Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraq: Shooting the Messenger

The spiraling sectarian violence is taking its toll on IWPR journalists - but they’re determined to keep going.
By Nesir Kadhim
The threat was delivered in May by text message - quit journalism or you’ll be beheaded. The IWPR reporter ignored the warning on his cell phone and got on with his job - but more intimidation followed.

In his hometown Hawije, in Kirkuk province, people tend to take such threats very seriously, as it’s a stronghold of Sunni insurgents who frequently target Iraqi and multinational troops. The violence has forced many residents to flee the area.

The reporter’s wife, worried that the militants would kill her husband or that he might die in crossfire while out reporting, finally persuaded him to leave too. They packed their bags and move to somewhere safer in the south.

" [The text messages] accuse me of sectarianism but I have no connection to any political party and only work for IWPR," said the journalist.

Reporters in Iraq are facing constant intimidation and often risking their lives to cover the political and security crisis. More have died within the last three years than in 20 years of war in Vietnam.

According to a statistic from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, 77 reporters working on assignments inside the country have been killed since April 2003, of which 56 were Iraqis.

Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF, suggests that as many as 100 members of the media have been killed in Iraq between March 2003 and August 2006.

IWPR continues to train journalists and publish their work, despite the spiraling violence. The Institute’s Iraqi trainees say they are determined to improve their skills and publish weekly, as they believe they are contributing to a better understanding of the conflict.

But they are having to exercise more and more caution when out on assignment because of the growing dangers, and are sometimes unable to take on commissions when they judge that the situation is just too risky.

However, so many trainees have passed through IWPR’s training programmes over the last three years that the Institute now has an extensive network of contributors to its ICR report - enabling weekly publication even when the security situation makes journalistic work particularly challenging.

“Fortunately, after three years of training, we have reporters almost everywhere in Iraq. So if we need something from Ramadi where no reporter dare go, we can call someone inside the town who has been living their for some time and, with great caution, is still able to move around and get information,” said Susanne Fischer, the IWPR Iraq country director.

“Also, the reporters have created a good network among themselves and help each other out whenever they can. If they hear of an imminent threat, they all share the information and warn each other.”

Most IWPR reporters have escaped the worst of the intimidation and violence, but some have unfortunately fallen victim to it.

Two weeks ago, former IWPR trainee Ayad Nusaif, 34, was found dead in Baghdad. Nusaif worked for several Iraqi newspapers and media institutions. In fall 2004, he attended an IWPR training course in Sulaimaniyah.

Nusaif had been kidnapped in Palestine Street in Baghdad in July and had not been heard of since. His body was found close to where he was abducted. He had been strangled.

Colleagues said he had received - and ignored - numerous warnings to stop working as a journalist.

The Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, JFO, an Iraqi watchdog keeping track of violent acts against the Iraqi press, is urging the government “to keep its promises to protect those who work in the media and to pursue those who target journalists”.

Insurgents and kidnappers are not the only danger for the Iraqi press.

On March 26, IWPR trainee Kamal Anbar, 28, was shot dead during a controversial raid by American and Iraqi soldiers on a mosque in the Shia neighbourhood of Ur in Baghdad.

Kamal was working on a story about families displaced by ethnic violence and was on his way to the mosque for an interview when the raid began. He was hit by several bullets in the face and neck and died at the scene (ICR 171, April 5, 2006).

An IWPR Baghdad-based reporter said it was hard for journalists to operate freely because the country was ” inflected with sectarianism".

He wanted to become a journalism to "reflect the truth and to show suffering of people", but now he doesn’t even dare tell people who he is or what he does.

"Militias kill and detain people because [they’re either] Shia or Sunni. If I showed them my press ID, they would accuse me of being a collaborator and kill me on the spot," he said.

When Jeish al-Mahdi, the militia of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took control of his neighbourhood, the IWPR reporter escaped to Karbala.

He returned to the capital a month later but is still hiding with relatives.

"I feel desperate,” he said. “We were promised freedom and democracy but the situation is quite the opposite.”

Despite the difficulties he is facing, the reporter has resumed reporting but with great caution.

"I can’t trust even [Iraqi] police and army,” he said after witnessing security forces and militia members chasing panicked civilians in a Baghdad neighbourhood.

Another IWPR reporter said he fled the capital to a Shia province after a government official alerted him that his name was found on the wanted list of a militant group in his neighborhood. But he says he still feels unsafe because of clashes between different Shia fractions where he lives now.

Security is particularly bad in several Sunni provinces in central Iraq. In Baquba, capital of Diyala province, violence is escalating, making it impossible for reporters to work. Al-Qaeda chief in Iraq Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi was killed by an American airstrike just a few kilometres away in June 2006.

"The situation is out of control and the government exists only on satellite channels while in reality the country is run by militias, linked to neighbouring states, who aim to destabilise Iraq,” said a Baquba-based IWPR reporter.

Whenever asked, he denies he works in journalism after once narrowly escaping death at the hands of the militants. These days the journalist - who has lost two relatives in the violence - rarely leaves his house, and is not sure he can put up with the pressure much longer.

"I’ve started to think about quitting journalism and look for a different job," he said.

But the prevailing mood among IWPR reporters is one of defiance.

“If we quit, those who threaten us have won. We cannot let that happen,” a group of IWPR reporters stated during a recent training session in Sulaimaniyah.

Reflecting the views of many of his colleagues, the IWPR reporter who fled the capital to a Shia province said, “I believe in journalism. We have to be faithful and make use of what we learned."

The Institute’s training programme in Sulaimnaiyah - which has escaped the violence afflicting the rest of the country - offers reporters from all over Iraq a range of journalism courses, but also provides some respite from the conflict and a chance to recharge their batteries.

A female IWPR reporter from Baghdad said, “After each training in Sulaimaniyah where Kurds, Sunnis and Shia sit together in the classroom, I return to Baghdad with new hopes that we Iraqis might still be able to achieve a life together in peace.”

Nesir Kadhim is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad. Ferhad Murasil, IWPR Arabic editor in Sulaimaniyah, contributed to this report. All journalists quoted work or worked for IWPR in Iraq.

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