x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Iraqi journalists face daily threat

Insurgents and government seen as working to suppress media and control information as at least 230 reporters have been killed since war began.

Friends and relatives mourn as they carry the coffin of Iraqi journalist Riyadh Al-Sarai during his funeral procession in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010. Unknown gunmen in a speedy car intercepted the car of al-Sarai in Harithiya area of Baghdad and killed him by silenced pistols. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Friends and relatives mourn as they carry the coffin of Iraqi journalist Riyadh Al-Sarai during his funeral procession in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010. Unknown gunmen in a speedy car intercepted the car of al-Sarai in Harithiya area of Baghdad and killed him by silenced pistols. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD // After the Iraqi journalist Riyad Assariyeh was assassinated this month, his family advised other reporters to stay away from the traditional three-day funeral wake, fearing the gathering would present an easy target for militants. It is a sign of just how vulnerable Iraqi journalists now feel that many of them took the advice, paying respect to their fallen colleague on the first day of mourning and not returning.

Assariyeh's murder in Baghdad on September 7, and the killing one day later in Mosul of another reporter are part of an increasingly dangerous battle for control over information, that has seen insurgents and government institutions working to suppress the media, journalists and analysts say. Assariyeh, a highly regarded presenter on the state-run Iraqiyya television network, was shot by men using silenced weapons as he drove through western Baghdad.

The attack was blamed on al Qa'eda in Iraq, a group that Assariyeh had been highly critical of. His popular television discussion show had focused on political and religious issues, and had countered al Qa'eda's efforts to divide Sunni and Shiite Muslims. "For Iraqi journalists the situation is returning to the dark days of 2007," said Hussein al Rubaie, a reporter with Radio Sawa from Hilla, south of Baghdad.

This month he found a bomb wired to his car engine, discovering the device by chance because he had decided to check the water and oil levels in the engine. "You cannot be sure who wants to kill you in Iraq when you're a journalist," al Rubaie said. "I've recently done a number of reports about the growing strength of al Qa'eda in the area south of Baghdad. Perhaps because of that, they want to kill me.

"Or if could be that a Shiite militia is after me. There are many people who are against journalists." For the past few years, al Rubaie said, he had been taking fewer precautions than in 2007 because security had been improving. After the attempt on his life however, and the other attacks on journalists, he said he was going to return to an ultra-cautious way of working. "I'll be as careful as I can," he said. "I think there is a plan by al Qa'eda to kill journalists in order to spread fear and confusion."

It is not just militant groups that are making reporters' lives hard in Iraq. Government officials have also used their powers to prevent journalists from airing critical reports. In Kut, the capital of Wasit province, Sjaz Salem, a newspaper reporter, was arrested and jailed this month over a story about interference by politicians in the supposedly independent judicial system. Officials have not commented on the case but the arrest, made the day after the report appeared in the local al Sada newspaper, supports the accuracy of his story, his colleagues say.

"It's a crazy situation. We have officials and terrorists trying to stop journalists in Iraq, trying to stop their work," said one of Salem's co-workers, speaking on condition of anonymity. A lawyer filed papers asking for Mr Salem's release after he was denied bail. "They want to keep him in prison as a lesson to the rest of us," Salem's colleague said. "They want to punish him and warn other journalists not to oppose them."

Ala Allawi, an independent political analyst, said journalists were under fire from insurgents and the government because both feared the truth about their roles in violence and corruption being exposed. "Journalists are trying to expose the facts and to defend our rights, that is why they are the first to be targeted," he said. Salem's arrest was particularly troubling, Mr Allawi said, because it amounted to the state restricting freedom of expression - a return to the days of Saddam Hussein.

"Under the old system ignorant people were in positions of power and they could arrest anyone for anything," he said. "Now we are again seeing that people in government with no education can control our lives, regardless of the legality of their actions." Ahmed al Bassam, an Iraqiyya journalist and colleague of Assariyeh, said the government had to safeguard journalists' rights to work and to provide them with security.

"We are not getting any support from the government," he said. "The Iraqi security forces do not respect us, and terrorists are killing us. We are caught in the middle and the situation is getting worse, not better." At least 230 media workers have been killed in the country since 2003, according to Paris-based media monitor Reporters Without Borders, making it the most deadly conflict for journalists since the Second World War.

nlatif@thenational.ae