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Media in Iraq see through a shrinking window

Iraq is deadliest country for journalists, report says.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2004



BAGHDAD

The letter was slipped through his car window, promising death to the editor of Iraq's largest newspaper, Azzaman.

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"We kill the guilty, and this is the third warning," read the letter, signed by a group calling itself the Movement of Martyr Supporters. "We will kill you in a very nasty way."

But Muthanna Naji al-Tabauchli doesn't scare easily. Working in lawless Iraq, he is used to such threats.

For Western journalists and Iraqis alike, the intensifying dangers in Iraq are making it daily more difficult to tell the country's story. The ranks of foreign journalists have dwindled in the face of increased kidnappings, car bombs, and hotel rocket attacks.

And Iraqi journalists - including those being hired by foreign media as their eyes and ears - are also under fire, taking risks and receiving a multitude of threats even as they come to terms with the "anything goes" press freedoms in Iraq.

Forty-four journalists have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, making the country the deadliest in the world for the profession, according to a report by Reporters Without Borders released Tuesday. Overall, the country ranked 148th in the world for press freedom.

For Iraqis, it's been a tough transformation after decades of control under Saddam Hussein.

Back then, the word "journalist" hardly applied to members of the media here. Their daily diet was Saddam Hussein, again and again.

"It's a big jump from four newspapers - each one a copy of the other, designed in the office of Saddam Hussein - to 120 papers," says Zuhair al-Jizary, a novelist and editor of Al-Mada newspaper, who lived outside Iraq for more than 20 years.

"The language has completely changed. Now we have complete freedom of the press," he says. "I can criticize the US, and every day I criticize their behavior and military operations without hesitation."

"But I can't trust that this freedom will carry on for a long time," says Jizary, noting pressure from security officials and the interior ministry. "These people have no common language with the press, hide the facts, and limit [news] sources."

Beside getting short shrift from officials in Iraq, local journalists and photographers - while at least able to get to the scene of an attack - find they are frequently prevented from working by Iraqi police or US forces.

"After the liberation, we thought life would be better, but it's the opposite," says Samir Hadi, a veteran photographer who shoots for Al-Mada and has been held back from attacks scenes by Iraqi forces.

"This is the same style as the Saddam regime," he laments. "We face many attacks and explosions both from American and terrorist forces. Now they never let us shoot pictures."

Besides the risk to photographers, other dangers also affect the work of the press. Typist Zainab Hamid had to beg her mother to let her return to work in late August, when a rocket fired at the Green Zone landed - without exploding - on Al-Mada's roof.

"She wanted me to stay at home, and I was begging her," says the young mother, clasping her hands as if in prayer.

"There are explosions by my house every day," says Ms. Hamid, who wears a black head scarf. "I worry about my daughter in school. My mother worries about me - I don't think it's going to get any better."

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