Out of Reach  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2006

Out of Reach   

Extreme danger has made it very difficult for Western journalists to move around in Iraq. One casualty has been coverage of the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


For Deborah Amos, checking her appearance before she ventures outside the protective walls of her living quarters into the wilds of Baghdad has become a ritual: Are the glasses she's wearing too foreign-looking? Maybe it's best to take them off. Could the Western-style shoes give her away? Better to change into something more "Iraqi." Do the scarf hiding her hair and the long, traditional black robe provide enough cover?

Once she is satisfied the look is right, the veteran National Public Radio reporter slips into the backseat of the car, reminding herself that a conservative Muslim woman stares straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with drivers on the road or passersby. The demeanor is part of the disguise as she heads to an assignment in the heavily guarded Green Zone, home of the United States Embassy and the Iraqi government.

As the car slowly pulls into the street, Amos' eyes dart back and forth to see if any vehicles are following. She knows spotters can be anywhere: the beggar in a squalid alley, a cigarette vendor who rushes up at a stoplight, the young boys hawking newspapers on the side of the road. Anyone can punch a number into a cell phone and report to would-be assailants that a "soft target" is on the move.

"Is that BMW still with us?" she recalls nervously asking the driver as they moved along a carefully choreographed route. "Is that the same van I saw a block ago?" Using a two-way radio, Amos stays in touch with her safety net, a follow-up security vehicle, popularly known as a "chase car," that is ready to intervene in case of an ambush. Traffic jams are especially unnerving. Anyone who comes near the car or attempts to peer into the back window is a potential threat.

At the entrance to the Green Zone, the reporter doesn't breathe easier. Once considered an island of safety, the fortress in the heart of Baghdad has been hit numerous times by rocket fire and suicide bombers. "You are on guard every step of the way..and pray you make it back," Amos wrote in an e-mail to AJR in mid-February.

Every day, journalists in Iraq face a gut-wrenching decision: Do they venture out in pursuit of stories despite great danger or remain under self-imposed house arrest, working the phones and depending on Iraqi stringers to act as surrogates? A constant feeling of vulnerability heightens their angst. They know once they leave heavily guarded hotels or walled compounds they could end up in the hands of masked gunmen, pleading for their lives in a grainy video posted on the Internet. Or be within striking distance of an improvised explosive device (IED), a major killer in Iraq.

The perils of reporting in Iraq were underscored in January by the kidnapping of American freelancer Jill Carroll and by the explosion of a roadside bomb that seriously wounded ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt. But the situation has been extremely tense since 2004, when insurgents kidnapped 22 media workers and beheaded one of them, Italian freelancer Enzo Baldoni. With the brutal murder and mutilation of four American contract workers in Fallujah that year, open season on foreigners was under way. Increasingly, journalists have found themselves in volatile terrain, viewed as collaborators, infidels or spies. (See "Dangerous Assignment," December 2005/January 2006.)

The pressure to lay low has spawned terms like "hotel journalism" and "rooftop reporting" as correspondents struggle to cover one of the biggest stories of our time without being kidnapped or killed. During Vietnam, the press corps was relatively free to roam, producing a daily diet of human drama that helped shape the public consciousness on the war. In Iraq, the stranglehold on boots-on-the-ground coverage has kept the press corps from developing that kind of highly telling narrative. Reporters simply cannot risk wandering into Baghdad's seething slums, a breeding ground for the resistance, or the war-plagued villages.

"When news coverage is impacted this way, it limits the national debate," says Sydney H. Schanberg, who covered wars in Vietnam and Cambodia for the New York Times.

Some media companies with strong presences in Iraq, such as the New York Times, CNN and ABC, have spent millions of dollars to build and maintain elaborate compounds that provide a modicum of safety. Concrete blast walls topped by coils of razor wire protect offices and living quarters. The news organizations hire security consultants, many of them former military commandos who teach journalists tactics like "surveillance hindrance." Round-the-clock bodyguards carry automatic rifles. Correspondents travel in armored vehicles that cost upwards of $100,000.

Before cars enter these compounds, guards search under the hood and in the trunk, and run a mirror underneath in search of bombs. Everyone who comes in is patted down. At least one media company keeps a belt-fed machine gun ready to fire from the roof. Those with lesser resources reside in heavily fortified hotels or guarded apartment houses around Baghdad.

Despite all these efforts to keep them safe and working, journalists in Iraq say that many important stories remain out of reach. One casualty has been a clear picture of what life is like for Iraqis. Amos, for instance, no longer goes to mosques, hospitals or certain Baghdad neighborhoods. Social life has been shut down; there is little interaction among journalists, except in their self-contained bureaus.

The NPR reporter recalls a time before the rebellion turned ugly when journalists "were free to roam the country... We could talk to anyone. There is simply no comparison to those halcyon days."

Amos arrived in Iraq during May 2003, when covering the war was tough but not constantly life-threatening. Now, like her colleagues, she follows certain rules: Never stay at an interview longer than 30 minutes; try to limit the time it takes to get in and out of the car; don't use the same route twice; watch out for people talking into cell phones they could be radioing ahead.

The January kidnapping and roadside bombing stunned the press corps. At the time, the journalists involved were operating in dramatically different modes. Carroll, 28, who often worked for the Christian Science Monitor (and also wrote for AJR), chose the "soft option," maintaining a low profile, traveling in regular cars without bodyguards and wearing traditional garments to blend in. She had visited a Sunni area for an interview the day she was kidnapped in western Baghdad. Her translator was murdered during the incident.

Woodruff, 44, and Vogt, 46, were embedded with the military and standing in the open hatch of an armored vehicle when they were hit in Taji, 12 miles north of the capital. Both were wearing body armor that likely saved their lives.

On the heels of these high-profile tragedies, news managers huddled to rethink security arrangements. "It is my sense that covering Iraq is more difficult today than it has been at any other time," says Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt. "There are parts of the story that are more and more difficult to get."

For the press corps in Iraq, assessing risk has become an obsession. Bureau chiefs tell of grueling daily meetings to determine the priorities for coverage and the safest way to approach it. E-mails, phone calls and instant messages fly back and forth to foreign editors at home who weigh in on decisions. At CNN and ABC News, senior management must sign off on all trips outside Baghdad. At the New York Times, the bureau chief and a security chief make the call.

Chris Cramer, managing director for CNN International, refuses to use correspondents who have not had Iraq experience and insists on a hazard assessment before every assignment. "It is the most dangerous place on God's earth. It is awful. There is something potentially alarming around every corner," says Cramer, who made a conference call to his Baghdad staff the day after Woodruff and Vogt were wounded to assure them that the network was reassessing safety measures.

At any given time, CNN has five or six Western correspondents and 20 Iraqi staff on duty, according to Cramer. Many media managers hesitate to talk about the size of their news teams or details of their operations for fear of compromising security.

Since their colleagues were wounded in January, ABC News correspondents face more levels of bureaucracy before getting the green light for assignments. There was a time when a crew could make its own decision about embedding with the military. It simply touched base with the foreign desk back home and the bosses in Baghdad. All that has changed. "Now, to go on an embed, they would have to have my approval," says Paul Slavin, ABC's senior vice president for worldwide newsgathering. "I have never encountered anything like Iraq before, as far as reporting difficulty."

That could explain why, as the occupation has dragged on, the press corps has dwindled. In January, CNN reported that around 70 foreign correspondents were covering the story on a regular basis, a far cry from the journalism presence at the start of the war. At that time, according to the Pentagon, nearly 700 were embedded with coalition forces; hundreds more operated on their own.

With fewer watchdogs on the scene and limited access due to the extreme danger, are journalists missing important stories?

To a great extent, the Sunni-led insurgency remains a mystery and is the hardest story to crack, says John F. Burns, Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times and the paper's chief foreign correspondent. Reporters often are forced to rely on Sunni intermediaries and politicians or Islamic religious leaders, who may or may not actually speak with authority for the insurgents.

Among the unanswered questions about resistance forces: How much support is there in the countryside for foreign fighters linked to Al Qaeda? How do insurgents go about recruiting men and boys in villages? Who's footing the bill for weaponry? Who hides the insurgents when American soldiers show up?

Before heading to an interview in a high-risk area such as Sadr City, an overcrowded Baghdad slum where fierce battles and a spate of kidnappings have occurred, Burns and his staff run through a drill: Is it absolutely essential to have this interview? Is there somewhere else to meet? How important is the story? "The bar is set very high. Usually, we can find some other way to do it if the risks seem too great," says Burns, who won Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Gaining the trust of insiders who could provide a window into the various factions of the rebellion remains elusive. In January, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins turned to a trusted source to set up meetings with insurgents in Baghdad in an effort to document a rift between local resistance fighters and Al Qaeda's forces. His story included detailed accounts of the clashes provided by men claiming to be part of the action. He also included this disclaimer: "While their membership in the insurgency could not be independently verified, the descriptions the four men offered of themselves and their exploits were lengthy, detailed and credible."

Was he worried about being betrayed? "I knew the person who set up these interviews, and I trusted that person. And he trusted the insurgents he knew. That's not an ironclad guarantee," says Filkins, who won a George Polk Award for his Iraq reporting in 2004. "In a society like this, where a person's word counts for a lot, you can still do a story like this, even now. Could it have gone wrong? Yeah, it could have. I was interviewing sources that hang out with people who kill people who look like me."

For a definitive look inside the insurgency, Burns singles out Nir Rosen's July 5, 2004, New Yorker piece on the Sunni opposition. After U.S. Marines withdrew from Fallujah in May 2004, Rosen stayed to witness the gathering of about 500 clerics and tribal leaders in a dusty courtyard to celebrate. In his richly detailed article, Rosen wrote, "Mujahideen paranoia was making it impossible for Western journalists to work in Falluja[h]. I was able to avoid being taken hostage or killed because I speak Arabic and have olive skin and black hair, and when asked, I said that I was Bosnian."

Rosen did not carry a U.S. passport into Fallujah and traveled with a Palestinian who had helped resistance leaders during the fighting.

The violence also has kept reporters from fully documenting how ordinary Iraqis are faring under occupation and reconstruction. NPR's Amos recalls a time in 2003 when she roamed villages and Baghdad neighborhoods checking what was on grocery store shelves and in outdoor bazaars, noting how long gasoline lines were and talking to people about their hopes, disappointments and fears. "It is now impossible to get any feel for daily life. That avenue is shut," says Amos, who lists Sunni neighborhoods and cities outside of Baghdad as the most glaring gaps.

As they have been forced to lay low, more Western news organizations are turning to Iraqis to act as eyewitnesses in the field. Orville Schell, who went to Baghdad earlier this year for the New York Times Magazine, says there is "a whole new ecology of reporting." Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, says "Iraqi translators, stringers, even drivers have become the Seeing Eye dogs for those who write the story." The outsourcing of assignments to Iraqis, he says, has become common practice.

The Associated Press has devised a three-pronged approach for coverage: one corps of staffers stays in Baghdad to report and write, another group travels with the military and an extensive network of Iraqi stringers delivers information throughout the country. When they work in insurgent-wracked areas, their bylines are withheld. AP Middle East Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee says from the outset, the wire service planned to train a solid Iraqi reporting team so that the "AP will have a presence in Iraq forever."

Kathleen Carroll, the AP's executive editor, notes that, due to the high risks, some Iraqi staffers have moved their families out of the country with the AP's help. "It is not automatically safer for our Iraqi staff," she says. "It's not just because they're working for a Western news organization, but because they have a job with income coming in and that makes them vulnerable to kidnapping and ransom."

As for the notion of "hotel journalism," Buzbee says that not all Western reporters are trapped behind closed doors. "I think that is a wrong perception that has gotten too much credence," she says. AP's Western reporters "travel widely and extensively and constantly." Other correspondents who struggle daily with the risk factor echo that sentiment.

NPR Senior Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins says that Iraqis serve a critical role in the reporting process for his news organization. "We basically have trained a whole cadre of local reporters who are our eyes and ears in places we can't go," Jenkins says. That, too, takes a certain amount of juggling. A Shiite reporter cannot enter Sunni territory without the risk of being shot. Instead, that reporter would be assigned to Shiite cities like Najaf or Karbala, he says.

USA Today Foreign Editor Jim Cox praises the courage of his Iraqi staffers. He says they have done good work on feature assignments but "are not capable yet of going out to do meaty, hard-edged stories. They have to be carefully coached and edited."

Monte Morin arrived at the Los Angeles Times' Baghdad bureau on loan from the metro desk in spring 2004 when, with caution, Western journalists still dared to drive unannounced to local police stations and hospitals to get Iraqi reaction to the main story of the day. A year later, he found himself almost totally dependent on local reporters for newsgathering and worrying constantly about sending them into harm's way. "Translators became very uneasy about accompanying me outside the office because I looked too white and too American. They insisted on doing the interviews themselves, with me supplying the questions," says Morin, who found that system of secondhand reporting less than ideal. "Not only are you writing blind, but the stories come off a bit canned and stale. If you're shut up in a bureau, you're missing a lot," adds Morin, who has since gone to work as an embedded reporter for Stars and Stripes.

Iraqi media workers often have been in the line of fire. Some, employed by local publications, were murdered because of an anti-insurgency editorial stance or other political issues. Those attached to the international press corps came to be seen as collaborators. According to the latest figures available from the Committee to Protect Journalists at AJR's press time, 67 journalists had been killed on duty in Iraq since March 2003, 48 of them Iraqis. All 24 media support workers who died, such as drivers and translators, were locals.

In September 2005, men claiming to be police abducted New York Times reporter Fakher Haider, an Iraqi, from his home in Basra. His body was found the following day with a gunshot to the head. That same year, an Iraqi reporter for Knight Ridder was shot at an American checkpoint in the western part of the capital city.

On February 22, three journalists for Al-Arabiya television, including a high-profile female correspondent, were killed while covering sectarian violence in Samarra, the site of an explosion that destroyed one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines. Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite news channel, already had lost eight correspondents in Iraq, including five who died in a car bombing of their Baghdad bureau in October 2004.

The threat to Iraqi staffers has increased greatly as the level of civil conflict has worsened over the past year, says Ellen Knickmeyer, Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post. Translators, guards, drivers, house cleaners and reporters face greater danger from thugs, some of them wearing Ministry of Interior uniforms, at checkpoints and during neighborhood sweeps. Some of her local staffers sleep in their clothes in case armed men come to their door at night to take them away, Knickmeyer says.

"Living for [Iraqis] is more difficult and more dangerous. The driver for Voice of America was shot in recent days. One of our drivers has had two cousins shot to death in a week," the bureau chief says. In light of Jill Carroll's abduction and the kidnapping in February of two Iraqi journalists, all in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods, "I think most people would be much more reluctant to schedule interviews with Sunni politicians," Knickmeyer says.

To deflect risk, some Western journalists have given in to being embedded with the military despite the limitations that entails. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Anna Badkhen has worked both sides as an independent and an embed. She recalls a time in fall 2003 when she could jump in a car and make the 30-minute drive from Baghdad to Fallujah unescorted to report on the bombing of civilians. She would go to homes with an interpreter, talk to victims, call a military spokesperson to get a comment, write a story and be back in Baghdad for dinner. Today, that scenario would be impossible, she says.

When the reporter returns to Iraq later this year she reluctantly will embed with the military. "You have to go where the unit takes you. If you happen to be at a raid in a village, you can't say, 'I'm going to stay behind and talk to families to see how they feel about this,' " says Badkhen, who was embedded three times in 2005. "That is the big gap in coverage: We can't provide the full story of what it's like to be an Iraqi in Iraq."

Badkhen also worries about the problems Western journalists may create for local residents when the journalists do have the opportunity to enter their homes. "You don't know what's going to happen to them when you leave... It's a no-win situation."

Photojournalists also find themselves facing a dilemma: to do their job, they have to be on the scene with equipment in full view, making them highly visible and provocative targets. A camera, positioned to make a picture, could be mistaken for a weapon, says Detroit Free Press photographer David Gilkey, who has had several close calls.

He was operating on his own in late summer 2004 when he was attacked by a gun-wielding mob in Sadr City and "beaten to a pulp." His translator frantically dialed the number of a local cleric, who rushed to the rescue. As attacks against foreigners escalated, Gilkey, who describes himself as a "bald white guy with a goatee," felt increasingly vulnerable.

"I realized if I'm seen on the streets in the wrong place, I'm the first one that's going to go. There is no hiding; I'm screwed," he said in late February, a day before he headed back to Iraq. This time, he was traveling with the U.S. military as an embed. He points to an increasing number of wire service photos with Iraqi names on them as proof Westerners are pulling back. "Journalists have actually become higher-value targets than the participants in this war, which is bizarre. It is the ultimate 'kill the messenger,' " says Gilkey. "Without the ability to go out and report and photograph on our own, who knows where the truth lies?"

For freelance journalists operating in Iraq, the stakes are even higher. Most enter the country with little logistical support, such as a safe ride along the dangerous road from the Baghdad airport or lodging in a hotel with proper security. They bear their own expenses for an interpreter, car and driver. The high cost and serious risks cause some, like David Axe, to opt out.

Back home in Columbia, South Carolina, Axe says he has no plans to return. "To be honest, trying to get there just isn't worth it anymore. Except for a handful of major media, journalists are getting out," says Axe, whose stories have been published by the Washington Times, the Village Voice and Salon.

The final blow came when Axe had a run-in with the military over information he filed on a blog, www.defensetech.org, that deals with technology. The report had to do with a radio jammer called Warlock, used to thwart remotely detonated IEDs, one of the chief killers of U.S. soldiers. That got him evicted from his embed and caused him to rethink staying without security. In Iraq, "angry looks and whispered words can be a prelude to death," Axe wrote in a January 20 piece for Salon. He went to cover the war, he said, because "it is the biggest story in the world..but I also don't want to die."

Even with the best security efforts, journalists know their fortified hotels and compounds are vulnerable to rocket fire and vehicle-borne explosives. In October 2005, three powerful explosions killed at least 20 people outside Baghdad's Palestine and Sheraton hotels, both widely used by journalists and foreign contractors. A cement truck that crashed through blast walls delivered some of the explosives. No journalists were killed in those attacks.

Award-winning reporter Sydney Schanberg sees vast differences in how the press corps is forced to operate in Iraq. In Vietnam, there was a strong nationalist movement led by Communists from the North, a clear-cut enemy fighting for independence from foreign powers. In Iraq, there are any number of insurgent groups, some homegrown and some foreign-based.

In Vietnam, Schanberg didn't worry about going down a road unless it was completely deserted. If people were out in the sun working, he felt it was OK. He talked to peasants and villagers who knew where the fighting was and had a good idea when he was getting into dangerous territory. "There, you weren't scared all the time," says Schanberg, who until recently wrote about the media for the Village Voice. "In Iraq, journalists are wandering into a snake pit. They don't know whether they are going to get bitten by a cobra or a mamba snake. In both cases, it is deadly."

Virtually all of the media managers interviewed for this story gave no hint of thinking about shutting down their operations or seriously scaling back coverage. What they did talk about was a constant reassessment of the hazards, reevaluation of safety measures and efforts to mainstream Iraqis into newsgathering with Western staffs. David Cook, Washington bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, was guarded in his comments as his newspaper continued to fight for Jill Carroll's release. On one point, Cook was clear: "We're staying in the game... We feel, as our colleagues elsewhere, if you have American troops in harm's way, you want to be there to report on it."

There also was no sugarcoating of what might lie ahead. "We are all assuming it is going to get much worse," says the New York Times' John Burns, who is in his fourth year on duty in Iraq. Despite that grim prediction, he is betting that some journalists himself among them would find it more difficult to leave than to stay.

"I'd know I was giving up the most compelling story of our time. That's a very hard thing to do," he says. "Besides, this is an American war. We have to be here. We have no choice."

Editorial assistant Alia Malik contributed to this report.

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