Roundtable: Dangers for Reporters in Iraq

Farai Chideya hosts a roundtable discussion on the dangers U.S. journalists face covering the war in Iraq. Guests: NBC News reporter Ron Allen; Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Washington Post correspondent Theola Labbe.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. Today on a special roundtable: the dangers faced by journalists in Iraq. ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, recently made headlines as victims of the ongoing violence. Both were wounded in a roadside bombing north of Baghdad last week. Besides death and injury, journalists also risk being kidnapped. Freelance reporter Jill Carroll is still being held by unknown assailants who say they'll kill her unless all women prisoners in Iraq are freed.

To understand the enormity of the dangers faced by Carroll and other journalists in Iraq, NPR's Farai Chideya brought together a group of news professionals. Farai?

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Thanks, Ed. Today we're speaking with correspondent Theola Labbe of the Washington Post. Theola was embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq at the beginning of the war. She's in our Washington, D.C. headquarters. Also joining us is reporter Ron Allen of NBC News. Ron has covered wars from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Iraq. He joins today from New Orleans. And in New York, we have Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Before joining CPJ, Ann worked as an NPR reporter and covered conflicts that included the failed coup attempt in Moscow and China's Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations. Ann joins us from NPR's New York bureau.

So welcome to all of you, and Ann, let me start with you. Iraq has been described as the most dangerous war for journalists ever, even more so than for Vietnam. Is that the case, and if so, why is this war so unsafe for journalists?

Ms. ANN COOPER (Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists): Well, it certainly is one of the most dangerous conflicts in modern history, and I think correspondents who've covered a number of conflicts will tell you that they've never seen anything like this before. It's very difficult for them to do even their basic jobs because the danger level is so high. Leaving your hotel or the compound where you're staying, you run the risk of getting involved in some sort of violent attack. You're subject to possible abductions, kidnappings, and there are many murders. 61 journalists have been killed since this conflict began, and it's important to note that more than two-thirds of those are local Iraqi journalists and most of them have been targeted by insurgents and murdered.

CHIDEYA: We have just become to talk, I think, in some ways, seriously about the murder of Iraqi journalists, but what about Jill Carroll who was kidnapped, her fate still unknown? Is there any new development on that?

Ms. COOPER: The second video was shown on Al Jazeera. Difficult to watch because she was clearly extremely anguished, repeating an appeal, apparently, that had been made earlier for the release of all female Iraqi prisoners. About half of the ten known female Iraqi prisoners were released after the first video came out of Jill Carroll. The U.S. government said, we want to be clear this was already in the works. It has nothing to do with the kidnappings and the demands, but I'm not aware of any other information about Jill Carroll since the second video was shown on Al Jazeera.

CHIDEYA: Ron, let me go to you. Without giving away any confidential information or tactics, how do you stay safe in a war zone like Iraq?

Mr. RON ALLEN (Reporter, NBC News): I think Iraq is particularly difficult, and I have not been there in quite some time, and I've chosen not to, and it's one of the first situations that I've really tried to take myself out of. I think what my colleagues there do and what I did when I was there early on is to basically do as much as you can with as much protection as you can.

A lot of the reporting that comes out of Iraq now is done by imbeds with the U.S. military, and that of course, tends to skew what you see and what you can report because of where you can go. A lot of the other reporting is, frankly, done from the rooftops with wire reports and reports by, or dispatches, or versions of events from local people who work for you. And that also gives you something of a certain picture of what's going on.

But I think, in the broad context of all this, it's important to understand that it's not just reporting on the ground there, but it's reporting from Washington and other capitals that gives as full a picture of what's going on as they can, and people trying to understand what's going on Iraq have to be very mindful of doing that, of looking at TV and listening to radio with that in mind, that this report is only based on some limited observation from some limited perspective.

In other conflicts, I think it's been much more easy to roam around by yourself. The risks weren't as great. There wasn't a need for private security, which many of the networks and just about everyone there certainly now has. But as everyone knows, Iraq is just a very chaotic place, and because journalists have specifically been targeted--the compound at NBC, the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels downtown, to name two just very vivid examples--it's a particularly dangerous place.

CHIDEYA: Theola, let me ask you about being African-American and a woman. I spoke to one person who was in Iraq as a reporter talking about the threat of sexual assault there. Are there any challenges to being black or female or both?

Ms. THEOLA LABBE (Correspondent, Washington Post): Farai, I've found both of those to be an advantage the time I was there. Right after the invasion in mid to late-2003, I found that Arabs who are darker skinned, dark features, they were very interested in me and oftentimes, I could pretend that I was Egyptian or from another part in the Middle East without raising much suspicion, and as well, women, they are treated somewhat more benevolent there. I think that there is a conception or, perhaps, even a misperception that the women are somehow oppressed or somehow mistreated, but then, in fact, because sometimes you were seen as a women, sometimes folks would often underestimate the kind of things that you were interested in and then looking for. So then sometimes, their guard was down even more.

Let me just go back to Jill Carroll for a second, who is a friend of mine who I got to know when I was in Iraq and then kept in touch with, after. What's also particularly distressing about her abduction is that she is a woman, and she's someone who spoke Arabic and who clearly went to great lengths to really slip into society and be almost invisible, so I think that it just really highlights the points that everyone has raised today in terms of the rules of this engagement are that there are no rules. No one is safe.

CHIDEYA: Let's listen to a little bit of what London Times reporter James Hider said about being kidnapped.

Mr. JAMES HIDER (Reporter, London Times): I was taken out of my car at gunpoint by members of the Maghdi(ph) Army in a battle inside a city in northern Baghdad in 2004, which was a very scary experience as well because you're not ever clear who's actually taking you hostage. I was lucky they were Shiite gunmen, and the Maghdi Army does have a vague hierarchy of structure that people can talk to. They can open negotiations fairly quickly.

CHIDEYA: Theola, since you know Jill personally, do you have... I'm sure you're watching this closely, and I've very sorry that she's in such danger. I was one of the last people to interview her at NPR for another of our programs, DAY TO DAY, and certainly enjoyed the experience, but is there any sense that this is a somewhat different situation, that we don't know as much about the people who took her hostage.

Ms. LABBE: That's a very tough question. I think that a lot of these groups now -- it's not clear if they are affiliated with a certain overall kind of structure, or are they more splinter groups, or are they more independent. And because even within Shia groups or Sunni groups there are so many splinters, I think that it is an opportunity for folks to take advantage of that uncertainty, and they can then say that they are part of a new group, or they may later say, oh, we were actually affiliated with these people. So it's just really unclear.

CHIDEYA: Ann, what can the CPJ and other advocacy groups do for journalists? You work with journalists, not just in Iraq, but stationed al over the world, and what can your organization do, what can governments do to protect journalists in danger?

Ms. COOPER: Well, most of the work that we're doing is advocacy on behalf of local journalists who are working in repressive governments where it's really political repression against the press, trying to silence them or censor the reporting that they do, and there is a lot we can do. Journalists are thrown in prison by their government. We publicize that very widely. We demand their release, and often, when you build a strong campaign, it puts on enough international pressure that governments will back down.

When they're murdered, we demand justice because the problem that we see in some countries like Russia, and Colombia, and the Philippines, is that a few journalists are murdered in those countries every year, and if there's no justice, then people begin to understand that you can get away with the murder of a journalist if you decide that you want to silence them. And so we're out there arguing, fighting all the time for justice in those cases. So there's a lot that we can do with advocacy. You know, publicizing - it's important to expose abuses against the press and to shame governments into changing their behavior, and there are different levers out there. You know, some countries, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Nepal, they're quite dependent on international aide; and that can be a source of pressure if Western governments that are giving them aide say, hey look, if we're going to help you out, you've got to clean up your human rights records, including your record on press freedom.

CHIDEYA: Now, I'm going to go to you, Ron and Theola. Do you ever find yourself in a position, as a journalist, where you're seen as a foreign agent? Some people, internally within their own countries, journalists are mistrusted; but also, journalists from the outside are mistrusted. Did you ever get the claim, oh, you must be working for the CIA, or any of the other sorts of claims that sometimes cause American journalists to have a tough time overseas, Ron?

Mr. ALLEN: Certainly. I think it goes with the territory in many, many places. In Iraq before the war, there was a lot of suspicion about American journalists in particular. There was a huge difficult process to get visas to get into the country. Once there, it was extremely difficult to move around and do much reporting without a minder watching over your shoulder. I think of occasions in Bosnia during the Balkan War where the Serbs side in particular was very suspicious of Americans, and I can remember being detained and questioned, on numerous occasions, as we were trying to get out and around the Sarajevo back then.

A lot of it is local soldiers on the ground who don't understand who anyone is and they're just doing what they're supposed to be doing; but I think that, yes, Americans and all journalists for that matter, are viewed with a lot of suspicioun and a lot of the negotiation that you go through on the ground, trying to get access to places or to individuals, that issue is always somewhere in the background. And I think you just have to try and get on with it.

CHIDEYA: And, Theola, the same question for you. Did you find that there was any résistance to you just being an American and being able to actually say, look I am a reporter? I'm not something else. I'm not here for other reasons.

Ms. LABBE: Over time, I felt that how I was accepted was directly related to the situation in the country at the time. If things were getting better, or if in some cases they were getting worse. In the beginning, Iraqis would say your country is so powerful why can't there be electricity 24 hours a day? Why are there these attacks and these bombings? And then over time, when you would show up to these events and then cover them, there would be more hostility and more anger.

I was at a march for al-Sadr. And something that I had done before in terms of going into the crowd and asking people their opinions; and I found that a group had formed around me and folks tried to seize my notebook. They then beat up my translator. And so there was an issue there in terms of, you know, we see you here in your abaya head to toe. We see you here with a pen and paper asking questions; and essentially, we don't trust you.

CHIDEYA: And we should say there that you're referring to Moqtada Sadr?

Ms.LABBE: Yes.

CHIDEYA: What do you do in a situation like that?

Ms. LABBE: Essentially, you look for a clean break and you run, which is what I did; and which is what I had been taught in terms of training, and learning how to gauge the hostility of certain situations. Every time I was out reporting, there was always a very limited window that we had before we felt that things would get too dangerous for us to be staying out there asking questions.

CHIDEYA: Ron, and Ann, in your experience, has there ever been moments where you just had to do that, pack up and get out as fast as possible? Ann first.

Ms. COOPER: Sure. But I want to say something about this, you know, the problem of being perceived as a spy. I used to be very puzzled about why would, for example, the insurgents in Iraq think that a reporter for NBC or The Washington Post was a spy.

But in fact, you know, Iraq is a place that has not had press freedom. The media that existed under Saddam Hussein was very much part of his propaganda machine. So, there's very little understanding there of the job that Western reporters are trying to do when they go in and look at things as neutrally as possible and report on them to the rest of the world.

CHIDEYA: Ron, last question for you, and briefly. We were on a panel together at the University of Pennsylvania about journalism and its role in all of these large debates. And at one point the moderator said, well shouldn't there be reporters embedded with the insurgents? And I think that all of us on the panel, you, me, and Charlayne were just like, it don't work that way. How much do people need to understand about the dangers of reporting in Iraq and in the other war zones in order to make sense of the coverage that's coming out of it?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think it's a huge factor; and it's unfortunate that it's only the high profile events that get a lot of attention. Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt, for example, two former colleagues at ABC; it's a terrible situation, but there are situations like that every day. I remember being in Iraq sometime ago and a soundman that I was working with, Jeremy Little, went out with American troops and he was killed.

It happens a lot and it doesn't get a lot of attention; and I think that the people who do this kind of work are a very rare breed. And they take enormous risks and they have enormous dedication to what they're doing or they wouldn't be there. There's no other reason to do it other than really believing that you're there to serve a purpose and to shine a light on something that people aren't aware of.

And throughout my career, I've gotten the most satisfaction out of doing stories that I thought helped put events on the agenda, particularly on the American agenda, because the American media doesn't pay a lot of attention to foreign affairs, at least the television media doesn't. And yes, I hope through programs like this and other ways that people become aware of it and understand why people are doing what they're doing. They're not cowboys out there. They're just determined to tell the world thing that they otherwise would not know about.

CHIDEYA: Ron Allen of NBC News is one of that rare breed of reporters who go out and tell us what's going on in war zones. He joined us from his staff offices in New Orleans. And also, from our Washington headquarters we were joined by Theola Labbe of The Washington Post; and in New York Ann Cooper Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thank you all so much.

Ms. LABBE: Thank you.

Ms. COOPER: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Back to you, Ed.

GORDON: Thanks, Farai. Next up on NEWS AND NOTES a new movie has audiences talking and women wondering if they should try something new. I'll talk to actress Sanaa Lathan about her new romantic comedy.

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