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Iraq: Journalist Recounts Beating By Police

Many journalists have been killed in Iraq, including Atwar Bahjat (pictured), who was killed in February (AFP) PRAGUE, August 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On July 31, Iraqi journalist Ali al-Yassi, a former RFE/RL correspondent now working for U.S.-funded Alhurra television, was beaten by Iraqi police while reporting from the Arasat district of Baghdad on the kidnapping of employees of the Iraqi-U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Al-Yassi discussed the attack and the challenges facing journalists in Iraq in an interview with RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo.

RFE/RL: What happened to you on July 31 in Arasat?

Ali al-Yassi: While I was going to cover a story about the kidnapping of 25 employees [of the Iraqi-U.S. Chamber of Commerce] with my camera crew and assistant, I found about three or four civilians carrying weapons guarding the [Chamber of Commerce] building. The street was empty.

In front of this building, there was a restaurant. I headed straight for the restaurant. The [restaurant employees] told me, "You cannot take your camera and shoot there because already those guards have arrested a crew." About 30 or 40 minutes before we arrived, [the police] arrested [another Iraqi film crew] and took their camera. So I kept myself in that restaurant and I made short interviews with the [restaurant] workers and they told us what happened during the kidnapping.

While I was doing my interviews, we were surprised by a police patrol. It was actually four or five cars from the police. And they came straight away to the restaurant, and I showed them my I.D. and I told them, "I work for Alhurra TV and [this] was my crew, and we are trying to take some interviews." And they said: "It's OK. You can do your interviews and you can also [film] the building and you can take a film for our patrols right there." And I said: "OK. It's quite better for us."

RFE/RL: These were uniformed police?

Al-Yassi: Yes....

After [some time passed], I told my cameraman to go to the street to shoot [footage of] the building. After two minutes, I was surprised by six civilians with weapons. One of them, I can bet that he was the leader, he was wearing a sport[suit and] carrying a gun, he came shouting at us, insulting us, especially the cameraman.... He insulted me and he beat me.

I was shocked. The police didn't move and didn't take any step [to intervene].

RFE/RL: The police were watching this?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, just watching me [be beaten].

RFE/RL: These civilians that were beating you, were they the same ones you saw outside the [Chamber of Commerce] building when you arrived?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, and also [some of them had come] from inside the building.

RFE/RL: Who were they? Police or militia?

Al-Yassi: Actually, I didn't know who [they were]. But after five or six minutes, the police interfered and they released us from them. I went to the commander of the police patrol, and I [asked] him: "How can you stand there watching? Why didn't you interfere? Why did you let this happen?"

RFE/RL: What did he say?

Al-Yassi: He was an officer, muqaddam [lieutenant colonel].

Then the office told me: "I can't do anything for you. You don't know [who they are]. All I can tell you is that those guys are from the police." [Al-Yassi later clarified that the officer told him the men in civilian clothes were from the Office for Confronting Capital Crimes (Maktab Mukafaha Jara'im Al-Kubra)].

RFE/RL: Was the officer afraid of these men [in civilian clothes]?

Al-Yassi: Yeah, absolutely.

RFE/RL: Did you get any formal response from the government?

Al-Yassi: Unfortunately, they didn't say anything. They had a press release -- not concerning the accident, but in general. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the presence of members of the media in Arasat led to the destruction of evidence [interfering in a crime scene]. The press release referred to members of the media as troublemakers.

RFE/RL: As an Iraqi journalist who is out on the street every day, how has the situation changed for you in the last six months or the last year?

Al-Yassi: We worked in dangerous matters for a [long] time. I was threatened, and I've been held hostage [by the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia] in Al-Sadr City and in Al-Najaf, but they released us. I accepted what they did to us, even if they insulted us or beat us [and] held us hostage. I can [excuse them] because they don't know...they are not a state, they are not the government. But when a threat comes from a government, this is the problem. This is the main problem; you are not dealing with certain groups [whom] you do not know.

RFE/RL: You were taken hostage twice?

Al-Yassi: Yes. In Al-Sadr City in the first conflict [2004] and in Al-Najaf [Al-Yassi later clarified that he was kidnapped in Al-Kufah during the first standoff between the Al-Mahdi Army and coalition forces in Al-Najaf in the spring of 2004. In both cases, he was abducted by the Al-Mahdi Army].

RFE/RL: Did they threaten you?

Al-Yassi: Actually, [in Al-Kufah] I was very afraid because there were a lot of people there and most of them were [uneducated]. So, when they noticed me, they [called me] an agent, saying I worked with the Americans. Even if they didn't know who I [was]; they just realized I was a journalist.

RFE/RL: Now, when you look at the situation in Baghdad and what is happening, what do you think?

Al-Yassi: It is horrible. To work as a journalist here, it is very horrible. We are asked to go and make a stand-up [report] in the street. Right now, especially in the last two months, I really feel afraid to go out in the street and make a [report] because a lot of our colleagues have been killed or assassinated in the Al-Mansur Street or in another street....

RFE/RL: Do you have any protection when you're out on the street?

Al-Yassi: No.

RFE/RL: Do you now feel afraid from both sides, militias and the government?

Al-Yassi: What happened to me [left] me confused. I can't judge myself right now, because it's [only been] four days since what happened to me. I can't make any reports or go to work....

RFE/RL: And how are your fellow journalists coping now with the security situation in Baghdad, are they working?

Al-Yassi: [I know of] three or four reporters who have left their jobs and [I know of others] who have received threatening letters. Some reporters work without showing their face or using their names.

RFE/RL: Does the security situation affect the way you do your job? Do you avoid some areas of the city?

Al-Yassi: Most of the districts in Baghdad are dangerous now, but I take the risk because it is my job. I go to those places even if it is dangerous. But right now, I feel that my soul is broken. I can't go anywhere. I need to have some rest in order to know which way I'm going.

Press Under Assault

Press Under Assault


BREAKING THE NEWS: Press freedom is under assault in virtually all of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Independent media confront enormous challenges in providing citizens with the independent information that can help advance democratic reforms. On May 2, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable briefing that gave an overview of media developments in the CIS and discussed the connections between press freedom and future democratization. The briefing featured Freedom House Director of Studies CHRISTOPHER WALKER, American University Associate Research Professor ROBERT ORTTUNG, and RFE/RL Central Asia analyst DANIEL KIMMAGE.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 90 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

RFE/RL's Press Freedom Day stories:

Iraq: Covering The Most Dangerous Beat On Earth

Afghanistan: Women In Journalism Battle Restrictions, Threats

Iran: State Maintains Tight Control Over Information

CIS: Press Freedom In Former Soviet Union Under Assault

Central Asia: Bureaucratic Obstacles Hinder Journalists

Central Asia: Governments Wary Of Independent Media

Central Asia: Journalists Still Face Harassment, Threats

THE COMPLETE STORY: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of media-related stories, click here.


For regular news and analysis on media issues throughout RFE/RL's broadcast area by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Media Matters."

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