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Iraq: Killing Of Journalists Is Choking Information

Atwar Bahjat, an Iraqi journalist killed in Samarra this February (AFP) The dangers of reporting from Iraq have dominated this year's World Congress of the International Press Institute -- and the reason was tragically illustrated on May 29, the eve of the gathering, by the deaths of two British members of a CBS television crew. Cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan had been traveling with a military unit, the safest way of getting around the Iraqi capital -- but not, as it turned out, safe enough to protect them or their British-U.S. colleague, CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier, who suffered serious injuries. RFE/RL correspondent Jan Jun spoke with the director of IPI's International News-Safety Institute, Rodney Pinder, about why this is an especially dangerous war for journalists and about the impact on coverage of the conflict.

RFE/RL: Why is Iraq so particularly dangerous for the media and journalists?

Rodney Pinder: It's just completely lawless and there is no authority that seems to be taking care of the violence, and of course, most of the victims have been ordinary Iraqis. This is reflected, I think, in the journalists' death toll. Violence is coming from all sides, and I think the insurgents who are killing journalists -- and they are responsible for most of the deaths -- they just don't have any sympathy with journalists, they don't want any reporting at all, and the idea of free media, free speech, free reporting, is completely anathema to them. And so journalists of all kinds have become a target.

RFE/RL: You've just mentioned the death toll. The Committee to Protect Journalists puts the number of journalists killed in Iraq at about 70. What is your estimate?

Pinder: Far more than that. As a safety institute, we count all deaths not only of journalists, but of critical support staff, such as translators and others without whom journalists cannot operate. The total death toll of all news media staff is now almost 120.

What Makes Iraq Different?

One of the survivors: Jill Carroll was released by her kidnappers in late March (AFP)

RFE/RL: There have always been journalists killed in wars and other conflicts. What makes this conflict different?

Pinder: I've covered many conflicts and wars myself in a long career in international reporting. What makes this different is that journalists are being targeted. In most previous wars journalists were generally respected -- or, if you like, were more or less used by one side or another but were respected for the reporting job they could do. In this war, it does seem that journalists are being targeted, particularly by those who are not interested in reporting, who do not understand or appreciate or even want the concept of free reporting, and could not care less if their side was reported by the media or not. Of course, nowadays there is the Internet; the insurgents get their viewpoints and their activities across without any interlocutor and they seem to be quite happy to do that. They don't care what the press thinks of them or reports of them.

RFE/RL: How is the violence affecting the kind of stories the journalists can cover?

"Thanks to some very brave men and women of all nationalities, but particularly Iraqi, we at least have a little part of the picture instead of none at all."

Pinder: Proper reporting, as we understand it, of this conflict is just not possible. When I covered wars in the past, part of the essence of my reporting was to get out in the countryside, to get around town, talk to people, to visit families, to move freely. This is just not possible in this conflict, particularly for Western reporters. So they rely on Iraqi reporters, who themselves are now being targeted and restricted. I was speaking the other day to an Iraqi reporter for a Western news organization, and he can't go home. He dares not be identified as a journalist, so he can't speak English. He has to be careful not to identify himself. This is an enormous strain. So the free flow of information from this [conflict], which, after all, is a greatest news story of its time, is severely constricted, and we are not getting a complete picture, whatever that picture is. We don't know what it is, because journalists are not free to move around.

RFE/RL: Is this situation more dangerous for Iraqi journalists? Are they more at risk than Western reporters?

Pinder: [It is] more dangerous for them. In fact, Iraqi journalists comprise around three-quarters of the total number of news-media dead. And they're the ones who have suffered the most, by far.

RFE/RL: Will the most recent killings of journalists -- the CBS television crew -- cause some media to rethink having reporters there?

Pinder: I should think it will have some effect, but I think many news organizations already do not cover it. They don't go there and some have pulled out. They rely, of course, on the news agencies, which have to be there. So it has already had an effect, and this must have another chilling effect, because the one way Western journalists thought they were relatively safe was to move out with American or British patrols. This has just underlines that there is no safe way and no safe place. So it might make others think more about either pulling out or reducing their numbers. We have to wait and see.

RFE/RL: What will all this mean in terms of getting accurate information out to the world about developments inside Iraq?

Pinder: It chokes off accurate information. Instead of a full flow of information, we're getting a half or a third flow of information. And we don't know, of course, what we are missing, but I suspect we're missing a great deal. This is not the fault of the journalists. I think journalists are doing an incredibly brave job under terrible conditions. They're doing their best extremely bravely, and I think that has to be appreciated. In the West, we often think not very highly of journalists, the muckrakes and celebrity-seekers and the not-very-serious, but I think that [the death of journalists] belies that image. Thanks to some very brave men and women of all nationalities, but particularly Iraqi, we at least have a little part of the picture instead of none at all.

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