Iraq’s war correspondents in the line of fire

Sunday 19/03/2017
At risk. Reporters covering the Iraqi army battles against ISIS in Mosul. (Oumayma Omar)

Baghdad - Faleh Hadi’s military back­ground has helped him avoid being killed or in­jured while reporting on fierce combat in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. Nonetheless, the former Iraqi Army officer, who works as a war correspondent for the official Iraqi Media Network, has been exposed to great risks because of a lack of protection equipment and clear guidance and instructions.

“After the occupation of Mosul and the western governorates by ISIS in 2014, I was assigned to ac­company the military forces to re­port on the war of liberation,” Hadi said. “The first battle I covered was in Falluja. The risks that we faced to carry out our work were no less dangerous than those of the com­batants.”

While Hadi had experience in military operations, many of his colleagues were young eager re­porters covering war for the first time.

“I could see that they have been thrust by their media to the front lines without being properly briefed on the risks they would en­counter, resulting in many casual­ties among them,” Hadi said. “Me­dia institutions are after news and information from the battlefield and disregard the fact that their reporters had no proper train­ing needed to operate in conflict zones.”

“War coverage is an extremely difficult task, especially when you move between booby traps and rigged roads. This requires military knowledge to avoid the traps, a matter that most Iraqi correspond­ents are unaware of,” he added.

Most Iraqi media institutions, private and state-run, fail to pro­vide war correspondents with proper equipment, such as ar­moured, bulletproof vests and helmets. Often they do not even provide maps to help reporters understand the typography of the areas they will work in.

Hatem Toumi, a cameraman who reported for local satellite television on the Mosul battle, blamed the death of journalists on employers’ negligence.

“War correspondents in the Iraqi media have no proper means of protection and no first aid equip­ment which their institutions are supposed to ensure for them. Cer­tain journalists even borrow bul­letproof vests from the soldiers when they go on air,” Toumi said.

“Moreover, there is no database about correspondents embedded with the armed forces to help trace and save them if they get injured or killed, besides the fact that corre­spondents do not receive instruc­tions and guidance about potential risks ahead of time,” added Toumi, who survived an ISIS attack on the military convoy he was embedded in.

“It was a terrifying experience,” he recalled. “We were a bunch of journalists left in the middle of the desert in an area rigged with explosives after the troops had dispersed in all directions. We had two options: To move on between the explosives or wait for help. We were lucky because another con­voy passed by after a short while.”

Toumi quit his job after the in­cident, deciding that covering war zones without life and medical insurance or reliable protective equipment was too great a risk. Many Iraqi correspondents have similar concerns.

ISIS snipers have been specifical­ly targeting journalists in Mosul to discourage them from reporting on the advance of the army into the city. Iraqi Alsumaria photographer Ali Resan was killed by sniper fire south of Mosul while filming the battle. He had no armoured vest or helmet.

In addition to Resan, 14 journal­ists have been gravely injured in the battle for Mosul, Iraq’s Jour­nalist Freedoms Observatory said. Thirteen journalists have been killed and 44 injured since ISIS took over Mosul and large areas of Iraq in June 2014. The dead are among an estimated 298 Iraqi and foreign correspondents who were killed while working since 2003.

Journalist Freedoms Observa­tory Director Ziad al-Ajili blasted Iraqi media institutions for failing to protect their war correspond­ents and shoving them into the front lines of battle without even minimal training on how to man­age risks, let alone with reliable protective equipment.

“We have been lobbying with military and security officials to avoid putting embedded journal­ists in advanced frontlines and urged media leaders to send their experienced and skilled corre­spondents to war zones,” Ajili said. He criticised the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate for failing to impose se­curity on the job rules for war re­porters.

Syndicate member Fouad Ghazi said that journalists’ protection is not only the responsibility of the media outlets but of reporters as well.

“Reporters should be also aware of their own responsibilities and give priority to their own safety rather than obtaining a scoop or footage,” he said. “Many get car­ried away when covering battles, ignoring instructions and enter­ing dangerous zones with soldiers. Their excessive boldness is harm­ful for them and the media they work for.”