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Analysis: Journalists Facing Tough Obstacles In Iraq

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

http://gdb.rferl.org/3A62857C-E948-4FF4-A732-2D43E871F0C5_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/3A62857C-E948-4FF4-A732-2D43E871F0C5_mw800_mh600.jpg Iraq is proving to be a difficult place to work for even the most seasoned journalist. Several journalists have disappeared, been taken hostage or killed in recent days. A French-American journalist and his interpreter were kidnapped on 13 August by Shi'ite militiamen in Al-Nasiriyah. The men were released from captivity on 22 August after an aide to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr intervened.

Meanwhile, a militant group identifying itself as the Islamic Army in Iraq has reportedly claimed responsibility for the abduction and killing of Italian journalist Inzo Baldoni, Al-Jazeera reported on 26 August. Baldoni's interpreter was earlier found dead, international media reported on 22 August. The group had warned in a videotaped statement obtained by the satellite news channel that it would kill the journalist within 48 hours unless Italy vowed to withdraw its forces from Iraq. The Italian government issued a response on 24 August saying it would not meet the hostage takers' ultimatum, AFP reported. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has condemned Baldoni's killing as "barbaric."

Reporters Without Borders reported on 23 August that two other journalists are missing in Iraq: Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale, and Georges Malbrunot of the French dailies "Le Figaro" and "Ouest France." According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), neither man has been heard from since 19 August. British journalist James Brandon was taken hostage by al-Sadr militiamen in Al-Basrah on 12 August when some 30 gunmen stormed his hotel room while he was sleeping. He was released after 15 hours in captivity after al-Sadr representatives intervened, Sky News reported on 13 August.

"The numbers of foreign journalists missing are rising, and we fear that journalists are now becoming the No. 1 target of armed militants," IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said in a statement posted on the federation's website (http://www.ifj.org).

Making Life Difficult

As if the recent targeting of journalists was not enough to contend with, the interim government has also placed a number of obstacles in front of journalists that threaten to prevent the flow of free information.

As the standoff with the Al-Mahdi militia intensified in Al-Najaf last week, police there instructed journalists to leave the city, Baghdad's Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Journalists remained in the city, however, and were confronted by police officers at a hotel where many of them have been staying, Reuters reported on 15 August. "I have an order that all journalists must leave Al-Najaf now. Anyone who does not leave will be arrested," a police lieutenant announced at the hotel. The news agency reported that several officers on the scene brandished their rifles in an apparent show of force.

Police chief Ghalib al-Jaza'iri told reporters at a 15 August press conference that the order came from the Interior Ministry, Al-Jazeera reported on 17 August. "The order is still technically valid, but I have contacted the Interior Ministry this morning and told them it sounds unreasonable to have a city with no media. This will turn [the media] against us," he said. Journalists said they fear the order was an attempt by officials to impose a news blackout on the city, although officials contend that the order was issued to ensure the safety of journalists. The incident occurred just days before U.S. forces launched a major incursion against Shi'ite militiamen in the city.

Police later arrested several journalists in Al-Najaf, including an Al-Arabiyah television correspondent on 16 August. Al-Jazeera television reported on 17 August that police officers again visited a hotel where journalists were staying, and one police lieutenant announced: "We will kill you if you leave the hotel. I will put four snipers on the roof to shoot anyone who leaves." Police also fired into the air and pointed their guns at the hotel, witnesses told Al-Jazeera.

Police again detained dozens of Iraqi and foreign journalists in Al-Najaf on 25 August, Reuters reported on the following day. The detention followed an evening raid on a hotel housing journalists. Police reportedly fired weapons in the air -- and in one instance at a cameraman -- during the raid. "Journalists were just eating dinner and suddenly the police appeared in the lobby and started firing in the air," an unidentified journalist told Reuters. Another witness said that 50 journalists were taken into custody during the raid; they were later released.

Several Iranian journalists have been prevented from covering stories and some were even arrested in recent weeks. Iraqi police arrested the head of IRNA's Baghdad bureau and three of his journalists on 9 August. The men are reportedly being held at the Interior Ministry in Baghdad. Iraqi officials have not said why the men were arrested. Iran's special parliamentary journalist's committee sent an appeal signed by 234 journalists to Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi on 23 August appealing for the release of the men. The group made a similar appeal asking UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to intervene in the affair on 20 August.
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