from 56 journalists killed last year. In only one other year, 1994, were more journalists killed, in conflicts in Algeria, Bosnia, and Rwanda. (See “Journalists Face Dangers in Iraq” in the Summer 2004 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
The Paris-based free-press advocacy group, Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders or RSF) concluded in its annual report that 47 journalists were killed in Iraq in 2007. The report, which is available on the RSF Web site at http://www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_en-3.pdf, found that the media casualties were comprised of mostly Iraqi journalists, who were the victims of ambushes by armed groups and political-ethnic-religious faction fighting. The report also concluded that 25 journalists were kidnapped in 2007. Most were released unharmed.
In its annual “Press Freedom Round-up” for 2007, which was released Jan. 2, 2008 on its Web site at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24909, RSF stated that “No country has ever seen more journalists killed than Iraq, with at least 207 media workers dying there since the March 2003 US invasion – more than in the Vietnam War, the fighting in ex-Yugoslavia, the massacres in Algeria or the Rwanda genocide.”
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) conducted a similar count of media workers killed in Iraq and concluded that although in the first weeks of 2007, journalists were targeted at horrifying levels, by December 2007 there were signs that the number of media killings in Iraq was beginning to fall. The IFJ annual report, available on IFJ’s Web site at http://www.ifj.org/pdfs/KilledList2007__Final.pdf, attributed this trend to a decrease in the targeting of journalists by warring factions in sectarian disputes.
Nearly 90 percent of U.S. journalists say that Iraq is still too dangerous to visit, according to the results of a survey conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), an arm of the Pew Research Center. The New York Times reported on Nov. 28, 2007 that the PEJ survey respondents included a total of 111 U.S. journalists working for 29 of the 30 U.S.-based news organizations that report regularly from Iraq.
Eight in 10 of the journalists surveyed said they believe that conditions in Iraq have deteriorated since their first posting in the country, according to the study, which is available at http://www.journalism.org/node/8621.
According to a Nov. 28, 2007 Reuters story, as the threat of violence for Western journalists has increased in Iraq, more news organizations have turned to Iraqi stringers and journalists for newsgathering outside of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. CPJ’s statistics demonstrate that reporting conditions have now become dangerous for Iraqi reporters as well.
Reports about the dangers of reporting in Iraq have recently sparked comparisons to journalists’ experience covering the Vietnam War. Some have said that reporting in Vietnam was safer for journalists.
George Esper, a former Associated Press correspondent during the Vietnam War and a professor of journalism at West Virginia University, told the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune for a Jan. 20, 2008 story that reporters in Vietnam never faced the threat of intentional killings and kidnappings, unlike their counterparts in Iraq.
Michael Phillips, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, told the Daily Tribune “I don’t think journalists were targets in Vietnam. It’s one thing to be unarmed in combat and sort of hope that the fact that it says ‘press’ on your flak jacket will catch you a break to the extent that a break can be caught. But it’s another thing where you’re going into a situation and putting ‘press’ onto your flak jacket is equivalent of saying ‘shoot me.’ And Iraq is that place.”
– Amba Datta
Silha Research Assistant