Dangers for Journalists in Baghdad's 'Green Zone'

If you were a reporter in Baghdad looking to cover the trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, you'd need to get into the secured militarized area called "the green zone." That's also where you'd find the new Iraqi parliament and briefings by American officials.

But recently, getting into that Green Zone has been one of the more dangerous assignments facing the hundreds of journalists in the Iraqi capital.

They drive up in armored cars along a boulevard of restaurants and cigarette stands. The journalists are supposed to stop somewhere, though it's not been clear precisely where, short of the intersection that leads to Checkpoint Three —- and then walk up to it.

There are a lot of risks for journalists on that walk. They feel exposed to potential snipers or kidnappers. But it's dangerous for the soldiers securing the checkpoint, too. A nearby police station was bombed several months ago. A suicide bomber detonated a charge at the intersection two weeks ago. These tensions have made the checkpoint more dangerous still.

Journalists share this passage with Iraqi citizens heading to the Green Zone, where the government agencies are. Private contractors can enter elsewhere more quickly. But the reporters have to walk that stretch with their hands visible and empty, badges prominently displayed, and then enter a winding path of sandbags, concrete barriers and razor wire.

Iraqi or U.S. soldiers frequently fire "warning shots" above the heads of anyone whom they perceive as a possible threat. ABC and CBS News crews were recently shot at, and a CBS car was hit. Bullets flew at NPR News Producer JJ Sutherland recently — and he found he had company when he wandered into a press conference.

"The first words out of the spokesman for the embassy was, ‘Raise your hand if you were shot at today.’ And the consensus was, it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when a journalist will be killed," Sutherland said.

The problems at Checkpoint Three have persisted for many months. But some journalists say it's become more dangerous in recent weeks as the American military has given Iraqi forces more security responsibilities. Steve Butler, foreign editor of Knight-Ridder newspapers, says one of his reporters was recently confronted by Iraqi troops.

"Two soldiers were pointing guns at the car," Butler said. "One was saying stop, the other was saying go. It obviously created a very dangerous situation."

News organizations have asked military officers for clear-cut procedures to follow — and suggested they be allowed to enter the Green Zone the way private contractors do.

"We are looking at ways to try to help alleviate the problems and the security concerns for the media," said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, the director of the military's press center in the green zone. "They are in progress at this time. We can’t weaken our overall force protection level just to accommodate a select group of people."

In June, Human Rights Watch came up with proposed reforms after studying civilian deaths at American checkpoints in Iraq. An American military inquiry into the killing of an Italian agent made similar points back in April. Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists says needed changes haven't been made.

"The failure to implement these very basic safeguards would indicate an indifference to the safety of all civilians, including members of the media," Campagna said.

Several journalists in Baghdad say they would follow almost any procedures mandated by the military. NPR producer JJ Sutherland said he's been confused about where reporters can safely leave their cars when approaching the checkpoint.

"I received an e-mail from a major who said, ‘Oh, here’s a safe spot to be dropped off.’ The day after, our correspondent, Anne Garrels, was dropped off at basically that point and warning shots were fired off at her head," Sutherland said.

Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently pressed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to look into the problem. And e-mails between American public affairs officers in Baghdad obtained by NPR suggest the military is seeking solutions. But a few hinted the real question was one of image.

For instance, Captain Chris Watt wrote, "I suspect it's only a matter of time before someone bags a reporter and gains unwanted public attention. As you all know, in the media, perception is reality — even if we're right, we need to find a happy medium for all or find the magic words to answer the press when they ask publicly why we're shooting at the media."

Captain Watt wrote that note to Lt. Col Boylan and Major Jennifer Snyder. Major Snyder spoke to NPR from Baghdad. She said the e-mails do not reflect any lack of concern for the safety of media professionals there.

And early this morning, just a few hours after the interview with Major Snyder, and just a few short hours before this story was set to be broadcast, there was much activity in front of Checkpoint Three. Workers set up tall concrete barriers to protect a new dropoff point for journalists — and to shield their path better as they walked toward the checkpoint for the Green Zone.

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