Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Press Freedom

IRAQ: From Those Who Swear by Freedom

Brian Conley and Isam Rashid

BAGHDAD, Jan 26 2006 (IPS) - Journalists covering Iraq have run into some sort of balance of troubles.

During the days leading up to the war in Iraq in the spring of 2003, many foreign correspondents travelled to Baghdad. Journalists knew war was imminent, and news bureaus scrambled to position their reporters to cover the story.

As the war unfolded, journalists from all over the world were thrown together. Those from the western and non-Arab press became increasingly reliant on Arab-speaking Iraqis, who better understood the situation and were better positioned to move around in relative safety.

In the first stage of the war, the conditions appeared to be equally dangerous for every journalist. Then, the U.S. forces began to target journalists.

The U.S. troops were aware that many journalists and other civilians were residing in the Palestine Hotel when a tank fired on the hotel April 8, 2003, killing two journalists and wounding three others.

The United States initially claimed gunfire came from the hotel lobby, but later retracted this statement. Around the same time Al Jazeera headquarters nearby were bombed, killing one person there, Tarek Ayoub. These incidents perhaps highlighted what was to come.

As the war has progressed, Iraqi journalists increasingly appear to be targeted by the United States and other Coalition forces.

Two Reuters journalists from Ramadi, Ali al-Mashhadani and Majed Hameed were detained, and finally released Jan. 15. “The United States forces arrested me for nothing, they had no proof against me,” Hameed said after his release. “They knew I was innocent, and now I will continue my work as a journalist.”

Last week the U.S. authorities released Samer Mohammed Noor, who had been held for eight months without charge. “We are relieved at the release of Samer Mohammed Noor but we do not understand the reasons for keeping him in detention for more than eight months, particularly since there was no concrete evidence against him,” the group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

Yunis Khuthair, 38 year-old editor of Al Tahaddi newspaper was arrested by U.S. troops Sep. 23, 2003. At least he was charged. “They gave me many funny charges, like I tried to assassinate Tony Blair, I hid Saddam in my house, I cooperate with the terrorists,” Khuthair told IPS. “But these were all fake.”

At least one Iraqi journalist, Abdel Amir Younes Hussein, is still in detention.. Reporters Without Borders (RSF, Reporters Sans Frontieres in French) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have both made repeated appeals for Hussein to be released. He has been in detention more than ten months.

Suhaib Al Baz, a 26-year-old Iraqi journalist who works for Al Jazeera told IPS, “I have been arrested many times by the U.S. forces, the last time in 2004 when I was held for 76 days at Abu Ghraib. I was tortured many times, I don’t know why because I never received charges.”

He was told he would be sent to Guantanamo because he worked for Al Jazeera, he said. “I was placed in a special jail for dangerous prisoners with Saleh Hassan, they used dogs on us, they dropped cold water on me in winter, and even with all this bad treatment, I had no charges.”

Al Jazeera continues to be targeted. Many of its correspondents have been repeatedly detained or imprisoned. Former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi shut down its offices.

The Pentagon and its spokespersons in Iraq have remained silent over detainees.

“We do not discuss the cases of individual detainees,” U.S. military spokesman Lt-Col Barry Johnson said in a statement. “All detainees are held by the authority of UNSCR (United Nations Security Council resolution) 1546 and 1637, which allows the multi-national force to detain individuals who are considered imperative threats to the security of Iraq.”

Johnson added: “Their internment is held in full accordance with the Geneva Conventions, and the reviews of their cases are conducted by a board that is made up primarily of Iraqi officials, along with Coalition officials.”

Reuters, Reporters Without Borders, and other groups have repeatedly called for investigations into the deaths and detention of Iraqi journalists. But the U.S. military has defended its actions.

“A soldier being fired upon, who sees a person on the streets pointing an object at him, can’t always be expected to fully comprehend what’s a camera versus a weapon,” Lt-Col. Johnson told IPS. “He is always going to defend himself against a perceived threat.”

In September last year, a Congressional panel was convened to investigate the deaths of journalists in Iraq. Gen. George Casey, U.S. commander in Iraq, promised to examine the issue himself. “It’s an issue that we take very seriously. And what I will do when I get back to Baghdad is I’ll get a few of the local journalists together and work through some of their concerns with them.”

Since September at least seven journalists have been killed in Iraq. Some of them died under mysterious circumstances, a number of which involved men in Iraqi police uniforms. The United States continues to say that it acts within the ‘rules of engagement’, and denies claims of abuse by journalists who have been detained.

The press freedom index released by Reporters Without Borders last year rates Iraq at position 157 out of 167. “The situation in Iraq deteriorated further during the year as the safety of journalists became more precarious,” it said.

Khuthair, who was also detained at Abu Ghraib, says the United States deliberately targets journalists. “They gave me very bad treatment because I am a journalist,” he said. “One day a United States guard in Abu Ghraib said to me, ‘The media hate us more than the resistance!’ I asked him if there were other journalists in Abu Ghraib, and he said there were 17 others there at the same time.”

It is difficult to determine accurate numbers for Iraqi journalists and media workers who have been detained by the United States forces. Many Iraqis work as freelancers, and without the acknowledgement of major media outlet employers, their detentions may go unnoticed. Journalists can often be detained two or three times and still receive no charges.

“Those of us who work with foreign papers feel isolated, because we cannot tell people we are journalists,” said an Iraqi journalist who writes the blog ’24 Steps to Liberty’. “Because of this, the Iraqi government doesn’t consider us either Iraqi journalists or foreign journalists, which can make it very hard for us to get information.”

Lt-Col. Barry Johnson says he is seeing changes in the Iraqi media. “The media here have evolved from being formal mouthpieces of a dictatorial government to a key element of a budding democracy. Those who have worked closely with the media have seen this progression and see it as a sign that democracy is truly taking hold in this country.”

Many journalists do not see it that way. Before the war, there was strict monitoring of journalists by Saddam’s government, but none of the kind of troubles encountered now, Khuthair said. “Now it is very dangerous because after U.S. troops arrested and killed many people without reason it made Iraqis hate any American, and the Iraqis think all foreigners work with the U.S. troops.”

But it is not only the U.S. soldiers who create difficulties for Iraqi journalists. They fear the Iraqi government, kidnappers and criminals, and also attacks by terrorists and insurgents. “Nowadays, it is very hard to convince people to talk to you,” the blogger from ’24 Steps to Liberty’ told IPS.

“After they realised all we could do is expose their miseries, they stopped telling their stories,” the blogger said. “It is a dangerous job because the Iraqi government is after you if you write against it, the multinational forces will kill you if you interview the insurgents, and the insurgents want to kill you if you write nicely about the government.”

Despite all the difficulties Iraqi journalists face, the resolve of many is unbending.

“I will continue reporting the truth, and this will lessen the Iraqi suffering,” said Suhaib. Khuthair said, “If some Iraqis want reprisals by kidnapping foreign journalists, this isn’t good, but how can we control it? I think when the United States stops arresting and killing people, everything will be okay.”

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