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Marta Bellingreri

Journalists fight to survive in Iraq, dreaming of a career beyond war reporting

Iraqi journalists are seen covering events in the embattled city of Mosul [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 June, 2018

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Feature: Iraq remains one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists as they continue to be targeted, but different voices are still pushing for press freedom, writes Marta Bellingreri.
Hala 'Asif is a 24-year-old journalist working as a correspondent for the channel NRT in the central Karrada district of Baghdad. 

"Most of the issues I cover are social and cultural issues in the capital," she tells The New Arab.

"Foreign journalists often investigate political affairs in Iraq, which sometimes is impossible for us to cover as it would be too dangerous and would prevent us from working safely in our country," she adds. Hala is unfortunately right and is not the only one feeling limited in her profession.

In 2017, Iraq ranked 158 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. The same year, the Council of Arab Information Ministers chose the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, as the Capital of Arab Media for 2018.

A year later, Iraq dropped two places in the index, now ranking 160, highlighting the decline in the media field. 

Reporters Without Borders called Iraq one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists. The international non-profit, non-governmental organisation that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press organisation, found that investigative coverage of corruption or embezzlement exposes journalists to serious threats.

"Journalists have to work in a very politicised environment in which the media are regarded above all as political tools," it said. 

Hala can relate to this. "I would like to enter courts or visit prisons," she says, "But this is just impossible. I would like to go to other provinces in Iraq and carry out investigations about relevant issues, but as a young woman it would cost too much to take care of my safety," she adds. 

Reporters Without Borders said that journalists in Iraq are often targeted by gunmen with pro-government militias throughout the country as well as by militant opposition groups including the Islamic State, "which still poses a threat despite having been forced to retreat." 
Journalists in Iraq are often targeted by gunmen with pro-government militias throughout the country as well as by militant opposition groups including the Islamic State
Abdul-Meneim al-Asam, the chairman of the National Union of Iraqi Journalists (NUIJ) noted that in last year's long battle for Mosul against the Islamic State group, attacks and the killing of journalists increased. 

But, the murders of journalists go unpunished, said Reporters Without Borders, and even when investigations are opened they yield no result.

"We should salute the martyrs of freedom of expression and pave the road to freedom," said Abdul-Meneim.

After Kurdistan's attempts of an independence referendum failed in September last year, tensions between Baghdad and Erbil's governments increased.

Journalists have since struggled to do their work without being targeted by Peshmerga forces, who "wanted to control the media coverage and narrative of events." 

The staff of al-Ghad al-Arabi in Erbil were among some who experienced the barriers placed by the forces when it came to their work and reporting. 

Journalists regularly suffer from abuse by security authorities who, often ignoring journalists' duties and rights, prevent them from working, whether it be filming a demonstration in Baghdad or entering a public place.

Authorities have also been responsible for arbitrarily closing media offices, like in May 2017 when the Anbar Provincial Council decided to close the office of TV channel Dijla, which was conducting an official investigation about political figures involved in smuggling operations.

War journalism has occupied a primary place in Iraq, especially in the last four years, and has been problematic and dramatic in the same time: 50 journalists have lost their lives and while hundreds have been wounded in battlefronts.

"There are many different points to consider and take care of if we want to improve journalism in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East," begins Mustafa Saadoon, a 28-year-old journalist and head of the monitoring department at the National Union of Iraqi Journalists in Iraq (NUIJ).

War journalism has occupied a primary place in Iraq, especially in the last four years, and has been problematic and dramatic in the same time: 50 journalists have lost their lives and while hundreds have been wounded in battlefronts

"If we talk about war journalism and last year's events, we have to denounce that

"Most of the journalists covering last year's events were not fully prepared to do so, nor did they have the correct tools for safety, like shields, helmets or bulletproof jackets," Mustafa adds.

"In addition to this, some media outlets were sending their correspondents to cover battles without basic work assurances like signing contracts or providing social security."

Mustafa works for the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, where he researched for and prepared the 2017 report: Journalists in Iraq Facing Death, with the International Media Support (IMS). The different mistakes, violations and abuses are denounced, written 

Recently a large group of Iraqi war reporters started an association to defend their rights in the battlefields. 

"I have been in contact with volunteers working in Mosul for months to collect corpses under the rubble in the west part of the city to write a story about them. But I could not go there because until very recently I received death threats on my personal Facebook account and so I decided not to take the risk," Mustafa said. 

"For me, there is not a story that is worth our lives, and journalists should seek for more protection before going and taking such risks," he concluded.

Although last December the Iraqi government claimed victory over the Islamic State [IS] group, the group's presence in the country in areas like Niniveh, Anbar and Salahuddin can still be felt.

A few weeks before election day in Iraq, IS released a video threatening civilians and defining the voters as infidels. The extremists promised to attack polling stations.

Moreover, terrorist attacks on a weekly basis in different provinces continue to shake Iraq, as security forces arrest IS members daily in Mosul and throughout Iraq. Those who have been arrested are tried in courts and sentenced to death or life in prison.

While the discourse of war journalism often remains a priority, Iraqi journalists also feel it is now times to cover other deeper issues.

"There is a lack of economic and environment investigative journalism," says Muhannad Munjid of The Station, a coworking space for entrepreneurs and youngsters in the Karrada district, Baghdad, that also hosted the conference and workshops for World Press Freedom Day.

"Foreign journalists in Iraq also need to start looking at other issues and not just war, IS and the frontlines," journalist, writer and poet Omar al-Jaffal told The New Arab during a Skype interview from Germany.

Foreign journalists in Iraq also need to start looking at other issues and not just war, IS and the frontlines

Economic and environment issues are often at the origins of corruption scandals and at the core of the cause for battles, even if sectarian divides are considered the main reasons.

Journalism holds also a responsibility in the community-based peace-making process, "preventing or reducing hate speech and fighting it by conveying accurate information," said Amal Saqer, the deputy head of the NUJI.

US Ambassador Douglas Silliman speaks at the World Press Freedom Day in Baghdad in May last year [Alessio Mamo]

At the World Press Freedom Day, Nibras al-Mamouri, from the Iraqi Women Journalists' Forum, stressed the importance of supporting female journalists: "We need to create the legal framework to stop harassment and violations against women in the field and in the social networks," she urged.  

"Sometimes in very hard circumstances, there have been volunteer female reporters providing audio clips from the frontlines. They need more support, not just be made to work as volunteers."

Such is the case of Rana al-Ajili, a member of Iraqi's journalists syndicate (IJS), in the al-Qaim district of west of Anbar, who was killed while covering the battle against IS. She died when an explosive device targeting the military forces she was accompanying went off in the Iraqi-Syrian border's operations.

All these different voices in Iraq are attempting to promote press freedom, while also pushing the government on a legal level.

The NUJI recommends the amendment of Journalists' Rights Act of 2011 and of the draft law on Freedom of expression, as well as stressing the importance on educating security members in the field and not to leave abuses unpunished.

But beyond all the worries, they all hope that, after the massacre of last year, Iraq will no longer practice war journalism again in their home country.



Marta Bellingreri is a freelance researcher and writer, with a PhD focused on gender studies in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @MartaDafne

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