Frontline World

Iraq - Reporting the War, January 2005

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By Dave Johns

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2004 was the deadliest year for journalists in the last decade. They died disproportionately in one place: Iraq. Deteriorating security conditions caused by the growing insurgency make Iraq the world's most dangerous place for journalists today. Of the 56 journalists killed worldwide last year, more than 40 percent lost their lives in Iraq.

On paper, all journalists are protected from harm when reporting from a war zone. In 1977, the Geneva Conventions accorded journalists civilian status in wartime and declared that reporters accompanying combatants into battle should not be treated as soldiers or spies. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, many journalists were "embedded" within military units in a controversial new partnership between the military and the media. Embedded reporters agreed to certain restrictions on their coverage in exchange for access to soldiers on the front lines. So although these journalists did their reporting from inside a military public relations bubble, they also benefited from the security of that environment. Keeping reporters safe amid the chaos of guerrilla warfare, though, is a greater challenge. The current insurgency in Iraq, like an increasing number of conflicts around the world, features shadowy armies who wear no uniforms and operate with no readily identifiable chain of command or formal adherence to any "rules of war." These conflicts include not simply battles between armies, but abductions, assassinations and attacks by suicide bombers who target civilians as well as military forces. And journalists, especially if they are perceived to have an association with one side, are not spared.

An early hint that Iraq was moving in this direction came with the assassination of Richard Wild, a British cameraman, outside a Baghdad museum in July 2003. The bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq and of the hotel that was serving as the NBC bureau further demonstrated that insurgents would not limit their attacks to military targets. But the tipping point for reporters came in the spring of 2004, when abduction emerged as a tactic for gangs and extremist groups looking to terrorize people working with the occupation. Foreign journalists, often regarded as spies by insurgents, became conspicuous targets. In April, armed gunmen abducted eight members of the press. Enzo Baldoni, an Italian freelance journalist, was kidnapped in August by an armed group who demanded that Italy withdraw its troops from Iraq in exchange for his release. His captors later killed him. In all, 22 journalists were abducted in Iraq in 2004, according to the CPJ. John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, described the effect of his own abduction: "Once you're taken hostage and blindfolded and driven out into the desert by angry, threatening men, there's really nothing you can do. Did it change the way we operate? Yes, it did."

News organizations responded by holing up inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. By the end of 2004, correspondents were traveling rarely, and only in the company of Iraqi security guards, translators and "fixers" to handle security and logistics. Actual reporting is often done remotely, from within urban bunkers, using information provided by Iraqis willing to risk their lives to gather information in areas too dangerous for Western journalists. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz complained in an interview that journalists were too scared to get out and tell the whole story of Iraq. But reporters say they have no choice but to take extraordinary precautions in order to survive. As Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi wrote, "... my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story, but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees stay alive. In Baghdad, I am a security personnel first, a reporter second."

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By Dave Johns
Dave Johns is a freelance writer and public radio reporter based in New York.

Producer: Angela Morgenstern; Designed by: Susan Harris, Fluent Studios; see full web credits.