Although the security situation in Iraq has improved over the past few years, the country continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Iraq placed 158th out of 173 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2008 Press Freedom Index, and 148th out of 195 in Freedom House's 2009 Freedom of the Press Index, earning it the classification of "Not Free."
In such a hostile climate, the 12 journalists in Prague and 31 in-country stringers who work for RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq (RFI) have faced significant challenges in delivering the news to Iraqi citizens.
RFI's Baghdad bureau coordinator Laith Ahmed says that "the security situation is the main challenge for us in Iraq." Ahmed says that although the security situation has improved, Radio Free Iraq's journalists still fear armed groups and "sleeper cells" which "are trying every waking moment to attack us."
Their fear is well-founded -- in 2007, two of Radio Free Iraq's journalists, Khamail Muhsin Khalaf
and Nazar Abd al-Wahid al-Radhi
, were killed. Another young RFI journalist named Jumana al-Obaidi was , but fortunately released a few weeks later without harm. "It was a very heavy toll on the families and friends of those guys, on the colleagues who were living through the situation," Iraq service director Sergei Danilochkin recalls.
Moyad Al-Haidari, who served as RFI's Baghdad bureau chief from 2004-2007, says he received many menacing phone calls and e-mails from extremists who threatened him and his family. "Journalism," Moyad explained, "quickly became the most dangerous area of work in Iraq."
In November 2005, insurgents made good on their threats by detonating
a car bomb outside the Al-Hamra Hotel, which housed Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau office, in addition to other foreign media organizations. "There was really severe damage, but al-hamdulillah
[praise God] there wasn't anybody there in the office at the time," says Al-Haidari. "It was very early in the morning, around 7:00am. When I arrived, the building was still smoking, and there was some fire," but luckily no one was hurt.
Al-Haidari was forced to leave Iraq in 2007 after a dramatic kidnapping attempt by insurgents.
"Once, after two weeks in which I hadn't been at my home, I thought it was safe, so I left the office in the afternoon. On the way, I noticed in my rear-view mirror that there was a car, I remember it was a black Toyota, with three people inside...
...I drove fast, trying to escape, then I discovered there was not only one car -- there were two cars. They pushed me to enter one highway...waving their guns to stop..."
Watch Al-Haidari tell the rest of the story here:
Al-Haidari managed to escape, and a few days later RFE/RL transported him to the airport under armed guard, where he was flown to Jordan. Al-Haidari now continues his work for RFI as a broadcaster in Prague. His family, who also received numerous threats -- including the kidnapping and murder of a friend of one of Al-Haidari's sons who had borrowed his car -- also had to leave Iraq.
Such harrowing accounts are common among RFI's journalists. "One of our colleagues was on the scene as Iraqi security forces defused a bomb," Ahmed says. "Once I was near [the scene of] a car bomb when it exploded, and I made a report about it." On another occasion, Ahmed was accidentally caught in the middle of a firefight between al-Qaeda militants and American and Iraqi forces.
Ahmed adds that Radio Free Iraq's journalists also face intimidation and pressure from Iraqi authorities and security forces. "Most political parties have militias," Ahmed explains, and reporters are sometimes afraid that there will be violent consequences if they criticize a politician or faction too harshly. In addition, Ahmed believes that security forces in Iraq "don’t have enough human rights training" on how to deal with journalists. "Many times they hit reporters, they put them in jail."
"Our overall largest challenge is to keep everyone safe and alive in Iraq," says Danilochkin, who also noted that some of the equipment in RFI's Baghdad office still bears the marks of the bombing in 2005.
Yet despite these hardships, Radio Free Iraq's journalists are as determined as ever to continue their work. "I remember when the explosion of the bureau building happened," Al-Haidari recalls. "Some bosses in Prague called me and said, 'Moyad, shall we close the office, shall we stop for a while, it's becoming dangerous.' And I said, 'No, no, this is what the insurgents want, to stop our voice.'"
Al-Haidari feels there is still much more work to be done. "Why do I continue? As a person of cause, I feel I have to continue," he says. "I feel that this message is very important to the people. We use our material to fight, to give the message, to give the meaning of freedom and democracy to our people -- not to be a slave to the insurgents and the extremists. Personally, I believe in this way."