Letter from Baghdad: Risky Business  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2004

Letter from Baghdad: Risky Business   

The dangers in Iraq have led Western journalists to alter their appearances, rely more heavily on Iraqi staffers and, simply, to not venture too far from the hotel.

By Colin Freeman
Colin Freeman has been a freelance reporter in Iraq since May 2003. His work has appeared in the London Evening Standard, the Scotsman, the Sunday Telegraph and the San Francisco Chronicle.     


As we left the hotel one morning, my translator, Nassi, lifted his shirt and quietly gestured to the silver chrome glinting at his waistband. Tucked beside his new mobile phone was his Czech-made 9 mm pistol, bought for $200 in one of Baghdad's many illicit gun markets. "From now on, we carry this all the time, right?" he said, glowering at unseen foes on the street ahead. If anyone messes with us, he said, they're dead.

In the past I've always made him leave it at home — ethically, it's dodgy, and practically, it's useless, because in Iraq, anybody not in a U.S. Army tank is easily outgunned. But since our trip to Basra in May, it has become a lot more difficult to persuade him. That was when Nassi and I nearly lost our lives while attending a prayer meeting for militiamen followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It seemed reasonably safe at the time — we had a written invite from the sheik leading the prayers, and most of the worshippers gave us not so much as a second glance. Then, as we left, one man fired a .22-caliber pistol into the ground right behind us, screaming "British spies."

The ricochet blast caught me right in the backside, leaving me dancing around in pain as blood seeped through the back of my trousers. Seconds later, what looked like my own private "Mogadishu moment" was in full swing, as I was half-nelsoned against a wall, searched and frog-marched off through a sea of hostile faces, taking the occasional punch. Just as it seemed I was about to provide a nearby Arab TV crew with a world exclusive of a live execution of a Westerner, Nassi turned up in a car with the sheik's deputy, whom by some miracle he'd managed to find in the crowd. They bundled me in and drove off at high speed. Later, in a British Army field hospital, I learned that what I thought was just powder burn from the ricochet was in fact the bullet itself. An X-ray showed it lodged just a hair's breadth from my pelvis.

I am one of the lucky ones. The bullet dug out of my backside is now a proud souvenir. "My terror at the hands of Shiite militiamen" made several good first-person pieces. And the uncensored version — including the bit where an Army surgeon asked if he could photograph my butt for a gunshot wound lecture — causes much mirth among colleagues.

But other tales doing the rounds in the Baghdad hotel bar recently have no such happy ending. A week after I was attacked, two Japanese journalists were killed as they drove through Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, their car wiped out by a rocket-propelled grenade. Two Polish journalists died in a similar strike there three weeks before. As the insurgency escalated in April and May, other colleagues similarly filled their reports with tales of being kidnapped and threatened or dodging bullets — in the case of Iraqi journalists, often from increasingly nervous coalition troops.

Nobody really knows why reporters have suddenly become fair game. Some blame the "gloves off" nature of post-September 11 conflict, pointing out that those who will happily car bomb the Red Cross have no qualms about killing the odd hack. Others suspect that with the growth of Arab media such as Al Jazeera, Western journalists are no longer the only means for insurgents to publicize their causes. Either way, as one colleague recently muttered darkly, it has gotten to the point where those who haven't had a direct brush with death feel distinctly left out. They can console themselves with the fact that in a survey this spring by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iraq tops the list of the 10 most dangerous countries in which to work.

Those journalists who haven't already pulled out are responding in different ways. Some, particularly the TV crews who have thousands of pounds of equipment worth stealing, are fighting fire with fire. Ex-military security men whose job is simply to "advise" are packing guns, and in several cases have killed attackers in self-defense. But as easy prey in a world of predators, the majority go for disguise, ditching the comfortable 4x4 vehicles with "Press" emblazoned all over them in favor of battered old taxis or deliberately mud-spattered sedans.

"War reporter chic" is also out, as combat trousers, boots and sunglasses look far too military. Women wrap themselves in Islamic headscarves and full-length burkas, while some of the men — equally reluctantly — have started sporting the garish checked shirts and '80s-style slacks favored by most Iraqi males.

A few of us on long-term stints have even ditched the clean-shaven habits of a lifetime and grown facial hair, the styles — invariably hideous — tailored to whichever insurgency you're covering. Close-cropped beards go down well in the Shiite south; Saddam-style handlebar mustaches, like my own, are more suited to the Sunni west. It looks awful when I do the rare TV interview, but if it helps my fair-skinned mug look like that of a passing Turk or Kurd, it's worth it.

But for all reporters here, be they TV or print, staff or freelance, the main way of dealing with the growing risks has been simply to stop taking them. Only the most important stories are now deemed worth leaving Baghdad for, and for some journalists, reporting does not go much further than their hotel Internet café. "My office has told me they don't want me leaving Baghdad, which means I'm pretty much stuck rewriting agency stuff," said one British reporter, who, guilty about even having a Baghdad byline in his paper, insisted he could not be named here. He recently left Iraq. "I might as well be at home."

Even the BBC, respected worldwide for impartiality and already familiar in Iraq through its Arabic-language service, admits to being frequently deskbound. "It has undoubtedly affected our ability to gather original material," says Joe Floto, a senior producer with the BBC's Baghdad office. "At the moment the situation with the roads in Iraq is so bad that our staff are largely limited to Baghdad unless there is a special operation."

Much the same applies at the Washington Post, where in June reporter Daniel Williams' armored car, traveling between Baghdad and Fallujah, was sprayed with at least 20 bullets by a gunman. "If he hadn't been using armor he'd have been dead," says Bureau Chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran. "We have to think very carefully before we go anywhere outside Baghdad these days, and that is a great frustration."

Hence the increasing use of Iraqi reporters to go into areas considered dangerous. Until recently, no-go zones were almost unheard of here: Even in the most anti-coalition towns, locals generally made a clear distinction between Westerners wearing uniforms and Westerners wearing press IDs. But just prior to the U.S. siege in Fallujah, the line became fatally blurred after rumors circulated that U.S. troops were posing as reporters to gather intelligence. The truth of the claim did not matter — ever since then, Western journalists visiting the city have attracted intense suspicion and hostility.

As a result, nearly all of the photos and reports depicting the siege from the Iraqi end carried Arabic bylines. Among them was that of Aqil Jabar, a 22-year-old journalism student at Baghdad's Institute of War and Peace Reporting, who filed vivid accounts of his time in Fallujah for both Newsweek and the Glasgow Sunday Herald. Being Iraqi, though, made it no less dangerous a trip. "Three days in we were kidnapped by some mujahedeen who thought we were spies because we had a satellite phone and were trying to call Newsweek," he says. "We persuaded them we were there to help people see the crimes the U.S. was committing. After that they blindfolded me and took me to their chief, and I thought I was dead. But instead he gave me an interview."

The ordeal provided Jabar with highly dramatic copy, as well as an appetite for further risky missions — most recently, uncovering a thriving weapons market in the southern city of Amara for the British Sunday Telegraph.

But the increasing use of Iraqi journalists has provoked concerns that they are being enticed into risks Western correspondents wouldn't take. The debate does not bother Jabar, and not just because the work has given him valuable experience with major news organizations. "There would be places in America or England where I couldn't do the job because of how I looked either," he says. "We are all journalists together, and we have to look out for each other's safety."

But the Daily Telegraph's Julius Strauss, who has covered virtually every major conflict since the Balkans, believes an unwelcome trend is being set. "Using locals to report for you has always happened in certain very tight circumstances, but I think now it is being institutionalized to a worrying extent, and that carries a dubious morality" in that they routinely get asked to take all the risks, he says.

Strauss, who has also worked in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, even doubts that Iraq is really any more dangerous than elsewhere. All that has changed, he says, is the attitudes of the heads of many news organizations. "Places like Sierra Leone were far worse — people got shot on sight there simply for being white. The problem is that war reporting used to be done by a relatively small amount of specialists, but now there are a lot more people involved, and executives have realized that it is inherently dangerous. Sometimes, tragically, people get killed, and you cannot avoid that. You just have to trust in the experience of the journalist on the ground to make the right decisions each day."

Arab journalists also incur much suspicion from U.S. troops, something that has especially affected Reuters, a company that has long had a policy of employing locals in most worldwide bureaus. Last August, cameraman Mazen Dana was shot dead outside Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison after U.S. troops allegedly mistook his camera for an RPG. In January three Reuters staffers were arrested near a downed U.S. Army helicopter and held by American forces for three days as suspected insurgents, during which time they claim they were threatened and abused.

"The Army inquiry into their detention found no evidence of wrongdoing, although it didn't even bother interviewing our staff," says Andrew Marshall, Reuters' chief correspondent in Iraq. "In light of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal we are pressing to have it reopened. But we are also trying to get the U.S. Army to improve their communications and learn more about how we work. In the case of the death of the cameraman, Army commanders knew there was media around but the soldiers on the ground weren't told."

Be they Westerners or Arabs, journalists striving to do frontline reporting in postwar Iraq face many new hazards compared with previous conflicts. For a start there is no front line — only isolated pockets of insurgents, whose chief tactics are concealment, ambush and speedy getaways. Second, dealing with the resistance is fraught with danger, as any subsequent raids or arrests they suffer are automatically blamed on the journalist. One Iraqi fixer, who asked not to be named, says: "When I tried to arrange a meeting with a representative from the resistance, they said if anything happened to them afterward they would kill us. It wasn't worth the risk."

For those who do press ahead, there's great danger in accompanying the resistance on their missions. The resistance's enemy, after all, is not another rag-tag group of lightly armed volunteers, but the highly trained forces of a superpower army. In the words of writer Anthony Swofford, an ex-U.S. Marine who experienced friendly fire during the first Persian Gulf War, if they don't hit you the first time, they keep shooting until they do.

The dangers from both sides loomed large in the mind of Lee Gordon, a British freelance reporter who pulled off a remarkable "embed" with the resistance in Fallujah during April's siege. He went there under cover of an aid convoy, helping to ferry wounded locals to hospitals through U.S. Army checkpoints by acting as a Western escort. After the ambulance they were using returned pockmarked by M-16 bullet holes several times, locals finally began to accept his presence. Then, just as he was considering approaching the local mujahedeen, a group of fighters obliged by kidnapping him and his translator at RPG-point.

"They interrogated us very aggressively, and at that point I did think we were dead," Gordon says. "Somehow, my translator talked them round, and they said to come back and spend time with them to tell their story." Since then Gordon has courted and reported on Fallujah's resistance almost full time: Dramas include being shown the dead body of a German security guard just minutes after his convoy was ambushed, and having a rival mujahedeen stick a gun in his mouth and threaten to blow his head off. Other resistance groups have even drafted him occasionally to vouch for other Western journalists held on suspicion of spying.

"I have built up a bit of a rapport here, yet it's still risky," he says of Fallujah. "But if you want to report the story from the other side, you've got to throw yourself into the mix."

So far, his courage — or, in the opinion of some colleagues, his madness — has paid off handsomely. When the world's attention was fixed on Fallujah during the siege's first week, he was the only Western reporter on the streets, and his front-page exclusive in the Sunday Telegraph is being touted as a possible winner in forthcoming British foreign press awards. As a fellow stringer for the same paper, it does of course pain me greatly to write that last line. But in all frankness, would I have swapped places with him back in April? The answer, I think, is no. My own ass has quite literally been on the line once already.


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