Iraq continues to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists – it placed 158th out of 173 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2008 Press Freedom Index. The 12 journalists in Prague and 31 stringers in the country who work for RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq (RFI) face significant challenges in delivering the news to Iraqi citizens.
In the first of a three-part series of interviews profiling RFE/RL's Iraq service, we talked to Laith Ahmed, the Coordinator of Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau who recently visited RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters for training.
Laith talks about being in the middle of a firefight in the streets of Baghdad, the challenges of working for a US media organization in Iraq, and how to be a "clever" Iraqi journalist. Highlights are below – or read the full transcript here.
On the difficult media environment for RFI journalists...
"...the security situation is better, but the fact is that we are still afraid because of the armed groups – we call them in Iraq al-khilaya al-na’ima, the 'sleeper cells' ...They [are trying] every waking moment to do what they can [to attack us]. But mostly, the security situation [is] much better than if we talked about it perhaps one year [ago]."
"Another important thing is that the security [forces personnel] in Iraq, they don't have enough human rights education on how to deal with reporters. So many times they hit the reporters, they put them in jail...and it is difficult, it is a new challenge for us."
"One of our colleagues was in a situation where the security police came to [defuse] a bomb, and she was there [and] made a report about it. Once I was near [the scene of] a car bomb when it exploded. Once I was near the al-Qaeda armed group…there was a [firefight] between them and the American forces and Iraqi forces. I was there – not because I decided to be there, but I just happened to be there."
On the challenge of working for an American media organization in Iraq...
"We have some special [challenges] because our radio is an American-funded organization and this makes it more difficult for us. Because the idea [in Iraq] is if you work with an American organization – even if it is balanced and you [aren't biased against any side] – you are still working with the Americans. This is a difficult thing for us because some people think of us as 'spies' or 'agents' or something like that."
However, American funding is not a problem "for maybe 60 percent of Iraqis. They like Radio Free Iraq…they like our subjects, our balance, you know about things even two or three months before [other news sources], such as fighting between Sunni and Shi'a…this is the great thing that RFI does – we make [it] balanced. This is not like most [media] organizations in Iraq, they take sides."
On the state of Iraqi journalism...
"There are two sides, one positive and one negative. There are many -- maybe thirty or forty -- media organizations in Iraq, [but] not all of them are high quality. But in my opinion, I have found that Iraqi journalists are much better than perhaps four years [ago]."
The biggest problem hindering the development of Iraqi journalism? "Maybe money. Because the [domestic media] organizations pay a little bit of money to their journalists, and then the journalists don’t care about developing themselves [as long as they get paid]. And they stay at the same level. But there are some NGOs that develop journalists in Iraq."
"If you want to be a clever journalist in Iraq you should have a good relationship with the politicians, with the economists, to know what [will] happen before it happens."