I sometimes feel guilty about my cushy desk job as an editor—especially when I read about the killings of my fellow journalists in places like Iraq.
There were three such distressing cases out of Baghdad last week. The most heartbreaking of these was the murder of New York Times reporter Khalid Hassan on July 13. Hassan survived a barrage of bullets in his car and called his parents to tell them that he was OK, only to be executed minutes later when a second car drove by and a gunman fired two bullets in his head and neck. It is unclear if Hassan was targeted for his ethnicity or for being a journalist, or for working for a U.S. outlet.
A day earlier, two Reuters journalists, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, were killed by American troops during a firefight with insurgents in the Ameen neighborhood of Baghdad. The two had just gotten out of their car to observe what was going on. They join an awful list of six previous Reuters colleagues who have been killed covering the Iraq War.
Life in Iraq is a nightmare for reporters, caught between the murderous intent of insurgents and militias and the trigger-happiness of U.S. troops. The 2007 report of Reporters Without Borders documents sixty-five journalists and media assistants killed in Iraq in 2006 itself. And this was just the most dramatic fate that they were dealt. As the report states, journalists were also subjected to hostage-taking by the insurgents (Jill Carroll being perhaps the most famous example), and harassment and detention by Iraqi and U.S. authorities.
All told, more than a hundred journalists have been murdered since the start of the Iraq War, making it a horribly deadly conflict for the media to cover. Although the insurgency has been responsible for the vast majority, U.S. troops have killed upward of a dozen. And if Tony Blair hadn’t put a stop to President Bush’s ruminations about bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters, that toll would have been even higher. (See David Enders’s article in the September 2005 issue of The Progressive for details on some of the killings and harassment of journalists in the first two years of the war.)
It isn’t news that being a journalist in Iraq is laying your life on the line on a daily basis. The death toll started almost from the first day of the war. Back in 2004, Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi created a stir when an e-mail she sent friends about the hazards of being a reporter in Iraq went public.
“Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest,” Fassihi wrote. “I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't. There has been one too many close calls, including a car bomb so near our house that it blew out all the windows. So now my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second.”
I must admit that from time to time, I have felt a twinge of envy for the supposedly daredevil, exciting life of the war correspondent. It was somewhat of a wish of mine to become one when I was in J-school.
But reading the harrowing accounts of journalists being killed, kidnapped and detained in Iraq has cured me of my daydreams. The Iraq War shows how awful a toll conflict can take on those whose job is to report it to the public.