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Last Updated: Friday, 7 April 2006, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Iraqi journalists at risk
By Sebastian Usher
BBC world media correspondent

More than 80 journalists and media assistants have been killed in Iraq in the past three years. The highest-profile killings and kidnappings have been of Western reporters, but most of the journalists killed there have been Iraqis.

Atwar Bahjat
Atwar Bahjat was killed in February 2006
Some have been killed in the crossfire, a number have died from US fire, although the American military says all such killings have been accidental.

But increasingly, Iraqi journalists are being killed by militants and insurgents. They appear to be targeted because they are not espousing the gunmen's points of view. The intensifying danger is making it harder and harder for Iraqi journalists and their colleagues from the wider Arab world to tell anything like the real story of what is happening in Iraq.

Out of all those killed in Iraq in the past three years, a few faces have emerged with clarity. One belonged to an Iraqi journalist, Atwar Bahjat. Half Sunni and half Shia - always wearing a brightly coloured headscarf - she reported for the Arab TV stations, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.

She was murdered on the afternoon of 22 February this year - just hours after the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra with its famous golden dome was bombed. While interviewing local people, she was seized by several armed men. Her body was found early the next morning.

The spokesman for al-Arabiya, Jihad Ballout, says that she was killed because she was a journalist: "She died a horrible death. We interviewed her young sister just after we heard that she was murdered - and what reverberates in my mind and I believe in a lot of viewers' minds was the constant questioning of why... Why Atwar? I mean she was the embodiment of non-sectarianism in Iraq."

Channels as 'enemies'

The headlines on al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera and Iraqi TV stations like the government-run al-Iraqiya and the privately-owned al-Sharqiya are dominated day after day by the bloodshed in Iraq.

Whenever I go to work and when I leave my neighbourhood, of course my neighbours never know where I am going - they think I'm doing something else or working in another profession
HM, Iraqi journalist
But the groups perpetrating the killings don't like their coverage - as the Middle East specialist at the media watchdog, Reporters without Borders, Lynn Tehini, explains: "They are being targeted even though these TV stations do not have a point of view that is religious or a very clear point of view. They tend to be neutral in their information - but some people do not like what they broadcast and see these channels as enemies."

More than two-thirds of the journalists killed in Iraq in the past three years have been Iraqis.

Non-Arab journalists in Iraq now have very little freedom of movement - relying instead on Iraqi reporters to be their eyes and ears.

That has encouraged bright young Iraqis to become journalists. A young woman who wanted only to be identified by her initials, HM, is one of this new breed.

She says many of her fellow citizens were suspicious of people like her: "Not everyone or not all of them will understand that you are an Iraqi journalist trying to help this country survive what it's seeing at the moment. They think that you are just working for money and working with international media for your own interest so that has really become a threat and just showing yourself on the streets makes you vulnerable to anyone."

Terrorists don't hesitate to enter the houses of these journalists and kill them in front of their families - because they know that no one will pursue them
Lynn Tehini, Reporters without Borders
Unlike their Western colleagues, Iraqi journalists mostly have to do their job without any security back-up. It is too expensive. HM says she tries to keep the fact that she is a journalist a secret.

"Whenever I go to work and when I leave my neighbourhood, of course my neighbours never know where I am going - they think I'm doing something else or working in another profession."

She is not alone in this - many Iraqi reporters keep quiet about their work. But that is not an option TV reporters and presenters have. Increasingly, they have been targeted.

Reporters without Borders' Lynn Tehini says that no-one - not the Iraqi government nor US forces - has been able to safeguard the journalists: "They cannot protect them - they cannot even pursue the terrorists who are usually attacking Iraqi journalists.

"Terrorists don't hesitate to enter the houses of these journalists and kill them in front of their families - because they know that no one will pursue them.

Factions

The worst-hit media outlet has been the national TV station, al-Iraqiya. Twelve of its journalists and media assistants have been killed. The station is administered by the government - the insurgents regard its staff as collaborators with the Americans.

It seems it is getting harder and harder for Iraqi journalists... and at the same time the challenges, the dangers are getting greater and greater
Ahmed Mukhtar, Iraqi journalist

An Iraqi journalist who works for both local and international media, Ahmed Mukhtar, explained the insurgents' motivation in attacking the Iraqi media: "They'd like the journalists to show certain sides of life here in Iraq - so they feel that these journalists are just like traitors - just like the politicians they are fighting against."

A plethora of TV and radio stations and newspapers and magazines has appeared since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

On the surface, there is an impression of freedom and variety. But most serve factional interests. And the scope for genuinely independent or objective reporting is narrowing - thanks in part, as Ahmed Mukhtar, puts it, to the increasing threats facing reporters:

"It seems it is getting harder and harder for Iraqi journalists - that the room for freedom is not as huge as before - and at the same time the challenges, the dangers are getting greater and greater."


Before Saddam Hussein, Iraq's media was one of the most vibrant and professional in the Arab world. But that was more than 30 years ago and its reputation - three years after Saddam's overthrow - hasn't yet truly recovered.

Locals remain sceptical about journalists' impartiality, often dismissing them as being in the pay of one group or another.

So - with little or no security, poor pay and no great support from their fellow citizens - why do Iraqi journalists continue to put their lives at risk to get a story? The young reporter HM says: "Maybe the first thing is trying to help this country rebuild itself once again - trying at the same time to say the truth.

"There are so many things going on in this country that nobody knows about and there's some news which doesn't interest the international media but does interest the Iraqi or the Arab media, and through this kind of news we're trying to tell the story as it is."

Performing that basic journalistic duty has angered all sides in Iraq.

A number of journalists have been killed in the crossfire by American troops and Iraqi soldiers.

The Americans have always denied that such deaths were anything but accidental. Arab and Iraqi media outlets have been less convinced.

But the worst danger Iraqi and Arab journalists face these days is now clearly from militant groups - who are kidnapping and killing them because they do not like what they are saying.



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