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Reporting in Iraq: A "Catastrophe" for Journalists

By Rob Krieger

When FRONTLINE/World broadcast "Reporting the War" in January 2005 about the extreme hazards that journalists, both Iraqi and foreign, faced in covering the fighting in Iraq, it seemed like the situation could not possibly get worse. But it has.

The dramatic and sobering 2005 story ended with New York Times reporter, Dexter Filkins, leaving Iraq for a brief respite after two weeks reporting with a company of U.S. Marines caught in fierce fighting in Fallujah. But his exit was almost as dangerous as his combat reporting since he had to travel, under armed guard, the main road from Baghdad to the airport, a road where ambushes occurred frequently.

As his vehicle negotiated this treacherous road, Filkins told our reporter Nick Hughes: "It's just such a measure of how troubled this enterprise is. Nineteen months into this thing and we can't really drive to the airport with any kind of assurance."

But since then, as the fighting has degenerated into civil war, the risks for journalists have intensified. A record 93 reporters and media assistants were killed in Iraq last year, bringing the total number of journalists killed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to 169.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been documenting threats to journalists around the world since 1981, but CPJ's communications director Abi Wright says the Iraq war is in a class by itself. "It's not like anything we've documented in our 25-year history," she says. It was no surprise that the CPJ ranked Iraq the most dangerous place to be a journalist at the close of 2006.

At the CPJ's 25th-anniversary conference last September in New York, Filkins called Iraq a "catastrophe" for journalists. "We live in a fortress, and we venture out of that fortress at great risk. Most of Baghdad is off-limits to us. And it's increasingly off-limits to our Iraqi staff, who would ordinarily be able to go out there," he told conference attendees.

CPJ's Wright agrees that local reporters are now just as much targets as Western correspondents: "For the most part, they don't have much institutional backing. You find in countries that do not have rule of law, it's much easier to silence local reporters … there are no protections," she says. In the first three months of 2007, 13 Iraqi journalists were killed on the job.

An Iraqi Journalist's View

Omar Fekeiki, an Iraqi reporter now living in Berkeley, California, began working for The Washington Post as a translator in 2003 and then became a special correspondent for the newspaper. Fekeiki remembers it being safe back then for people to report and move about. "There weren't Shiite militia or Sunni insurgents in control." Security was a lot better, he says.

But as the war went on, Fekeiki began to receive daily threats while working in Baghdad. In 2006, the Post helped bring him to the United States because the situation became too dangerous.

"I was threatened by different groups," Fekeiki says. "I got threats from Shiites, Sunnis and even the government." He has not been back to Baghdad in more than six months but hears regularly about conditions there.

"When I was in Iraq, I would quote five or six Iraqis [in a story]; now it's done with two Iraqis," says Fekeiki. "You spend perhaps one hour in the street to minimize the risk of being chased or killed. You spend no more than 15 or 20 minutes with a source. We used to be able to stay for hours."

During his last months reporting from Baghdad, Fekeiki began to notice more anonymous sources appearing in Iraqi newspaper reports. Even officials, he says, have become too afraid to give their name. "It just pains me that Iraqi newspapers, which are supposed to be open-minded and critical of government, are going back to the era of Saddam. Now it's just numbers: `Such-and-such people were killed.' That's it. Reporters rarely mention militias or the failures of government," he says. "If they do, they get killed."

Rethinking Reporting

The prevailing conditions in Iraq have constrained independent reporting and stanched the flow of information. The cost of providing security for reporters is also making it increasingly difficult for Western media, especially newspapers, to stay in Iraq and other hotspots. According to Filkins, money is the most important issue for media operations that hope to still function there.

"We go through money like jet fuel," he told the CPJ audience. "We have two houses with blast walls on all sides, machine guns on the roof, 45 armed guards. We have three armored cars -- they cost about $250,000 each. We have at least one security advisor there all the time -- he's about $1,000 per day. Sometimes we have two," Filkins said.

Former Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet echoed these realties in an interview he gave to FRONTLINE in the recent documentary News War. "There are only three American newspapers on the ground in Iraq today, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The fact that we would reduce to two, and maybe even one day, one [newspaper there] -- that can't be good," he said.

A U.N. Security Council resolution in December 2006 called for an end to the intentional targeting of journalists. The International News Safety Institute, the International Federation of Journalists and the European Broadcasting Union all got behind the U.N. measure, which would provide journalists covering conflicts with the same protections as civilians.

Fekeiki urges organizations like the CPJ to continue to highlight the high casualty rates among journalists in Iraq and keep those in the field informed. But he also suggests that CPJ press their case for more local coverage in Iraq about the plight of reporters.

"I have used the CPJ, and I have also called in to help them. They offer very good information. They are vital. But these groups need offices in Iraq," he says. "They have to publish in Iraqi newspapers, write reports in Arabic -- and in every Iraqi newspaper."

Sources: The Committee to Protect Journalists; the International News Safety Institute; The New York Times.