Threat, Intimidation Alters Life for Iraqi Journalists Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, freedom of speech has theoretically been integrated into Iraqi social values. The threatened lives of Iraqi journalists, and the number of dead reporters, however, tell another story. Some journalists have fled to neighboring countries while those who remain must face daily threats and intimidation because of their work.
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Threat, Intimidation Alters Life for Iraqi Journalists

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Threat, Intimidation Alters Life for Iraqi Journalists

Threat, Intimidation Alters Life for Iraqi Journalists

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

It goes without saying that Iraq is a dangerous place to live and work, but for Iraqi journalists, it is exceptionally hazardous.

According to the international group Reporters Without Borders, at least 175 journalists have died since the U.S. invasion, most of them Iraqi. Some Iraqi reporters have fled to neighboring countries. As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, those who remain face threats, intimidation, and the fear of being targeted because of their work.

RACHEL MARTIN: Ansar Sattar Taha remembers the last time she saw her son. He was on his way to work just a few days after his wedding day. Ansar says her son, Ahmad Sultan, still had traces of henna on his hands, the orange dye used in wedding ceremonies.

Ms. ANSAR SATTAR TAHA: (Speaking foreign language)

MARTIN: He left the house on Thursday. We waited and waited, but he never came back. We kept looking for him. And the next day, we found him dead.

The young man had been killed in Amiriyah, an area of Baghdad known to be a Sunni insurgent stronghold. Sultan was one of 200 slain journalists honored at a ceremony in a Baghdad hotel a few months ago, organized by the Iraqi Journalists Association. Grieving families propped up pictures of their lost loved ones on long tables.

Among them was a photograph of Atwar Bahjat, a well-known reporter for two major Arab television networks. She was shot dead in Samarra by insurgents in February 2006 just after the bombing of the Samarra Shiite mosque. Bahjat was half Sunni, half Shiite, and her death has become a symbol of all the fallen Iraqi journalists. As part of the ceremony, the head of the Iraqi Journalists Union, Shihab Al-Timeemi, spoke to the group.

Mr. SHIHAB AL-TIMEEMI (President, Iraqi Journalists Union): (Through translator) We want all parties to understand that the message of the journalist is purely a professional one, and that he is not biased to this or that conflicting party, but that he wants to do a purely professional job. This message should be respected by all, and no one should put obstacles in his way.

MARTIN: It's hard to know exactly how many journalists here are killed because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in a car bomb attack or sectarian violence. But many are targeted because they're journalists whose reporting provokes dangerous questions.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) If you ever dare to criticize a certain group, they will not only threaten you, but the whole television station will be in danger.

MARTIN: This young woman who wouldn't give her name for security reasons is a television reporter based in Baghdad. She doesn't wear a veil and her long hair falls down the back of her black leather jacket.

While waiting for a press conference at the Iraqi parliament building, she explains how she and her colleagues face constant threats and intimidation. The woman says after reporting about possible links between certain political parties and militia groups, she was visited by a man who ordered her to retract her story or her life would be in danger.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) Fear has become part of our job. When we have an assignment, we immediately think that if we go out, we may never come back alive.

MARTIN: That fear has many layers for Rawa Al Neimi, a television news anchor in Baghdad and mother of three. On this day, she's dressed in snug-fitting blue jeans and a shirt that just hits her waist. Al Neimi says there are more opportunities for journalists now that the Saddam Hussein regime is gone. Freedom of speech is considered a societal value in theory, but in practice, it's a different matter. Independent radio and television stations have been attacked, reporters are pressured by political groups, and threats and intimidation have become part of the job. Al Neimi says she's suspicious of almost everyone.

Ms. RAWA AL NEIMI (Television News Anchor): (Through translator) You live in the fear of what might happen to you in the street, but there's also the fear of those who work with you. You can never know what their affiliations are, so we started to fear one another.

MARTIN: Because she's on TV and people know her face, Neimi has had to change her daily routines. She rarely goes in public anymore. She stopped doing her own grocery shopping and sends other family members out on household errands.

Ms. AL NEIMI: (Through translator) You can say that most, if not all, of those working for the media are scared, but they have no other option. They have to go on.

MARTIN: So Iraqi journalists keep trying to tell the story of their Iraq, as it brutally unfolds. At the same time, they continue to watch their colleagues die for doing just that.

Just last week, another journalist was killed. Reports say Hamed Sarha, a 30-year veteran of the Iraqi National News Agency, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. And many of those who don't die, leave.

Since NPR spoke with reporter Rawa Al Neimi, she decided she could no longer endure the security risks of life in Baghdad. She and her family have moved to Syria.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Baghdad.

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