Worldwide, violence against journalists hits a new high

Covering Iraq was the most dangerous assignment in 2005, both for foreign correspondents and native journalists.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It was just after midnight. Fakher Haider had finished filing his last report for The New York Times from the satellite phone on his roof in Basra. Then came a knock on his front door. Armed, masked men claiming to be local police insisted that he go with him. Mr. Haider assured his family not to worry. The next day, his body was found with a gunshot to the head and bruises on his back, according to the newspaper.

Haider, a respected Iraqi reporter and translator, was one of 22 journalists killed in Iraq in 2005. Worldwide, 63 journalists were killed last year - the most since the Algerian conflict, when 57 journalists were killed between 1993 and 1996, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Iraq is currently the most dangerous place for journalists to work. Since the war began in March 2003, 79 journalists and media workers have died in the line of duty. Thirty-five others have been abducted, including Jill Carroll, a freelance writer working with the Monitor and other news organizations, and almost a dozen have been detained by the US military, according to statistics compiled by Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Hundreds have been wounded - ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt being the most recent high-profile cases.

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"It's an unprecedented wave of violence against journalists," says Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists, founded in 1981 and based in New York. "It's the most dangerous conflict since we began systematically documenting these kinds of violations."

The Philippines was the second most deadly place for a reporter to work last year. Seven journalists were killed there for their reporting, and dozens were physically assaulted. They were among more than 1,300 worldwide who were attacked. In Bangladesh and Nepal, beatings and assaults were reported almost daily. China and Cuba led the world in locking up reporters, with 32 and 24 journalists jailed, respectively. The total was 126 worldwide.

But Iraq remains the most dangerous place for reporters to work. That's because a chaotic Iraq - with its multiple insurgencies, power struggles between militia groups, and nascent Army and police forces (which sometimes are infiltrated by insurgents) - has exacerbated the dangers for journalists, who daily risk getting caught in cross-fire or hit by roadside bombs.

Foreign correspondents and native local reporters, though, face different challenges. To some attackers, who are accustomed to a government controlled press, foreign journalists are symbols of their home governments rather than independent, objective news gatherers - targets or political pawns rather than information providers.

The "Islamic Army in Iraq," which kidnapped Italian freelancer Enzo Baldoni in August 2004, demanded that Italy withdraw all its military forces. The Italian government declined, and Mr. Baldoni was executed. Other Italian journalists facing the same demand have been released.

In Ms. Carroll's case, the previously unknown "Brigades of Vengeance" that abducted her is demanding that US forces and Iraq's Interior Ministry release all Iraqi women in their custody. Five such women have been released so far.

Of the five kidnapped journalists who've been killed, Baldoni was the only Westerner. Four were Iraqis. The others have been released. The latest video of Carroll indicates she's alive, and intense efforts to win her release continue.

Most of the reporters killed, harassed, or detained have been local, as is usually the case in places roiled by fighting and conflict. In Iraq, local reporters have become even more vulnerable because, as security has deteriorated, foreign journalists have become more dependent on their Iraqi counterparts to provide firsthand accounts of suicide and car bombings.

"The Bob Woodruff case in point, the sheer dangers for foreign correspondents to go out and get a story are just phenomenal, so Iraqi nationals are being hired," says Tala Dowlatshahi, the New York representative of Reporters Without Borders. "Initially, [the Iraqis] were translators and drivers, but increasingly they're becoming the [primary] journalists who collect the story on the ground."

The first time Robert Sullivan, a former cameraman for Fox News, worked in Iraq in 2004, he and the reporters spent about one-third of their time on the road, getting firsthand accounts. They spent the rest of their time, he says, doing live shots from the hotel in Baghdad. When he returned in 2005, his team seldom left the hotel and secure surroundings.

"Most of the pictures you see on the networks are shot by Iraqis," he says.

Because Iraqi society is complex, native news gatherers are sometimes accused of belonging to one faction or another and, as a result, have become targets of both insurgents and the US Army. For instance, it's believed that Haider, who was working for The New York Times, was killed by a Shiite religious faction because he was investigating reports that religious Shiite militia had infiltrated the local police force in Basra. That had initially been reported by Steven Vincent, who was also killed last August, just two days after an op-ed piece he wrote about the Shiite militia appeared in The New York Times.

About a dozen local journalists have been killed by US forces. In some cases, troops mistook photographers' cameras for guns. In others, the reporters got caught in cross-fire.

"There is no special status for journalists, other than noncombatant status. They get the same protections as other civilian persons in a time a war," says Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Defense Department spokesman. "The job of a journalist operating independently is made more difficult by the asymmetric nature of the threat posed by the various factions in Iraq. Traditional paradigms don't seem to work too well."

In 2005, the US military detained at least seven local journalists in Iraq. CBS cameraman Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein is one of them. He was filming the aftermath of a suicide bombing when he was shot in the hip by a US soldier. While in the hospital recuperating, he was detained. The military said the video in his camera indicated he was working with insurgents, a claim his colleagues adamantly deny.

That was last April, and Mr. Hussein hasn't been heard from since, despite repeated requests from CBS and its lawyers for information.

"Our position from the beginning has been that we just want this man to have due process," says Linda Mason, senior vice president for standards and special projects at CBS.

Hussein is one of three journalists in Iraq held by the US military. The three, who "happen to be journalists," are being detained for security reasons, not because they're reporters, says Colonel Venable.

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