Threats to Journalists Rise in Iraq

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Western journalists covering the war in Iraq face sniper fire, roadside bombs, kidnappers and a host of other dangers. Their Iraqi colleagues must cope with even greater risks, including families attacked in retribution for sensitive reporting, and arrest on suspicion of links to the violence journalists cover.

At least 85 journalists — mostly Iraqis — have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, more than in either Vietnam or World War II. The security situation is getting progressively worse, and 2006 has been the deadliest year yet, with at least 25 journalists killed to date.

Gunmen carried out the deadliest attack yet on the media on Thursday. Some two dozen armed men, some in police uniform, stormed the downtown Baghdad headquarters of a new satellite television station, killing the board chairman and 10 others.

The motive for the attack on Shaabiya TV was not clear, though there were signs it was carried out by Shiite militiamen. Sunnis say the militias often have help from police. In its few short broadcasts, the station played nationalist music against the U.S. occupation, perhaps prompting militiamen to assume it sympathized with Sunni insurgents.

“Iraq is the most dangerous assignment in the world right now for journalists,” said Joel Campagna, head of the Mideast desk of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media rights group that keeps the count.

“There really aren’t any battle lines. The danger begins right outside your door,” he said.

Covering any war is dangerous, and journalists have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Bosnia and other recent conflicts _ in addition to 66 in Vietnam, 17 in Korea and 68 during World War II.

Western journalists have been targeted in Iraq by insurgents who consider them little different from combatants. Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel _ where many media organizations, including The Associated Press, have been based _ was attacked several times including in a triple suicide vehicle bombing last October claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq.

On Wednesday, the body of a Kurdish radio reporter was identified at the Baghdad morgue. Azad Mohammed Hussein was abducted Oct.3 in Baghdad while on his way to Dar al-Salam radio headquarters, and his body was found dumped on Tuesday.

One of Iraq’s best-known television journalists, Atwar Bahjat, and two of her colleagues were abducted and slain while reporting on an explosion in February at a mosque in Samarra.

Not all the threats faced by Iraqi journalists come from the insurgents.

In September, Kalshan al-Bayati, whose reporting had been critical of security forces in Tikrit, was arrested twice by the Iraqi army for alleged terrorist links, and remains in custody.

AP photographer Bilal Hussein was detained in April and remains in U.S. custody without any charges against him.

According to CPJ, at least eight journalists have been detained for weeks or months by Iraqi and coalition forces. They include employees of CBS News, Reuters, the AP and Agence France-Presse among others. At least four of the detentions have exceeded 100 days, Campagna said.

In the early months of the war, Western journalists could move about in relative safety in cities like Baghdad, Mosul and even Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit armed with nothing more than a notepad and a pen.

Before the resumption of commercial flights, most journalists arrived in Baghdad by car, either traveling north from Kuwait or east from Jordan along a route that took them near current insurgent hotbeds such as Ramadi and Fallujah.

All that changed in 2004 with an increase in violence, kidnapping and slaying of Westerners. Journalists from the United States, Poland, Japan, Italy and France were kidnapped or killed.

In January, Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was abducted by Sunni extremists and freed unharmed 82 days later.

With security in a free-fall, news organizations have taken on extra measures to protect their staff while still reporting as best they can on a complex and violent conflict.

Some journalists, including most freelancers, have left the country. Those news organizations that remain use a handful of U.S. and other Western staffers and rely heavily on their Iraqi reporters, who venture out to the scenes of bombings, suicide attacks and gunfights at great risk.

“The Western reporter has some training on how to cover events in hot areas _ he has better knowledge on when to appear and when to vanish, when there is a danger while covering the news,” said Qais al-Azawi, chief editor of Baghdad’s al-Jareeda newspaper.

“Moreover, the Western reporters have better protection equipment such as flak jackets. The Iraqi reporters do not have such privileges,” he said.

Western journalists, including those from The Associated Press, often live and work in guarded compounds, most outside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone. They venture out to report but usually with armed security escorts.

Security measures to protect staff have driven up costs.

Dexter Filkins, who spent nearly three years covering Iraq for The New York Times, said in a recent talk that his newspaper goes through money like “jet fuel” to protect its reporters in Iraq.

With travel sharply limited, many news organizations, including the AP, periodically embed reporters with U.S. military units. But the number of embeds has waned in recent months from hundreds at a time in the early months of the way to an average of 15 over recent weeks, according to Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman.

Out in the field, non-embedded journalists are often at scenes of violence and are regularly among the first people there, which can lead to confusion, Johnson said. Insurgents are also known to take videos and pictures of their own attacks to use as future propaganda, and Johnson said soldiers are well within their rights to detain people at the scenes of violence to ensure that they are truly journalists.

“It’s a very, very difficult environment and we would rather have our troops be safe by detaining and questioning somebody on why they are there, than let them go and find out they were complicit,” Johnson said.

Al-Azawi, the chief editor of al-Jareeda, said in a telephone interview from Paris he is spending more and more time at his home in France for his own safety.

“The warring factions in the country do not respect any law that calls for the protection of the journalists,” he said. “Journalism is the most dangerous occupation in Iraq now.”

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