Red alert for Iraq journos

After 80 deaths in 3 years, news orgs rethink strategy

What price news? Since March 2003, more than 80 journalists have been killed in Iraq, making it the deadliest media conflict in recent history. Spurred by the murder of Atwar Bahjat and her two colleagues from satcaster Al-Arabiya, Western and Arab news organizations alike are again rethinking the issue of security.

Some propose journos break one of the profession’s golden rules and start carrying guns. While few are embracing that solution, media orgs are pulling back correspondents and pooling their news coverage. Many Western and Arab news orgs now rely almost entirely on local Iraqi employees. A Reuters office boy was fast-tracked to become one of its chief photographers in Baghdad because he was a local, had a camera and a motorbike.

When foreign journalists cover the country, it’s common for them to travel with at least two armed bodyguards and a tailing vehicle filled with security personnel.

Most of the time, however, it has become too dangerous for many Western journalists to travel freely in the country.

“In my 30 years experience, this is by far the worst and most dangerous situation I’ve seen,” comments Jihad Ballout, spokesman for Al-Arabiya, who was previously Al-Jazeera’s spokesman when its offices got bombed by U.S. forces in Kabul in 2001 and Baghdad in 2003.

While the Doha-based satcaster lost reporter Tareq Ayyoub in the Baghdad attack, it has largely managed to avoid the heavy casualties suffered by other news orgs for a strange reason: It is banned from operating in Iraq.

The New-York based Committee for Protecting Journalists tells Variety: “Since the beginning of this year, conditions for both foreign and local correspondents has become increasingly perilous. The death toll is rising at an alarming rate.”

Al-Arabiya’s Bahjat, along with her cameraman Khaled Mahmoud al-Falahi and soundman Adnan Khairallah, were killed while covering sectarian violence in Samarra following the bombing of a holy Shia shrine.

At a press conference following the events, one reporter quizzed Iraqi prexy Jalal Talabani about journalists’ right to defend themselves. “Send me an official request and I will approve it and inform concerned agencies to give you the right to carry arms,” Talabani was reported as saying.

While the sight of journos in Iraq starting to carry guns increasingly becomes a genuine prospect, most news orgs are against the development.

“If things were so grim that journalists need to be personally armed, then we’d really need to think whether it’s safe to have them there at all,” the Christian Science Monitor’s Washington Bureau chief David Cook says. “There’s no story worth the life of one of our people.”

In December 2003, Dexter Filkins, a N.Y. Times correspondent in Baghdad, got into a flap with his bosses when it was reported he had carried a pistol while on assignment. When questioned on the incident, a spokesman for the paper said tersely, “Our policy is not to have reporters carry weapons.”

While the majority of the 80 casualties in the war have been Iraqi, Western news orgs clearly have been affected. The safety of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll remains unknown following her kidnapping in Baghdad on Jan. 7. Her Iraqi translator was killed during her abduction. ABC’s Bob Woodruff narrowly avoided death in January after being caught up in a roadside bomb the same month.

In addition to the killing of Bahjat and her two colleagues, Al-Arabiya has lost a further eight journos since 2003. The U.S.-funded Al Hurra’s Abdul Hussein Khazal was gunned down in February last year, while popular satcaster Al-Sumaria has two reporters, Marwan Ghazal and Reem Zaeed, being held hostage. A suicide attack on the Palestine Hotel, where many news orgs are based, was thwarted last year when security guards intercepted the insurgents.

“We’ve taken every measure to make sure we’re not a soft target, but you can’t do enough to make sure you’re completely secure if you want to maintain a presence in Iraq,” Al-Hurra news director Mouafec Harb says. “We run a risk all the time.”

The Mideast is a tough neighborhood for journos. One Egyptian journalist was recently jailed for one year for libeling the country’s former environment minister. In Lebanon, the situation is even worse. An assassination campaign was mounted against prominent anti-Syrian journos for much of the last year. Leading anti-Syrian news daily An-Nahar’s editor-in-chief Gebran Tueni and columnist Samir Kassir were both killed in car bombs, while satcaster LBC’s presenter May Chidiac lost an arm and a leg when her 4×4 was blown up last summer. Not that it’s silenced anti-Syrian critics.

“It’s had the opposite effect,” Future TV’s political anchor Ali Hamade, and Tueni’s uncle, says. “It hasn’t affected our willingness to express our opinions openly and loudly, but it has definitely changed our way of life. All the TV HQ’s have been transformed into bunkers. You can see the security measures around all the networks. They are similar to the measures around government buildings.” Hamade was forced to temporarily flee Beirut for refuge in Paris, along with others whose lives were threatened. He has since returned to Lebanon.

While the risks remain perilously high in Iraq and across the region, the bravery and determination of journos, both Western and Arab, has been nothing short of astounding. All remain committed to covering the story and getting to the truth. Even the notoriously cutthroat desire of newsies to beat their rivals to the scoop has given way to genuine camaraderie.

“On the ground, on a one-to-one basis, competition takes a back seat when it comes to solidarity among journalists,” Ballout says.