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Iraqi Journalists Encounter Peril to Report for U.S. Media

November 8, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now, a rare look at the risks of reporting in Baghdad. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reporting in Iraq is an extremely dangerous business. At least 122 journalists have been killed since the 2003 U.S. invasion; 100 of those were Iraqis, including five who were killed in three separate incidents on one October weekend.

As the security situation has deteriorated, American media organizations have had to rely more and more on Iraqi reporters to get in and out of areas where foreign journalists might stand out and be easily targeted for kidnapping or worse.

Recently, the International Women’s Media Foundation honored six Iraqi women who’ve worked for McClatchy, the third-largest newspaper chain in the U.S. The McClatchy bureau in Baghdad is led by an American, and American correspondents, one at a time, rotate in and out. But Iraqis now make up the bulk of the staff.

Sahar Issa, who once studied in England and later had a business career in Iraq, is the only one of those being honored still working in Baghdad. She turned to journalism after her own personal tragedy: One of her children, a teenage son, was killed when caught in the crossfire of a Baghdad street battle.

I talked with Sahar Issa during her visit to the U.S. to accept her award. Because of the danger of her work and threats made against her, she asked that we not show her face.

Tell me how it works as a bureau functioning, Iraqis and Americans working together. I assume there are many things they’re unable or places they’re unable to go to?

SAHAR ISSA, Iraqi Journalist: Wherever they can possibly go, they will go. If they need a translator with them, they will take one of us with them. It is only in instances where they cannot possibly go because they will endanger not only themselves, they will endanger themselves and the Iraqis who are with them.

If an incident or a situation came up, the American would be kidnapped and ransomed, but the Iraqis would be killed. And when they can’t go, it is us who are sent to go there, because we are Iraqis. We can handle the situation better. We are not seen as a threat. We try to remain the gray person as much as possible.

Leading a "double life"

JEFFREY BROWN: Issa leads what she calls a "double life," telling almost no one about her work.

You just can't let it be known what you do?

SAHAR ISSA: At all. At all. As for my working for a foreign agency, I'm sure before they put that bullet into my head they would write "Spy."

JEFFREY BROWN: Spy?

SAHAR ISSA: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your children know what you do, right?

SAHAR ISSA: Yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do they say?

SAHAR ISSA: What they say to me is, like, "Mother" -- this is my eldest, of course, who can speak to me like this -- she says, "Mother, I know that you feel a compulsion to do this. Be careful." She supports me in every way, in every way. And the little one is very afraid. He keeps a secret well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you won't tell your father?

SAHAR ISSA: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why not?

SAHAR ISSA: It'll give him heart attack, actually. He's old. He's an old man. He's a wonderful father, everything a father could be, and I don't want to hurt him. I don't want him to worry about me.

JEFFREY BROWN: She described one of her frightening experiences at a checkpoint.

SAHAR ISSA: And I took out my papers, and he looked at them. And he said, "Wallah, wallah." And this is like saying, "By God." He was, "Wallah. With this information I have here of where you were born and the name of the person who sold you the car, had you not been a woman you would not see daylight tomorrow."

JEFFREY BROWN: And what if he knew you were a journalist?

SAHAR ISSA: Oh, wow. No, don't ask me that question.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why not?

SAHAR ISSA: Because the answer is very well-known. Journalists are not liked by our government very much, because there is so much that is happening in Iraq, because so much is underhanded, because it is such a mess. They are not able to control the situation. It's all the power centers inside Iraq, not just the government.

All power centers inside Iraq may have some benefit from targeting journalists, because we are there, we tell the story. And isolation for them is the best way.

Political power struggles in Iraq

JEFFREY BROWN: Issa says the sectarian struggle in Iraq is too often portrayed as based on religion -- Sunni versus Shia -- rather than on the political power struggle she sees playing out on the ground. In her stories, she says, she tries to capture the impact on the average person.

SAHAR ISSA: I believe it is more on the ordinary person family level, stories that ought to get out more, because I have this feeling that the American people don't have a clear idea of what life is like for us today. They don't have a clear idea of what the war has cost us.

JEFFREY BROWN: So give me an example of a story, perhaps that you have written, that tried to address the people, the man or woman or child living in this aftermath?

SAHAR ISSA: The sad story is we go to a neighborhood, and people are being killed supposedly for being Shia or for being Sunni. One of the stories was a woman was killed for saying, "Haram alaikum." What is "Haram alaikum"? It's "God will not approve of your actions." And she was killed because of that, because she said, "Haram alaikum." She was killed. She was murdered in front of her son, who sat on the pavement cradling her head in his lap.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she was killed in this case because she was either Sunni or Shia?

SAHAR ISSA: No, it is because she told the people in her own sect that what you are doing is, "Haram alaikum."

JEFFREY BROWN: So she had the courage to speak up.

SAHAR ISSA: She had the courage to speak up.

Reporting after tragedy

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to reporting and helping to write news articles, with the oversight of her American bureau chief, Issa and the other Iraqis write a blog on the McClatchy Web site with a more personal perspective on current events. She's clear that she sees journalism as a very personal calling.

SAHAR ISSA: It does matter to me that we are looked at as if we were lesser and lesser people, that even our lives are cheaper, our very lives are cheaper, and this is something that I had to come out with. I cannot do this in Iraq, because we in Iraq know that our lives are not cheaper than any other lives. It is in the eyes of the world; it is in the eyes of the international community that this has to be changed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Her own loss, Issa says, compels her to continue doing this work.

SAHAR ISSA: My son, Jeff, was a good young man. He was, apart from a mother's pride, almost too good to be true. He was not -- and I know this -- killed for any personal reasons. He was not killed because he is of this sect or that. He was killed uselessly.

Killing in the streets of Baghdad does not need a reason. I chose journalism for a reason. I needed to make a statement -- if not for anyone else then for myself -- that I will make the effort, I will take that step and make the effort to reach out and tell the story, because if we don't tell our own story, we can't really moan that other people aren't doing it well enough. It's as simple as that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sahar Issa, thank you so much for talking to us.

SAHAR ISSA: Thank you.