Media in Iraq see through a shrinking window

Iraq is deadliest country for journalists, report says.

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

"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."

"It's wonderful working at the newspaper," adds Hamid. "Of course, I want to be a journalist, but my family would never accept it, because it is too dangerous."

There are also problems putting out the paper. Three months ago, Al-Mada received a state-of-the-art printing machine. But it remains unused, costing the paper $2,000 each day, because the Lebanese engineers who can get it running refuse to come to Baghdad.

"They are afraid and still won't come, though we promised them security and a guarded hotel," says Jizary. "You can imagine an engineer from outside. He's not a journalist, and not used to hot spots."

But even some of Iraq's hot spots have become too hot for Iraqis to cover. The kidnap and attack territory south of Baghdad is a no-go area for Al-Mada journalists. The writer for the paper in Fallujah - center of Iraq's violent insurgency - is protected by a powerful clan, and writes under a pseudonym.

Initial stories about conflicts between nationalist insurgents in Fallujah and Arab fighters loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi first appeared in Al-Mada and were picked up in the Western press.

"The fear of the government has changed to fear of the military, or of criminals," says Abdul Zahra Zeki, a poet and managing editor of Al-Mada. But, he adds, "six months from now, life must be better. There is no choice but to be optimistic."

"I think they want to frighten us, because I always publish descriptions of who was killed and kidnapped, and call a murder a murder," says Tabauchli.

The Azzaman editor keeps his fear under control - the result of plenty of practice. He studied journalism in the 1960s, joined the official Iraqi News Agency, and then left in 1998. He bought a taxi and drove weekly - even smuggling cigarettes, to fit in with other drivers - to Jordan, where he secretly filed reports to the London offices of Azzaman.

Just months before the war, Tabauchli was fingered by Iraqi intelligence in Jordan, and taken to Abu Ghraib prison. Because he was an "old man," he says, he was only beaten with a cable and given electric shock. He says that younger men he saw there had electrical nodes attached to their ears and genitals until they bled.

Today the risks couldn't be more different, though no less dangerous.

Azzaman publishes coalition and government contract notices. An ad this week paid for by "multinational forces" congratulated Iraqis on the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

When four American contractors were killed and mutilated in Fallujah last spring, Azzaman said that no true Muslim, and no Iraqi, could do such a deed. The paper has appealed to all Iraq's parties to take part in January elections as a "historic chance."

US forces and Iraq's interim government also get a grilling.

And while that may be considered "balance" inside the newsroom, in Iraq's polarized and brutalized postwar society, such positions can invite revenge.

"When you see [a threat letter] for the first time, you are afraid, " says the veteran journalist, who has received a stream of threatening calls in the past year demanding that he resign from the 60,000-copy daily.

Looking at the threatening letter he received, he refolds it, puts it back in his shirt pocket, and takes a philosophical view. "Most [editors] are leaving their jobs because they are afraid," he says. "I stay here until God decides. My life is by the hand of God."

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