Iraq - Most Dangerous Country for Journalists Worldwide

Tribute to two Iraqi journalists

May 22, 2008

A tribute to two Iraqi journalists by Layla Al-Zubaidi and Magda Abu-Fadil

By Layla Al-Zubaidi and Magda Abu-Fadil

Two journalists who participated in a media workshop in September/October 2005, organized by the Institute for Professional Journalists at the Lebanese American University and supported by the office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Beirut, were murdered within less than a year by gunmen in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Both Sarwa Abdul-Wahab and Sahar Hussein Ali Al-Haydari were passionate journalists who lived and died to recount their country’s agonizing story.

The case of Sarwa Abdul-Wahab

Sarwa Abdul-Wahab is the most recent murder case among Iraqi journalists that has been sharply condemned by the international media and by organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. On May 4, 2008, one day after World Press Freedom Day, Sarwa visited a market together with her mother. On their way home, Sarwa was halted by two gunmen, trying to force her into their car. While resisting this kidnapping attempt, Sarwa was murdered with two shots to the head as her mother watched. Three weeks earlier, she received a text message on her mobile phone that she would die if she did not refrain from further reporting. As a freelance journalist, she contributed to the Iraqi news website Murasloun and to Saladin TV. She also worked as a lawyer and was known for actively defending journalists’ rights.

The case of Sahar Hussein Ali Al-Haydari

Sahar Hussein Ali Al-Haydari, correspondent of the Iraqi National News Agency and the independent news agency Aswat Al-Iraq, wrote under a pseudonym for different media outlets after having been roughed up several times due to her audacious coverage of Mosul’s internecine fighting. Repeated death threats forced her to flee to Damascus together with her husband and four children. A few months before her death, she wrote an email to the Committee to Protect Journalists about a death list, which she found pinned on her door, with her name fourth in the lineup. During a short visit in her home city she was shot by four unidentified assailants on June 7, 2007.

Both women were selected for the media training from countless applications as representatives of an enthusiast, promising and independent generation of journalists. The program included an exchange among Lebanese and Iraqi journalists on the dangers and ethics of reporting on conflict and war. During 10 days in Beirut, 15 Iraqi journalists from media outlets as diverse as As-Sabah and Az-Zaman newspapers, Yanabeeh und Al-Jeel magazines, Nawa Radio, Kurdish Satellite and Al-Diyar TV, Voices of Iraq and Iraqiyoun news agencies, discussed with their Lebanese colleagues the basics of professional journalism, the difference between news and opinion pieces, successful research and interview methods, and experimented with studio techniques and Internet journalism. The training was meant to contribute to enhancing the skills of Iraqi journalists and to further a more open and pluralistic media landscape in Iraq.

Iraq – most dangerous country for journalists worldwide

Following the end of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime in spring 2003, Iraqi journalists looked forward to a new era of free expression. After a brief euphoria however, during which hundreds of new newspapers and media outlets mushroomed, media professionals soon had to fear for their lives again. Today, Iraq has become the deadliest country for journalists worldwide. According to Reporters Without Borders, 212 journalists and media assistants have died a violent death since the war started five years ago. Iraq also tops the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index, which measures unsolved journalist murders. In most cases, journalists are targeted for their profession, are ambushed by militias or fall victim to factional fighting. In the year 2007 alone, 25 Iraqi journalists were kidnapped. Many have been intimidated with death threats and forced into exile.

Journalists, however, do not only stand in the crossfire of different militias, but are also targeted by the Iraqi government and the occupation coalition. Journalists who report critically on the government or its members can face serious consequences. The Iraqi correspondent of the Washington Post in Baghdad, who died in 2007 covering battles between Sunni and Shiite militias, had fled his home town Tikrit after city officials put a price on his head for his investigation into their involvement in corruption cases. Additionally, journalists have had to face a multitude of restrictions imposed by the authorities. Since May 2007, it is prohibited to film the locations of bomb attacks, and journalists can be arrested for maintaining contact with rebels of the PKK in the Kandil Mountains on the border with Turkey. The US army also detains journalists, often for months, without clear charges. In general, local media are encouraged to present a “positive image,” while undesirable critical reporting is hampered. According to Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “no side has an interest in showing the world what is really going on in Iraq.”

Layla Al-Zubaidi is director of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Beirut (Lebanon).
Magda Abu-Fadil is director of the Journalism Training Program at the American University of Beirut (AUB).