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.
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.