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.

Karim Kadim/AP
People and security forces inspect the scene of a car bomb attack in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, on June 13.

A series of coordinated car bombs in Iraq targeted Shiite pilgrims today, killing at least 72 people in violence that recalled the worst years of Iraq's insurgency and sectarian civil war, which peaked in 2006-07.

The killings were a reminder that Iraq remains a very dangerous place, though much improved. And just as the bright, prosperous future that many Iraqis dreamed of at the start of the US-led war in 2003 has yet to materialize, so too have many of the basic freedoms it was assumed would flow from regime change.

Iraqi journalists, in particular, are still struggling to report freely and safely about their nation, something that was brought home when Marwan Ibrahim, a longtime reporter for Agence France-Presse, was seriously injured in a roadside bomb attack in the northern city of Kirkuk this morning.

By one count, more than 340 journalists have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003, and Iraq remains one of the most dangerous nations on earth to be a journalist, according to Freedom House.

Today death threats, targeted killings and bombed offices may no longer be as much a daily fact of life as they once were. But Iraqi journalists say that pressure and risks persist in other ways, under the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"The way of killing journalism, it continues. They are just changing the way of violence to legal violence, under the law," says Ziad al-Ajili, director of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, a free speech watchdog.

Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi has called media freedom a "threat to national security." And a new press law under consideration would impose tough penalties for spreading information "against the public interests," and limit access the Internet.

Freedom House lists Iraq as "not free," and in its 2011 report said the country "remained one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists," complicated by "increasing" restrictions and lawsuits.

"Al Qaeda killed journalists [before]," says Mr. Ajili. "But now the army and police, when they prevent you [from] going to news events or taking pictures or filming, and the government legislates laws to stop you getting information from their sources – so you are dead."

Ajili should know. He formed his group in 2004 with a string of observers across Iraq, who tabulated killings of journalists, one name at a time.

In an interview with the Monitor in 2006, Ajili said he slept with an AK-47 assault rifle beside him "like a soldier going out on a mission." Colleagues used to call him to reserve space on his website, which posted photographs and details of killed journalists. Even back then, journalism in Iraq was "going backwards," Ajili told the Monitor. When insurgents and militias saw the government shut out key Arabic-language television channels like al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera, they "think they have a right to kill journalists."

Concentrated power

These days the pressure comes as Mr. Maliki has been accused of centralizing power into his own hands, at the expense of coalition partners who have sought – so far unsuccessfully – to unseat him with a vote of no confidence in parliament.

"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.

"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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