For Iraqis, news is a deadly business

With 55 Iraqi journalists killed this year, Iraq is now the world's most dangerous place for local reporters.

At dawn, a guard at the fledgling Iraqi television station watched helplessly as a death squad – more than a dozen heavily armed men with silencers on their pistols and many with Iraqi police uniforms on their backs – rolled up in a convoy to Al Shabiya TV.

He immediately phoned the station's anchorman, Firas al-Rikabi, at his nearby home. The guard was beside himself, warning Mr. Rikabi to "try to run away." After 75 minutes, the gunmen left the station, and Rikabi arrived to find 11 of his journalist colleagues dead.

No one heard a single shot.

The professional hit, conducted last month, delivered one of this year's heaviest blows to Iraqi journalists. Amid the swirl of sectarian bloodletting and insurgent attacks, the Iraqi media faces the treacherous task of navigating the political differences between parties, and widespread ignorance about their role.

The label "independent" media in Iraq has become a death sentence, in what has become the world's most dangerous environment for local journalists. Already this year 55 Iraqi journalists have been killed – more than any other year – and four remain hostages.

"Now we are facing a crisis," says Rikabi, who was to be a news program host for the nascent Al Shabiya TV, which was attacked before it had even begun regular broadcasts.

"When they see their friends dead in front of their eyes, they are very angry, very sad," says Rikabi, who, like many, has taken heed of the threats and has decided he will no longer appear before the camera. Instead, he found another job in media. "We believe: If they want to kill us, even if we are working in the Green Zone, they will kill us because they have power."

The dangers of Baghdad were evident again Sunday, when 52 people lost their lives in the Iraqi capital – including 35 in a double suicide strike against police commando recruits. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a closed session of parliament he wanted a "comprehensive cabinet shake-up" and pledge of loyalty to a unified Iraq.

A growing number of incidents in recent months have demonstrated the insurgency and militia's power to target and intimidate. There have been a string of media murders against print, radio, and TV journalists. When Al Shabiya TV was hit, it was the second such attack in a fortnight.

"There is no progress. We are going backwards," says Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, an Iraqi free speech watchdog group that tabulates attacks against Iraqi journalists.

"The level of freedom has dropped to a very low level, because the insurgents and militias have relations with the government," says Mr. Ajili.

"When they see the government close Al Sharqiya TV, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, [insurgents and militias] think they have a right to kill journalists."

The proof is in the numbers, which Ajili's group – formed in 2004, and now with a string of 30 observers reporting from across Iraq – keeps careful count of on-line, name by name.

Seven Iraqi journalists were killed in 2003. When the insurgency took root in 2004, the toll jumped to 50. In 2005 another 44 died; 2006 has already set a record, with 1-1/2 months to go. In many cases, attackers steal the mobile phones of their victims, and call and text message threats to all their colleagues in the address book.

When Nakhsin Hama Rashid, a woman who broadcast for a government-backed Kurdish TV program, was murdered two weeks ago, everyone in her phone list received this text warning on their mobile phones: "Today Nakhsin, tomorrow you."

The political dimension is also growing, as political parties – usually in the government, often with ties to their own powerful militias, and owners of their own sympathetic media outlets – seek to influence independent voices.

The number of court cases against journalists, for example, surged from just two or three last year to 10 so far this year. While there have been rumors that lawmakers have recently begun to draft a press law, no one has seen a copy nor expects it to uphold any freedoms.

"Until now, there is a dictatorship in the Iraqi mind," says Ajili. "They are targeting independent journalists all the time." He points to the case of Sunni journalist Ahmad al-Rashid of Al Sharqiya TV. He was driving through a Sunni area, when a three-man hit squad in another car, almost certainly Sunnis, shot him dead.

"These results [tell us] politicians want journalists to be the voice of their parties. When you join parties, you get protection from them," says Ajili. Passage of any press law, he says, would "end many journalist freedoms."

"This is very difficult for journalists, even more difficult than the assassinations," says Ajili, noting that no case involving an attack on journalists has been solved. "We can't work, if we are giving all the sacrifices with no democracy."

The Al Shabiya TV attack, many journalists here believe, also has political motivations. If the killers were a Shiite death squad, as is widely believed, attacking a TV station with a largely Shiite staff and a Shiite manager, the reason may be that the station was calling for Iraq to stay unified.

That message is contrary to the position of some key Shiite parties, which demand a federal Iraq.

"The targeting of journalists is from the government itself, and parties in the government," says Rikabi, who also survived a brief capture by insurgents in 2004, was beaten heavily, and threatened repeatedly with death. Insurgent groups believe all journalists "work for the occupation."

And the third problem, he says, is that today's Iraq has left no room for dialogue. "There is not another opinion. But if there is a disagreement, they will kill you."

Which is why Ajili has spent much of his own money upgrading security at his home, and keeps his AK-47 assault rifle beside him at night "like a soldier going out on a mission." Sometimes his friends call him and ask if he will reserve space on his media freedom group's website, where photographs and details of all killed Iraqi journalists are posted.

Limitations of work in Iraq hit home for Ajili during a recent trip to Jordan. Ajili says he slept just three hours, overwhelmed by the ability to move safely anywhere.

"I felt free, using my microphone in the streets," he says. "I wanted to do so many stories."

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