Iraqi journalists attend a press briefing at the Independent High Electoral Commission headquarters in Baghdad's Green Zone in March. The Iraqi government recently announced new restrictions and requirements for both foreign and Iraqi journalists working in the country. Journalists say the government isn't holding up its side of the bargain, to provide access and security for the media.
Baghdad is undergoing a kind of face-lift these days as officials spend hundreds of millions of dollars in preparation to host an Arab League summit next year.
Most of the hotels that are being gutted and redone are some of the only safe places for journalists to live and work. Now, they're being kicked out.
And that's not the only problem for journalists in Iraq now. Greater government restrictions are making it more difficult for journalists to move around the country and get access to conflict areas.
The Mansour hotel on the banks of the Tigris River is one place where a person could find a little civilization in the battered city. It has a gym, a Chinese restaurant, and stunning river views through dusty, sliding-glass doors.
Now, though, the Mansour is coming apart, piece by piece.
Leith al-Haidar is a documentary filmmaker for a European company. His tiny room at the Mansour is filled with computers and tapes and a small daybed — but not for long. The hotel has ordered him and dozens of other journalists to evacuate.
He has been trying to find another place to stay — with no luck so far.
New Requirements For Journalists
Haidar says not only are reporters being thrown out onto the streets, but it's getting harder and harder for them to do their jobs.
The government office that oversees the press in Iraq is the Communication and Media Commission or CMC. It was set up by the U.S., just after the 2003 invasion.
The commission recently announced that all news organizations, both Iraqi and foreign, are now required to register, pay hefty licensing fees, and sign a pledge that they won't ignite sectarian tensions or encourage terrorism.
Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images
Three car bombs exploded Jan. 25, 2010, targeting hotels used by foreign journalists and businessmen in Baghdad. Nearly 200 journalists have died since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Human rights groups say this opens the door for people in power to punish their enemies.
Ahmed al-Abyad advises the commission. When asked who will judge whether journalists are "igniting sectarian tensions," he admits that this is a concern.
"It's true what you are saying; who puts these regulations? And who is responsible for applying these regulations? That's the biggest question," Abyad says.
For now, those responsibilities rest with the nine-member government commission, which is appointed directly by the prime minister and so far has not been answerable to parliament — despite the fact that parliament oversight was written into the CMC's founding documents.
The idea is that in exchange for news organizations' money and pledges to abide by the rules, the commission will provide two things that are very important to journalists in Iraq: access and protection. But so far, the commission hasn't held up its end of the deal.
Obstacles, Frustrations Grow
In fact, officials instead use protection — citing the need to keep journalists safe — as a way to deny access.
These days, when a terrorist attack is reported or a military offensive is under way, journalists are kept far from the scene, in contrast to earlier years during the conflict when journalists generally were free to visit and survey the scene.
Ziad al-Ajili heads Journalistic Freedom Observatory, a local press freedom group.
"When we go to those military commanders, they say 'No, we don't want to give you access, because we fear for your safety.' I mean, I want to do the report, even if I die, even if I pay my life for it. It's my life and I'm free to do anything with it," Ajili says.
Nearly 200 journalists, most of them Iraqis, have died in Iraq since the American invasion, and scores more have been kidnapped, beaten, jailed, sued and fined for doing their jobs.
Just this week, an assassination attempt was made on an anchor for Iraqi state TV.
Two months ago, a car bomber made it through several checkpoints and exploded at a house that served as the local office of a Dubai-based TV channel. Three employees died and more than a dozen people were injured.
Even though it's been two months since the bombing, it remains difficult to gain access to the wreckage of the house. Approvals from three different officials and an Iraqi army escort are required.
When asked how the car bomber got through the checkpoints in the first place, an army commander escorting journalists says he has orders not to answer any questions from reporters.