War Reporters at ASNE Say Iraq Remains Frightening

By: Andrew Ackerman Despite the elections in Iraq and recent decline in American deaths there, violence and danger to reporters remains at very high levels, a panel of war reporters said on Friday. They also countered claims that the press has been too negative in its reporting from Iraq, pointing out that there is still quite a bit to be negative about.

For Hannah Allam, Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder
Newspapers, reporting in Iraq has remained uncommonly dangerous and difficult.

The widespread violence has meant that reporters have trouble leaving their bureaus for more than 20 minutes at a time, she said at the panel on the final day of the
annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Allam said that until two weeks ago she used to hang out at a salon in a relatively upscale, safe neighborhood of Baghdad. It was a respite from the violence of the country, and she could converse in Arabic with locals. "It was a watering hole where you gather story ideas," she said. "Kinda my refuge."

But on a recent trip her cell phone rang and she answered with a very American "hello," which blew her cover. "It was like in a movie where the forks drop and everyone stops," Allam said. An English speaker could only attract trouble and the woman who runs the salon quietly and apologetically informed her that she'd have to stop coming.

Allam's story echoed the concerns of the three other journalists on the panel, who all said that the situation for reporters remains precarious. She shared the stage with Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who reported from Bahgdad between April 2003 until last October; Cheryl Diaz Meyer, a photographer at the Dallas Morning News; and Richard Oppel Jr., of the New York Times. The panel was moderated by Marjorie Miller, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Chandrasekaran, who's on book leave from the Post, said it came to a point where security was all-consuming. His bureau moved into a fortress, a compound surrounded by 17-foot high blast walls, Kalashnikov-toting guards and a sniper on the roof. Like many other papers, the Post hired a security consultant, a retired SAS officer for $2,000 a day. The reporters only left the compound in two-car convoys, with an armored car in the lead and a second vehicle full of heavily armed guards behind.

"It's like a military operation every time we go to a press conference in the Green Zone, even just a regular press conference," Chandrasekaran said.

Meyer, the Morning News photographer, agreed with Allam that spending more than 20 minutes at a news scene can be deadly. She said photographers are "hung out to dry," though, because they're forced to carry around bulky gear and stand out as targets, whereas reporters can more easily blend with the population.

"To take pictures you have to be out there with people, meeting with them, engaging with them, spending time with them," Meyer said. "Nowadays the stories are [more often] feature stories and in order to have feature stories you need intimacy, and that doesn't develop in 20 minutes."

Oppel recounted his experience as an embedded reporter during the beginning of the November battle over Fallujah. He explained that the biggest danger to troops then and now are Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which "infest" many of the countries roads.

"It's basically like having a couple of Howitzer shells explode all at once," he said. "It will really do great damage."

The reporters said American papers have done an accurate job portraying the grimness of the violence in Iraq. Allam portrayed a country so unwieldy that she said she doubted Americans could withdraw entirely anytime soon.

"I think that there could be a significant decrease in troops there," Allam said. "But when you see these bases, these are not makeshift tent cities. They poured in millions and millions of dollars into these facilities. It's clear that they're there to stay."


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