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Amid Iraq violence, journalists struggle about government control

Car-bomb attacks killed dozens in Iraq today, a reminder of the dangers that continue to lurk in the country. Local journalists are struggling with government restrictions on covering their country.

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"Anybody else in his position would do exactly the same thing ... they don't know any better," says Joost Hiltermann, Mideast and North Africa deputy program director for the International Crisis Group. "The reason [Maliki] is doing this is not because at night be dreams of being a dictator and he loves power. What drives him is fear and mistrust and paranoia," says Mr. Hiltermann.

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"Paranoia was a survival mechanism for [Maliki and other former exile leaders] in the face of an existential issue, of extermination by the regime," adds Hiltermann. "These guys managed to survive. How? Paranoia, which mirrored the regime's paranoia. That's great, but it doesn't make you a good governor. These are the wrong people to lead the country."

And the old methods are still in play, for some. There were seven assassination attempts on journalists last year, according to Mr. Ajili's group. In an apparent bid to intimidate those critical of Maliki, and his government's crushing of Iraq's Arab Spring-style protests last year, radio commentator and critic Hadi al-Mehdi was gunned down in Baghdad in September.

Security forces raided Ajili's offices last year, trashing them and taking computer hard drives. He also lost his car in a stand-off when men in six Humvees came to arrest him without a warrant. "There is no danger like militias and insurgents; there is nothing else that frightens us," says Ajili. "But now we can't talk about important things."

Nowhere to hide

And in some ways it is more dangerous. Journalists used to be able to hide from insurgents, says Ajili. But "now [government officials] are watching us, they can find us....Today we can't hide."

Stories of the tug-of-war between journalists and Iraqi officials are common, in a nation where corruption is rife and popular discontent with leaders and parliament is widespread.

Yet well-known journalist Sermad al-Taee is confident that Iraq's oil money will help generate exponential growth in media investment. The columnist is a critic of the regime, and in charge of the newsroom for Al Mada TV, one branch of a large media group that plans to begin broadcasting next October.

"Even with violence and corruption, incomes will double. People busy with guns now will be busy with money in the future," says Mr. Taee, sitting in secured offices in Baghdad, with fine art decorating the walls. "There is optimism, but still big concerns and fears because the ruler in Iraq [Maliki], he hopes to be a dictator," says Taee. "We in the media are fighting this, but we can't reach a high enough level to achieve it."

Overall violence in Iraq is today a fraction, perhaps down 90 percent, of what it was during the worst days of the Iraq conflict. Then, some 3,000 Iraqis were dying every month.

Journalists who are targeted today "don't know the rules of engagement with politicians and others," says Taee. "The people with power, they have their rules [and] now we know their rules... The politicians do not kill me or send me to jail, but they prevent me from having information, and we should fight this," says Taee. Checkpoints "are dealing with cameramen like they are car bombs; they put 1,000 hurdles in your way."

The new normal

That environment has become the new normal for journalists in Iraq, adds Taee, whose 35 years have been defined by conflict. His first memories are not of his mother, but at age three in 1980, of an Iraqi tank rumbling past his house on its way to the front line of the Iran-Iraq War; of other tanks firing away; and of a big ship on fire in the riverine channel of the southern border.

At age 18, Taee fled Iraq. He returned after 2003, but left again during the bloodiest periods of the war. Now he is back to stay, though last month he received a "big warning from a big politician," which he now considers a "normal thing."

Indeed, security forces and pro-Maliki thugs last spring made it clear that anti-Maliki protests – and coverage of them – were acceptable only to a very limited degree.

That left officials with "three bad options," says Taee: "kill a journalist and make a martyr; arrest one and he will be a hero; or let him (live) and he will call you names."

The result has been increasing pressure applied through media bosses, "to quiet those with long tongues," says Taee. "The solution is not to stop working, but to keep working and make progress."

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter.

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