Press in Iraq Gains Rights But No Refuge

Israa Shakir, 29, founded the Iraq Today newspaper 10 days after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Now it has a circulation of more than 5,000.
Israa Shakir, 29, founded the Iraq Today newspaper 10 days after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Now it has a circulation of more than 5,000. (By Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)

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By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 6, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Israa Shakir scrawled out the first edition of the Iraq Today newspaper on a few sheets of lined paper 10 days after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Three months later, she said, a man followed her home from work and put a gun to her head.

Shakir had published a story about an Islamic group that was forcing Iraqi women to wear the hijab , a traditional Muslim head scarf. Someone circulated a pamphlet calling for her to be killed, and a colleague with contacts in Iraq's insurgency told her it would cost $200 to get her name off the hit list. She refused to pay, but for some reason her would-be executioner did not pull the trigger.

"I still don't know why he didn't kill me," she said, recounting the story in a recent interview. "I guess it was just a warning."

In an office cluttered with old newspapers and trinkets from her travels around the Middle East, Shakir, now 29, keeps a cell phone by her ear, a notebook in her back pocket and a 7mm pistol on her hip. More than two years after its launch, Iraq Today has grown into a broadsheet published daily, with a circulation of more than 5,000.

But as her ever-present sidearm suggests, Iraq is adjusting uneasily to its newfound press freedoms, which proponents consider as important to cultivating democracy here as free and fair elections. At least 85 journalists and other employees of news organizations -- the vast majority of them Iraqis -- have been killed here since March 2003, according to the International Federation of Journalists, which opened an office in Baghdad in April to distribute safety information.

More recent incidents have been particularly alarming. Five journalists were killed over a four-day period in April, including Ahmed Rubaie, a reporter for Baghdad's al-Sabah newspaper who was kidnapped and reportedly beheaded. Later that month, a pair of columnists in Wasit, southeast of Baghdad, were sentenced to prison by a criminal court after they wrote stories critical of the provincial government and police, according to the Iraqi Association to Defend Journalists, an advocacy group that also is looking into several recent allegations of intimidation by the Iraqi government and police.

And May 16, on a highway south of Baghdad, insurgents stopped a minibus with 13 passengers aboard, three of whom carried press passes, according to Samir Adili of the Iraqi National Journalism Panel, a newly formed advocacy group. The three journalists were shot dead, he said.

"At the moment, things in Iraq are about as bad as it gets for journalists, and it is hardest for Iraqi journalists," said Robert Shaw, human rights and information officer for the International Federation of Journalists. "When Western media send their people in, they look seriously at questions of insurance, training for hazardous conditions and specialized equipment. But very few Iraqi reporters have these protections. And when they die, families get nothing because their employers don't have sufficient resources."

Journalism was already a dangerous business in the decade before the U.S. invasion in 2003, when Hussein's son Uday, known for his brutality, oversaw the media. Shakir worked as a reporter for the al-Ittihad newspaper, which, like every Iraqi publication, was required to feature either Uday or Saddam Hussein on its front page. Reporters had to submit their questions to government officials two weeks before an interview, and no follow-up queries were allowed. Mistakes, even those as innocuous as an incorrect date, were punishable by beatings.

After the government fell, an estimated 200 newspapers, magazines and other periodicals sprung up across the country, with aspiring journalists seizing the opportunity to publish more freely. Many of the early attempts failed, but others have emerged in their place. The United States channeled money into the Iraq Media Network, a collection of television and radio outlets and a newspaper.

"Initially, the level of responsibility with the press was not what you would want to see," said Richard Schmierer, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, citing what he said was biased reporting and the belief that some journalists worked closely with insurgents. "Now with a reduction in the overall number, you've seen a significant increase in quality. The press is a key, essential element to the development of an Iraqi society."

Today, surveys show that most Iraqis get their news through television. But in Baghdad alone there are still at least 100 print publications -- ranging from newsletters published irregularly by political or religious groups to independent newspapers -- according to Adili, who also works as a Baghdad correspondent for Dubai TV, a network based in the United Arab Emirates.


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