< Iraqi Journalists Struggle for Press Freedoms


Friday, May 27, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: If the tension between our democratic values and our national security is under-debated here, such debate seems to be entirely absent in Iraq, a nation the U.S. government invaded eight years ago with an eye to cultivating democracy in the Middle East.

Protests in many of Iraq’s biggest cities against the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki have been suppressed, along with the media attempting to cover them. According to human rights watchers, journalists in Iraq today are confronting tactics nearly as brutal as those used by Saddam Hussein.

Sherry Ricchiardi, an expert on Middle Eastern media, says the current state of Iraqi media is eerily reminiscent of the not-so-distant past.

SHERRY RICCHIARDI: Journalists throughout the country, not just in Baghdad but throughout the country, have been harassed by the security forces, detained, assaulted, and there have been these terrible middle-of-the-night raids on newspaper newsrooms, radio and television stations where they break in. If anybody’s there, they intimidate them. If they're not, they raid the place, they take computers. And this has been, been going on for, for quite a while now, and it’s getting worse, not better.

BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the TV station called Nalia.

SHERRY RICCHIARDI: Nalia was the TV channel that was - right when the protests started that they were attacked brutally. After they filmed the unrest in Sulaymaniyah, 50 or 60 masked gunmen rushed the studio, raided it, destroyed all of the equipment and set the building ablaze, which is the ultimate statement of “we are totally destroying you.”

BOB GARFIELD: To what extent are these outlying episodes and to what extent does it characterize business as usual under the Maliki government?

SHERRY RICCHIARDI: There’s one journalist that I talked extensively to by email, and his name is Muhammad al-Qaisi. And he described to me how he survives, because that was the question I, I asked all of them, how - how are you surviving today in Iraq? And he told me the story about how he climbs out of bed every morning before the school bus arrives to pick up his kids, and he said, I grab a broom handle and I stand back as far as I can from the front door and I poke it wide open a couple of times to make sure no one has come in during the night to attach a bomb to it.

And he went on to talk about how once his kids are safely on their way and he goes out to the car to, to go to work, that he gets down on his hands and knees and checks under the car for an explosive device.

And the most stunning thing he said is that murdering a journalist in Iraq is easier than running a red light. He said, you know, life here is really awful for us.

And so, I thought, okay, there’s one guy. I'm - I'll talk to some more. And I did. And all of them tell a similar story of how they survive. Muhammad told me that he uses four different names and four different identity cards when he moves through these checkpoints in various neighborhoods and towns because of the sectarian and political differences. And he said he even changes his appearance when he goes out to Baghdad or Mosul or Fallujah.

BOB GARFIELD: What’s his beat, that he has to employ tradecraft just to go to work in the morning?

SHERRY RICCHIARDI: Because he reports on corruption and he tells stories about how things are not getting better in Iraq, how, you know, there still is spotty electricity, there’s no clean water.

And I asked him, I said, who do you think - if there would be an attack against you, where would it come from? And he said, oh, I can't answer that. It could come from anywhere. It could be the government is mad at me. It could be some insurgent group is angry at something I reported. He said this is it for all of us.

The Iraqi journalists I interviewed for my report showed very, very little confidence that the situation would improve in Iraq’s current political setting. They didn't see it. And I would ask them several different ways, and I would get the same answer: As long as things stay like they are politically here, nothing’s going to change for us. It’s just going to get worse.

BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the chilling effect, and let's begin with the protests that I mentioned in the introduction. I have to tell you, I was utterly unaware that there had been any street protests in these Iraqi cities, not necessarily calling for regime change, but calling for accountability. They somehow escaped my attention. Do you know why?

SHERRY RICCHIARDI: The chilling effect is really very serious because the brutality has been so bad that they pull back their coverage. They say, wait a minute, what’s gonna happen to us if we go back into the Square or if we go back to cover that protest. So there’s the effect of them pulling back to save themselves because they've seen their colleagues brutalized. And then there’s more self-censorship: What are we going to report that’s going to get us in trouble and, and get our media outlet shut down?

To me, when - when a government attacks and represses the media, that’s so important that it has to be noticed, especially when the U.S. government continues to pour so much money into that country.

My report says that they've invested more than a half billion dollars, just in media development, of U.S. taxpayer dollars. I think the media should be asking [LAUGHS], what did we get for that? And I think we would find that what we got was a far cry from what the Pentagon planners wanted when they began this bef - even before the invasion, when they began planning for rec – reconstructing the media.

BOB GARFIELD: And what about the Maliki government, what have they said?

SHERRY RICCHIARDI: They condemned the violence. It’s a public relations way of dealing with it. “We strongly condemn the violence against journalists and we are doing all we can.”

Well no, they're not doing all they can. They're not arresting people who kill journalists. And their own security forces are operating with impunity to attack journalists. And it may be that only our State Department can push them to that, working and collaborating with groups within that country who are very courageous, and they're fighting a hard battle, and they're losing, in a lot of ways.

BOB GARFIELD: Sherry, thank you very much.

SHERRY RICCHIARDI: You’re welcome.

BOB GARFIELD: Sherry Ricchiardi wrote the report for the Center for International Media Assistance. She teaches at Indiana University’s School of Journalism.