x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Journalists fight a losing battle

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 129 journalists have been killed in Iraq since 2003.

Motorists queue for gasoline at a petrol station in Baghdad. When Nizar Lane tried to interview motorists, he was beaten by Iraqi soldiers.
Motorists queue for gasoline at a petrol station in Baghdad. When Nizar Lane tried to interview motorists, he was beaten by Iraqi soldiers.

BAGHDAD // It came as a surprise when the rifle butt smashed against my head, splitting the skin and knocking me to the floor, bleeding. It hurt, naturally, and I was afraid and angry. But mainly I remember being surprised, as I sat there in the dirt, waiting for the Iraqi soldier to hit me again. Why on earth would he bother with such an act of mindless, needless violence? Of course this is Iraq, so mindless, needless violence is what I ought to have expected. Even now though, when I think about it, I can't believe he hit me. It just wasn't worth the effort.

I had been out doing some routine interviews in the Kampsarh neighbourhood of Baghdad. Five years into this latest of our wars, there are still huge fuel shortages and I was talking to people waiting in one of the mammoth queues at a petrol station. Some of them had been there all night, waiting in line for when it opened in the morning to guarantee the fuel hadn't run out before their turn came. Oil-rich Iraq, indeed.

I was chatting pleasantly to the drivers who were, as usual, annoyed but resigned to their fate. There had been a few jokes, a few murmurs about the Americans coming to steal our oil. I was recording the interviews on a small digital microphone, the kind that most reporters use. Then a couple of the Iraqi army soldiers assigned to protect the petrol station came up and asked me what I was doing. Nothing new in that. I told them I was a journalist and that I worked for The National, I showed them the press pass issued to me by the US military (this may be Iraq but journalists need permission from the Americans to work here, if we want access to any official buildings or people - that's sovereignty for you).

The soldier looked at the pass, a small plastic ID card with my photo and a digitised thumbprint, but ignored it. I realised he couldn't read. Many soldiers in the new Iraqi army are illiterate, even the officers. A lot get their jobs through corrupt nepotistic connections, rather than out of any aptitude for soldiering and there appears to be no quality control on intake. Unemployment in Iraq is outrageously high and the army is one of the few jobs that pays a regular salary. People actually bribe their way into service nowadays, a change from Saddam Hussein's times when you'd bribe your way out.

"What are you doing here? Why are you talking to these people?" he asked, for a second time, apparently unhappy with my first answer. Which, of course, I could only repeat. He thought for a moment and then said I was not allowed to be doing that work, that it was forbidden. Despite the rudeness of his manner, I politely said it was not forbidden and that I was allowed to stand in a public street, and was allowed to talk to members of the public.

"I'm going to arrest you now," he said, "You're a terrorist." The T-word always sets alarm bells ringing because it's the universal, catch-all reason for authorities to do whatever the hell they want, regardless of the law; there is no law in Iraq, not really, not in any meaningful sense of the word. If there are laws, they routinely are ignored. Soldiers certainly don't know what they are. If you are arrested as a "terrorist" you have no idea where it might end. You could disappear into our national prisons system, or the American prison system, both of which swallow people whole, some never to be seen again.

As I was explaining to him that I most certainly was not a terrorist, five other soldiers walked up and they listened for a moment, and I was told I was a terrorist and then the rifle was slammed into my skull. I fell down, and was punched a few times before the beating stopped; an Iraqi army officer had intervened. I'm a bit foggy about exactly what happened next, but as I was down there, in the dirt, the officer asked his men what was going on. I heard them telling him I was a terrorist and, by now I was livid and I think I shouted something at them, something about them having no right to treat me like that.

The officer looked down and told his troops to confiscate my recorder and my pocket digital camera. He did not speak directly to me; there was no apology or explanation. He just turned and walked away, taking his men with him. Some people from the fuel queue came and helped me up, and dusted me down. I was bleeding from the cut in my head, but it was shallow and the bleeding stopped after someone held a towel over it.

They offered to take me to the hospital, but I was so angry that I wanted to lodge a complaint against the soldiers, somewhere. I called the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate - our union in Baghdad - and immediately went to their offices. I made my complaint, but the union said that realistically not much was likely to come from it; I was not going to get an apology from the army and my camera and recorder would have been long gone.

Sitting in their office, I was shaken up, but more and more I became angry. I was upset at the way I had been treated, and the army had acted with complete ignorance and impunity. I called my family and told them what had happened, and my father told me to calm down and thank God that it had not been worse. I did not bother going to the hospital. Our accident and emergency wards - despite the falling levels of violence - have bigger things to worry about than slight cuts and bruises. I did not want to waste their time, or my own, sitting in a waiting room for the rest of the day.

Iraq is not a nice place these days and it is certainly not the best of countries in which to be a journalist. Reporters are supposed to find and write about the truth. But here, the truth is generally ugly and unflattering, so there will always be someone, from one side or another, who wants to suppress it. So journalists in Iraq - particularly we Iraqis who don't have the luxury of a western passport to get us out of the country if things get nasty - learn to expect and anticipate trouble. It is a mechanism of survival. With each story you write, you wonder who is going to get angry, and how that anger will manifest itself: will you lose a contact, or be blocked from access? Or will someone get angry enough that they want to have you killed?

Once before I'd had to spend a month in Egypt after writing a story that made some dangerous people upset. I let things cool down and then came back, by which time they had moved on to other things. But to get beaten in the street by the Iraqi army is different. For a start, these people are supposed to be protecting us. They are supposed to be on our side. If your friends will beat you in public, what about your enemies?

Well, of course, that is a matter of record. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 129 journalists have been killed in Iraq since 2003 and 50 media support workers - known in the trade as fixers - have died. By comparison, about 70 journalists are believed to have been killed in the decade-long Vietnam War. The Second World War claimed 68 reporters' lives. Against such a backdrop, my depressing little scrape on July 1 is hardly worth a mention. But these things - intimidation, beatings, murder - are a regular occurrence among journalists. US and Iraqi soldiers arrest reporters for doing their work, and in many parts of Baghdad journalism, particularly anything involving cameras, is actually banned.

Plenty of news reporting in Iraq is not independent. Newspapers, TV channels and reporters tend to identify with one political party or another, one group of fighters or another, to a greater or lesser extent. They become propagandists, not journalists. Perhaps for that reason, journalists are seen as having taken sides in this war and that has helped make all of us a target. There are, however, many reporters, such as myself, who are trying to be independent and open-minded, who want to get the story of what is happening here out to the world. We receive no protection, we have no real rights. We end up depending on ourselves and trusted colleagues and friends and contacts, many of whom also believe in the crucial nature of independent journalism. I hope this will be enough to see us through but every day here is literally a fight, and it's one that can still be lost.

@Email:nlatif@thenational.ae