Journalists Increasingly Face Dangers Reporting in Iraq
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TERENCE SMITH: The security situation in Iraq has grown so perilous in recent months that several areas of the country are virtually inaccessible to western reporters. As a result, first-hand coverage of not only the fighting, but also reconstruction efforts and even the first halting steps towards democracy has been difficult to achieve. Covering Iraq has proven to be a deadly job: In all, 46 reporters have been killed in the 19 months since the start of the war. Reporters from many European countries have packed up and left, fearing for their safety.
They have good reason: Two French reporters were kidnapped more than a month ago and are reportedly still being held. The everyday dangers in Iraq were quite literally brought home last week.
SPOKESPERSON: Get the lights off. Lights off. Get back.
TERENCE SMITH: CNN’s cameras captured a rocket attack on the Baghdad Sheraton Hotel, which like its neighbor, the Palestine Hotel, is home to many of the remaining journalists in Iraq.
As it turned out, no one was injured in the attack. Meanwhile, an e-mail written by a Wall Street Journal reporter about the situation in Iraq has also made news. Farnaz Fassihi, seen here two years ago at a hazardous environment training seminar, sent an e-mail to friends.
It was not intended for publication, but it quickly circulated on the Internet. Fassihi wrote in part: “Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest.
In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second. Despite President Bush’s rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster.” The Wall Street Journal defended the objectivity of Fassihi’s reporting for the paper and said she is on a long-scheduled vacation until after the U.S. elections.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are three journalists recently returned from Iraq: Brian Rooney, ABC News correspondent; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post correspondent, who just ended his term as its Baghdad bureau chief; and Brian Bennett, Time Magazine correspondent who also served as bureau chief in Baghdad.
Welcome to all three of you.
Brian Rooney, you’re just back a week, I guess a week ago today. Tell us what the situation is on the ground there for reporters trying to do their job.
BRIAN ROONEY: Well, difficult in a word, but not impossible by any means. If you take security precautions you can go out in the city and get to certain locations, interview people. I was struck by how many government officials are accessible.
The downside of it all is that you just are not well advised to go out into a market area of the city, especially if you have a face that looks like mine, and start asking people questions. It is dangerous. And just crossing town, being in Baghdad, is a dangerous thing. You have to be mindful that the car bombs are driving around in traffic with you. There are intermittent mortar rounds and rocket rounds landing. I had some near misses with that.
You can report on this story. You just have to be very careful about it and you can’t be casual about it in any way.
TERENCE SMITH: Brian Bennett, you were there for 12 of the last 16 months. How was it for you trying to do your job for a news magazine? A little different, I suspect, than Brian Rooney’s work for television.
BRIAN BENNETT: Fortunately, when you go out as a print reporter, you have a smaller footprint. We don’t have to go out with a news crew and a lot of security. I’ve noticed over last 16 months that it changed dramatically. We had a lot more freedom to move around the entire country of Iraq just after the war.
I was going to Mosul and the north to Basra, into Fallujah to report stories and talk with the people there.
And in this last trip, in August, it was almost impossible to travel out of Baghdad, and it was because it was just so dangerous and the roads were so insecure and the kidnapping that was going on put us just too much at risk.
TERENCE SMITH: Rajiv, you are the veteran here in terms of that you spent, all told, a couple years there in Iraq. I suppose the situation evolved and changed during that time?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: As Brian said, a dramatic arc from those early days. I remember back in May, June, July of last year, being able to simply jump into a car, an unarmored, soft-skinned car with a translator and a driver and literally go anywhere, go to Fallujah, go to Ramadi, down South, up North. As I was packing up about ten days ago in Baghdad, I was looking at a very dog-eared map of Iraq.
And just looking at the major highways out of Baghdad, and all of them, in my mind, are red. We don’t send people there. Brian Rooney was talking about how you can operate in Baghdad. And that’s true, you can. You have to take care. There are certain neighborhoods where you can go and operate discreetly. There are other neighborhoods that are pretty much off limits.
But when it comes to leaving the capital and seeing the vast expanse of Iraq, it is almost impossible.
These days most western journalists, if they’re going out of Baghdad, they’re going with the U.S. military. They’re going as embedded reporters. The military has been very accommodating. They’ve allowed us to go to bases around the country.
But what that means is that you’re only seeing one side of the story. You’re having a very limited interaction with Iraqis in those places and you can’t just drive from Baghdad to those locations anymore.
TERENCE SMITH: Brian Rooney, give us… I’m sorry. Forgive me, but I was going to ask you to give us a sense of what it’s like when you do go out. I mean, do you have to go in a convoy? Do you need security traveling with you? What are the day-to-day realities?
BRIAN ROONEY: We would go in a short convoy, try to be low-key and unrecognizable. We did take security with us everywhere we went. We planned where we were going to go. We stayed there for as little time as possible, had an exit plan and got out as fast as we could. So we were able to do some reporting, but it was not luxurious by any means. You couldn’t hang around and get the feel of things. You had to get in there, do your business and just go.
And there were just some places we never did go. We tried to go to some car bombings, the aftermath, sometimes the military had them closed off. One day there was a big one outside a police station where a lot of recruits were killed. I was on my way there and we had some scouts there ahead, some Arabic-speaking people. It broke out in gunfire and we turned around.
TERENCE SMITH: And I suppose, Brian Rooney, that your camera attracts attention as well.
BRIAN ROONEY: It does, although it’s a funny thing. We were pretty free to send an Arabic-speaking crew to a lot of places and people who look Arabic as well, and they were fairly safe. But if you went there as a westerner, you never knew how crowd was going to react because there was a tendency to blame the United States for everything that happens. Even if it was a car bombing, sometimes people would say it was a missile or even if they knew it was a car bombing, they would say this is what the United States did. So you just had to be careful going there. Your presence would incite a great deal of anger.
TERENCE SMITH: Brian Bennett, were there stories that you wanted to cover, not only places you wanted to go, but stories you couldn’t get to because of the security?
BRIAN BENNETT: I think in this last trip, there definitely were. I certainly wanted to go into Fallujah and get a sense of what it was like on the ground for there are the average families that live there. And that’s just impossible. I tried to arrange it and to get certain permissions from the Mujahadeen who control the city there, but it was just too dangerous at the time.
And I didn’t even go and cover myself, the siege of the shrine at Najaf. We sent Iraqi reporters that we had trained over the last year to go there and cover that, simply because the road between Baghdad and Najaf was just so dangerous.
TERENCE SMITH: In what way does their reporting fed back to you and through you differ from what you might find than if you went there yourself?
BRIAN BENNETT: It’s dramatically different.
TERENCE SMITH: How?
BRIAN BENNETT: Because, well, first of all, you are not there seeing things for yourself. You don’t have an eyewitness account of what is going on, and they have been trained to ask good follow-up questions, to do good reporting, get as many facts as they can, but still they’re sort of reading it back to you over the telephone line.
And so you don’t bring necessarily your own judgment to the observations that they’re making. So it really is like being once removed from the story.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Nothing beats looking somebody in the eye and talking to them. That’s what foreign correspondency is all about. We are out there to try to find the ground truth and see what is really going on. I’ve gone from a guy who sort of feels like I piloted my own airplane in the early days. Now I’m sitting in a shack piloting a predator drone.
I’m sending out my Iraqis to go and ask questions. They report back. We watch Arab Satellite TV. We read the news wires. But that’s a very unfulfilling way to cover the story, and ultimately, you know, our readers, our consumers of news lose out because it lacks a level of detail, it lacks immediacy and it lacks thoroughness.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you have a…
BRIAN ROONEY: What goes on in Fallujah is a very good example of what gets lost over there. There is a lot that is lost in the skill of this kind of reporting and what is lost in translation. You have the military every night saying “we have conducted a precision attack on a certain location,” and then civilians saying “you also killed non- combatants and women and children.” And the military is not verifying exactly who they killed and we are not able to verify it either, so Fallujah is what gets lost in this kind of situation.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask all three of you what the bottom line is here in terms of the story and impression that the American reader and viewer gets as a result of this restricted and constricted reporting.
BRIAN BENNETT: I think one of the biggest losses to the American reader is that you don’t really get these stories that takes the entire temperature of the entire country. We were able to do that just at the beginning of this year, actually. Time Magazine and ABC together did a survey of the whole country from North to South and I think that’s a very important part of the story to go to the more rural places, more out of the way places and talk to the Iraqis and ask them directly “how has your life changed since the invasion and since the toppling of Saddam.” And that kind of scope and temperature-taking is almost impossible now.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: And it extends beyond simply coverage of hot spots like Fallujah. And I agree with Brian Rooney that, you know, we all want to be there. We want to really understand what is happening. But it extends to almost every other story that can be told across the country.
I’ve long wanted to go down to the city of Hilla, which is no more than 40 miles south of Baghdad, where there is a very moderate Shiite cleric who is very actively involved in building democracy programs. He has had a lot of interactions with the U.S. officials and experts who have come down there.
But the road from Baghdad to Hilla is nicknamed “the road of death.” I went down there one day and on the way back, we saw shot-up cars. The local newspaper the next day said 17 people were killed just that one afternoon on the road. That’s the same road where three journalists were kidnapped on their way to Najaf. We recall that standoff in Najaf between Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia and the U.S. forces in April.
No journalists were actually killed covering that very intense conflict in the city, but three journalists were kidnapped, one of whom the Italian journalist was later confirmed to have been killed on the road between Baghdad and Najaf.
TERENCE SMITH: Brian Rooney?
BRIAN ROONEY: That sort of thing also allows the insurgents to kind of take over the news agenda. If we are not able to get out there and see what kind of rebuilding efforts are going on and what kind of efforts toward building toward democracy, the daily car bombings and events of violence are what takes over the news agenda and while that’s a driving force, it might be somewhat distorted, because some of those other things going on out there that we’re not able to look at very closely might be quietly diffusing the situation. We don’t really know.
TERENCE SMITH: Brian Bennett, in fact the administration has asserted repeatedly that the good news from Iraq is not being reported. Is this part of the reason?
BRIAN BENNETT: We have been hearing this since the war was over for the last 16 months. And I do… I used to come back from Iraq and I would watch the news and would I’d say wow, you know, there’s a lot of stuff the Americans are not getting the impression that I’m getting on the ground that actually women are starting to go back and shop openly in markets in Baghdad.
So normal life was coming back to the city and you didn’t just get that impression with the constant drama of car bombings and shootings but in my last visit there, you know, I would say that, particularly life in Baghdad is getting much more dangerous and much, much more difficult to move around.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Thank you all three very much. It’s good to have you home.