Last summer in the town of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, I was accompanying British diplomat Karen McClusky in the downtown market, interviewing residents, when one of McClusky's guards abruptly said, "We have to leave now." We left immediately, no questions asked. The guard later explained he'd sensed hostility in the crowd: dark looks, unintelligible muttering.
Perhaps it was no more than a fleeting specter -- but across Iraq these days and particularly in Baghdad, angry looks and whispered words can be a prelude to death. Westerners, including those working for the media (along with anyone helping them), have continued to be targets for abduction, torture and murder at the hands of insurgents.
The abduction in Baghdad on Jan. 7 of 28-year-old freelance reporter Jill Carroll, who was on assignment for the Christian Science Monitor, is the latest example of how difficult conditions have become. Her respected translator, Alan Enwiyah, was murdered at the time of the kidnapping; Carroll's fate remains unknown. On Jan. 17, Carroll's captors issued a statement demanding that the United States free all female Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody, threatening to kill Carroll if their demand was not met within 72 hours.
According to veteran war reporters, the security threat to journalists in Iraq today is as bad as ever. The growing danger and increasingly prohibitive cost of security measures have sharply limited their ability (and in some cases their willingness) to move around and provide accurate, comprehensive coverage of Iraq. Increasingly, they must rely on the U.S. military for protection and access. The remaining handful of non-embedded reporters in Baghdad are mostly holed up in a few besieged hotels, which, according to one source, are under constant surveillance by insurgent groups. Western reporters rarely venture out of the heavily fortified Green Zone, instead relying on local stringers to gather quotes and research stories.
Since the beginning of the war, 60 journalists have been killed in Iraq, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 37 have been abducted, several of whom were found dead. Carroll is the first American woman abducted.
Veteran war correspondent John F. Burns, the New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad, says "hotel journalism" has become the norm rather than the exception, although he adds that his own bureau has worked hard to keep its reporters on the streets. Very few Times employees have decided to leave because of the hazards they face, Burns says. Nonetheless, the security situation has been "woeful for really quite some time now," he says. "There are levels of risk that often seem beyond reason."
Journalists here are concerned and deeply sympathetic about Carroll's situation, while remaining resolute about their work. "People are realistic ... they know that these things can happen. They're more likely if you have no protection," Burns says.
Other veteran correspondents declined to talk about conditions in Iraq. Some agreed only on the condition that they were not identified. "Baghdad is ridiculously dangerous for a Westerner to move around in," said one longtime freelance war correspondent in an email. "Large news organizations like Time magazine and the New York Times still send some people around, followed at all times by chase cars filled with dudes with AK-47s. And then they sprint in, do some quick interviews, snap some pictures, and sprint back home. Not really good journalism in my book, but it's the only way to work." Carroll remained one of few who were still willing to venture out on their own with only nominal security, he said.
According to Burns and other reporters, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, journalists could more or less move freely throughout much of Iraq, including Baghdad. Then the insurgency began to flare up in summer 2003, and travel became more difficult. Local conditions varied -- hot spots included Fallujah and Najaf -- but everywhere the danger increased.
Burns says it was evident even back then that Iraq had become a "360-degree conflict," as U.S. commanders had begun describing it. He says the major insurgent attacks on the U.N. headquarters and International Red Cross in Baghdad in 2003 were a turning point. "I came to the conclusion walking through the rubble that we would have to adapt measures for our security that were quite remarkable," he says.
Soon thereafter, entire provinces like Al Anbar in the west essentially became off limits. Baghdad closed itself off to reporters "neighborhood by neighborhood," according to one correspondent. By 2005, only a few reporters would risk pursuing all but the biggest stories without taking serious, "very expensive" precautions, including heavily armed escorts.
Even with extensive security measures -- perhaps still only affordable for the largest media organizations today -- staying in business also requires "a measure of good judgment and good luck," Burns says. "With all the precautions in the world, we're still part of the inshalla brigade." ("Inshalla" means "God willing" in Arabic.)
Asked why insurgent groups would target journalists, public affairs officer Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, chief of the Army's Baghdad press center, says that it boils down to trying to influence the media environment. "Insurgents count on the media to carry their story." That story is about fear, death and destruction, he says, and "that's certainly one way to get attention away from progress [in reconstruction efforts]." Johnson also acknowledges Iraq today is "a very dangerous, hazardous place" for journalists. They usually travel predictable routes, stay in known locations, and are a "fairly available target," he says. He declined to comment about Carroll's case.
The worsening security situation means that options for journalists, other than embedding with the U.S. military, are almost nonexistent. This state of affairs raises concerns among reporters. One is that it could fuel the perception among Iraqis that Western media are in bed with the military occupiers, further stoking hostility. It also leaves reporters -- and perhaps their audiences -- wondering whether coverage from Iraq is increasingly in the hands of the military, as it wields greater influence over journalists' protection and access.
Insists Burns, "We are not an outpost of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq." But increasingly, relying on military transport and security is the only safe and cost-effective way to report on Iraq, and the Times bureau is no exception to that, he says.
Even Lt. Col. Johnson acknowledges that embedding can shape a reporter's work.
On PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on Wednesday, CBS News reporter Lara Logan spoke about just how constrained the media, especially television crews, are now: "The big complaint about this war coming from the American military and the Bush administration is that the media aren't telling the 'real story.' They don't talk about all the good things that are happening, and I frequently say to American military officers and soldiers on the ground: 'Look, you want us to risk the lives of all our team to come and film the opening of a bridge that was intact before it was bombed in this war anyway, or a school that's had new windows put in and been painted? I mean, those are just not reasons to risk the lives of all the people that are involved in trying to tell the story.'"
Logan reiterated how little freedom of movement there is in Baghdad and beyond. "We used to be able to drive to Fallujah," she said. "I want to go down to Najaf and interview Moqtada al-Sadr, I can't do that anymore. It has a huge impact on your ability to tell the story."
After numerous kidnappings and killings of journalists, some French and Italian agencies decided simply not to send their reporters back to Iraq. But grim as the conditions may be, Burns says that the New York Times bureau continues to adapt to the security threat and will stay in Iraq. And he believes other big media will do the same. "What's the alternative?" he asks. "The American press can't leave, because it's an American war."