By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
The Voice of America's bureau in Baghdad has been closed for the past six months, ever since the government-funded agency withdrew its only reporter in Iraq after she was fired upon in an ambush and her security guard was later killed.
All Western news organizations have struggled with the dangerous conditions in Iraq, which have led to such high-profile incidents as the kidnapping of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll and the wounding of ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff. But for a federally funded information service to pull out of Baghdad for such a prolonged period raises questions about the Bush administration's insistence that conditions there are gradually improving.
VOA reporter Alisha Ryu said yesterday that she told her bosses in December that "it would really be impossible for me to do any kind of work" in Iraq. "I couldn't live with the idea that someone else could have died who was working with me. . . . For all journalists, it's really become impossible to move around."
Asked why VOA has not sent another reporter to Iraq, Ryu said, "They didn't have any volunteers to replace me."
Larry Hart, communications coordinator for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, said the agency hopes to send another reporter to Baghdad soon but could not specify a time frame. He said Ryu was withdrawn "because of threats against her personal security."
The VOA, which broadcasts in 44 languages around the world, is designed to be journalistically independent but is required by its charter to "present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively." Hart said that about 50 Iraqi employees remain in Iraq for the U.S.-funded Radio Sawa and al-Hurra -- Arabic-language services carrying news, entertainment and pop music to the Middle East.
In November, Ryu said, she was the only journalist to witness U.S. forces transferring 169 Iraqi detainees from a secret Interior Ministry prison where, Baghdad authorities acknowledged, some had been tortured, possibly by Shiite militia. She said that after her initial reports, "I had a feeling the Shiite militia was watching me, and I know they were not happy."
The prisoners were mostly Sunni, and the official then running the ministry was a Shiite reported to have ties to a Shiite militia group.
Ryu was widely quoted about watching the prisoners transferred from the prison to waiting buses. She told "NBC Nightly News" that the detainees were "almost like Holocaust victims that you've seen in World War II films." She told the Los Angeles Times that the detainees, some of them bruised, looked "like concentration camp victims" and told the New York Times that the prisoners appeared "extremely emaciated, starved for some time."
Two days later, two powerful car bombs exploded outside the al-Hamra Hotel, near the secret prison, where Ryu and a number of other foreign journalists were staying. She said she reported that this was not a random attack but intended as "retribution for journalists who reported on the detainee situation."
Two weeks after that, Ryu said, gunmen opened fire on the car carrying her and her driver, Mohammed Siddik, who was under contract as her security guard. They escaped, but the driver in the car in front of hers was killed, she said.
Days later, Siddik was kidnapped by men she believed to be members of a Shiite militia. Intervention by other Iraqis led to his release.
Ryu, 43, came to believe that her phone was being tapped when she dialed a number in the United States, and the call was answered by a man identifying himself as a member of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Feeling "very unsettled," Ryu decided she had to leave Iraq and has returned to her previous posting in Nairobi.
She returned to Iraq once, for a few days in February, and told Siddik to be careful. The day after she left, Ryu got word that Siddik had been killed, shot twice in the back of the head and once in the torso.
Ryu said that the brother of her Iraqi interpreter, a low-level civil servant, had also been killed in a drive-by shooting, but that she could not be certain that his death was related to the brother's employment.
Reporters for several news outlets, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, have had close calls in Iraq. A VOA staffer familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is not an authorized representative, said the agency had a limited budget in Iraq and could not afford the extensive security employed by major news organizations.
Administration officials have complained on numerous occasions that journalists in Iraq are focusing too heavily on the daily violence and attacks, and are neglecting signs of progress there. Many editors and reporters have responded that the security situation makes it difficult for correspondents to move around the country unless they are embedded with military units.
Since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 69 journalists have been killed while on duty, along with 26 media support workers.