An American Journalist Explains Why He Had To Flee Iraq : Parallels Ned Parker has covered Iraq for more than a decade. But the Reuters bureau chief abruptly left the country last week after a report of human rights abuses prompted threats from a Shiite paramilitary.
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An American Journalist Explains Why He Had To Flee Iraq

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An American Journalist Explains Why He Had To Flee Iraq

An American Journalist Explains Why He Had To Flee Iraq

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, reporter Ned Parker was there.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As the country fell apart and became one of the most dangerous spots on Earth, Parker returned to continue working.

INSKEEP: And he kept working as things improved and then worsened again with the rise of ISIS. He's covered Iraq for most of the past dozen years, and he's now the Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters.

GREENE: But last week, he had to flee the country. He and two other journalists from Reuters had published a story detailing mass looting and arson by Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias that support them.

INSKEEP: One reporter even saw the killing of a suspected Islamic State detainee, captured in the city of Tikrit by federal police. That was the story that Reuters published, which Ned Parker meant to show just how Iraqi forces were retaking Tikrit.

What happened that began to make this instead a story about you?

NED PARKER: Well, our team on the day that Tikrit was liberated, they called me during the day and said we've witnessed an execution by federal police of a detainee in the street, and it was a mob mentality. And they could only stay a few minutes because it was such a crazed scene. I think our people feared for their own safety.

So when they came home that evening, we had a huge debate about, do we report this? Is this too sensationalist? It's one incident. But when we looked at the whole picture, we also saw a body being dragged by a group of Shiite paramilitaries. We had photos of this, which we published, and there had been looting and arson of areas that surround Tikrit. So we felt that we had to report what happened there, that if we didn't, we wouldn't be meeting our obligation to report fairly and impartially about the critical issue right now, what happens when security forces enter an area that has been under Islamic State control, that is Sunni and then has predominantly Shia security and paramilitary forces enter?

INSKEEP: This is the most basic job of a war correspondent; go look at a war and report exactly what you see.

PARKER: Right. And this was a test case for the government. The Iraqi government and the U.S. government have spoken about the importance of post-conflict stabilization operations in Iraq.

INSKEEP: What happened after you published this story?>>PARKER: It was picked up everywhere. I think it was seen because of what our correspondents witnessed - this execution, which was horrific - where they watched two federal policemen basically trying to saw off the head of a suspected Islamic State fighter to cheers from federal police. Our story became really the example of what went wrong in Tikrit, and it was published on April 3. The night of April 5, on Facebook on a site associated with Shiite paramilitary groups and political forces, a picture of myself went up calling for Iraqis to expel me. It quickly received over 100 shares and comments, including better to kill him than expel him.

INSKEEP: Did it blow over?

PARKER: No, it only got worse. I did go out and try to have meetings with some people, different prominent Iraqis, about it. And then on Wednesday night on the channel of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, which is a prominent Shiite political party and paramilitary group, my face is the backdrop as the anchor talks, and he actually waves also a printout of my face and talks about how I should be expelled from the country and then proceeds to read a letter from an Iraqi living in the United States who also again calls for me to expel and describes Reuters as trampling upon the dignity of Iraq and Shiite paramilitary groups. And after that, there's no way I could've stayed in the country both for myself and for my staff. My presence was polarizing the situation, so I left the next day.

INSKEEP: When you meet journalists who live in quite a few countries around the world, you will hear stories of people who write something, get in trouble, realize that the government or some group is going after them, go into exile, wait a while and then make what to me is the astonishing decision to go back again. Do you want to go back to Baghdad?

PARKER: I mean, of course I want to go back. It's a place that I've covered for over a decade, and I care about the country. I have great friends there. It's a story that I've devoted a lot of time to, so I hope at some point I can go back.

INSKEEP: How would you know when it's safe to return if you can ever know that?

PARKER: That's a great question, and I think the problem when you deal with shadowy campaigns directed against a person or organization, it's not clear where they originate from, who's behind them or if it ever goes away completely. So if you make a decision to return at some point, you have to rely upon your contacts and friendships in that country and then decide what's a way that you can go back that's smart and safe for everyone.

Right now, our office is in a terrible situation where people are genuinely concerned about this campaign against us and the secretary-general for the United Nations has spoken out in public - I believe it was on Monday - about the need for the Iraqi government to protect journalists in Iraq. The committee to protect journalists has also called for an investigation into the threats against myself and Reuters. So far, the Iraqi government has taken some steps, but in other ways has fanned the flames.

Prime Minister Abadi last Thursday, the day after the broadcast against Reuters and myself, he gave a speech in public where he spoke in very broad strokes against a journalist who had been in Tikrit and had reported on the execution and the lootings and arson and implied perhaps some of the journalists who had been there had even been there deliberately to smear the government and the Shiite paramilitary forces on...

INSKEEP: This is the same prime minister who was installed with the support of the United States recently and who's visiting Washington?

PARKER: Right, and on the eve of his visit, a statement was issued by the prime minister's office in English talking about the need to protect and respect journalism in Iraq, including Reuters, and the statement referred to the incident involving myself and Reuters. But that statement was only put out in English and until now, it has not come out in Arabic.

INSKEEP: So he's sympathetic to you in English and something else in Arabic entirely.

PARKER: We're still waiting for the statement to come out in Arabic. It hasn't yet.

INSKEEP: Ned Parker of Reuters, thanks very much.

PARKER: Thank you.

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