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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)

The most popular domestic television network is al-Iraqiya, a news and entertainment channel funded by the Iraqi government. The most influential and widely read newspapers are al-Sabah, which has a circulation of more than 50,000 and was founded after the invasion with U.S. funding, and Azzaman, which during the Hussein years was distributed in London, where its editor lived in exile. It now is published in Baghdad and in the southeastern city of Basra.

"We can report on everything we want and criticize whomever we want, which is progress," said Raed Qais, 28, a former newspaper reporter who now covers politics for Voice of Iraq Radio. Qais spends most of his days in the U.S.-fortified Green Zone, a four-square-mile enclave where most government offices and embassies are housed.

Six months ago, Qais said he was stopped by a carload of extremists when he was interviewing people on Haifa Street, which is located in a notoriously violent area of the capital. Terrified that they would see the English writing on the badge that gives him access to the Green Zone and assume he worked for the government or the United States, he clutched it behind his back until they left.

Qais and other Iraqi journalists said they also encounter resistance from their government and security forces. Some have reported being threatened, having their notebooks taken or their cameras smashed by police and soldiers. Others say the Iraqi officials favor Western media. "Foreigners can go to the government and get interviews when they want them," Qais said. "They ignore us."

In spite of such drawbacks, journalism as a career choice is very much in vogue, according to Hameeda Smaisim, dean of the College of Information at Baghdad University. There are currently 750 students enrolled in its journalism program, compared with 500 two years ago, she said.

"It is dangerous, but most jobs in Iraq are dangerous and journalism is the fashion now," said Smaisim, a former newspaper editor in Baghdad and a onetime reporter in Moscow for the Tass news agency. Four of her students have been killed while covering stories since 2003, but she said the violence should not deter others from entering the field.

"There has been a lot of chaos since the fall of Saddam's regime, and through this chaos this discipline is being formed," she said. "This is critically important work."

Asked about the dangers they face, all of the Iraqi journalists interviewed for this story mentioned Rubaie, the slain al-Sabah reporter.

When he went missing in mid-April, his family called the newspaper's office, a colleague said, but no one seemed to know where to find him. A few days later, police arrested several members of a criminal gang who admitted to killing several people. Rubaie's press pass was found among the identity cards in their possession. They told the police he had been beheaded, although his body has not been found.

"We all wrote stories about insurgents and about terrorism," said Asifa Mousa, a reporter who worked with Rubaie. "It could have been any of us."

Adili said that the Iraqi National Journalism Panel and the International Federation of Journalists now provide reporters with basic first aid kits and training courses in dealing with hazardous situations. About 60 journalists have completed the courses in Baghdad, Basra and other cites, he said. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, based in London, also trains local media here.

The United States stopped funding Iraqi media outlets in January 2004 but has established a workroom for reporters inside the Green Zone. The U.S. military has drawn criticism for detaining journalists it believes are collaborating with insurgents; meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists says 14 journalists have been killed by American forces since 2003.

In one incident, a correspondent and a cameraman for the al-Arabiya television network were shot dead at a Baghdad checkpoint when U.S. soldiers firing at a different vehicle mistakenly hit their car.

Most Iraqi news outlets are affiliated with political or religious organizations that can offer some protection. But a handful of independent operations, such as Shakir's Iraq Today, have no allegiances and no one looking out for them.

"When I interview politicians, the first thing they ask me is if I am Sunni or Shia," Shakir said. "My father is Sunni and my mother is Shia. I tell them, 'You can call me Sia.' "

Her father, a fisherman, and mother, a homemaker, never learned to read or write, she said. With an ever-expanding staff of 25 editors and reporters, she hopes someday to turn Iraq Today into a multimedia corporation and to add a television news network. She is completing a doctorate in journalism at Baghdad University, but unlike many educated, young Iraqis, she said she has no intention of leaving the country to pursue her career.

"Here I can help myself and I can help my country," she said. "All of this, starting a newspaper, being a leader for my country, this is my dream. Why would I leave? I am not afraid."

Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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