Climate of fear stymies Basra reporters

Journalists risk death if they try to report candidly about the troubled Iraqi city.
By Safa al-Mansoor and Dhiya al-Mussa
Iraq, Basra : Homeless demonstrate in the city, AFP PHOTO/Hani AL-OBEIDI
Iraq, Basra: homeless people demonstrate in the city. © Hani AL-OBEIDI / AFP

BASRA, Oct. 2, 2007 (IWPR) - As a reporter for a US-backed radio station in the southern city of Basra, Majid al-Brekan had received threats before - but none like this.

One day in late March, as Brekan slipped into the driver’s seat of his car in front of his house, he noticed three masked men riding on a motorcycle behind him. Fearing trouble, Brekan quickly turned on his ignition and slammed on the accelerator. The men shot and damaged his car, but Brekan escaped without injury.

The incident shook the journalist so much that he decided to flee his home city. The press is not free in the southern oil-rich city, said Brekan bitterly, because journalists are in harm’s way.

"We are fearful and cautious about our work,” said Brekan, who works for Radio Sawa - an Arabic language radio station, funded by the United States government and broadcast throughout Iraq. “We can't report the full story in detail because no one protects us."

After the ousting of Saddam’s regime, hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations were established throughout Iraq. In Basra, there are now 90 media organisations - 60 of these are newspapers issued by political parties and groups.

As the violence has escalated in Basra, journalists have become increasingly under attack. They say inadequate security provision means they are at the mercy of militias and kidnapping gangs.

Several reporters have fled the city after receiving threats connected to their work, and at least three have been killed over the last three years, including 40-year-old Abdul Hussein Khazal, a local newspaper editor and correspondent for the US-backed al-Hurra channel.

Khazal and his three-year-old son were shot to death outside of his house in February 2005.

Last year, a website of an unknown militant group posted a hit-list of 17 Basra journalists. Some of the journalists including Adil Hamid, a local media adviser, fled to neighbouring Kuwait.

Local journalists who remain describe a climate of fear. They work quietly, not wanting to incite the wrath of the local Shia militias or Islamic parties that have taken control of the city since British forces stationed there handed it back to be governed by locals.

These include Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s political wing and Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia; the Shia Fadheela Party, which holds substantial political power in Basra; and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its Badr Organisation, which Iraqi exiles in Iran founded in 1982 to oppose former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime. Basra’s Sunni citizens have largely been pushed out of the province.

Journalists say that openly criticising political parties or militias is a “red line” not to be crossed.

"The red lines that no media outlet in Basra dares to cross include writing stories about militias, administrative and financial corruption by officials and the interference of some parties in government affairs," said a local reporter who preferred no to be named.

"Iran is also another red line. No one dares to write directly about what Iran does in Basra."

Ahmad Abdul Samad, a reporter for the Basra news channel al-Fayhaa, frequently reports on the sensitive topic of Iranian interference in Iraq. Basra, which lies near the Iran-Iraq border, has close ties with Iran, and Tehran has been accused of providing covert support for Shia extremists in Iraq.

Samad’s work has not gone unnoticed. “The most recent threat came when an envelope with a bullet inside of it was thrown into my garden,” he said. “This will never stop me.”

Abu Mohammed al-Khakani was working for al-Nakheel television station, which is backed by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, when he decided to leave after receiving a better offer at another channel.

“I went to [Nakheel] to collect my things, and I was shocked when I went into my office and found a letter warning me not to work with the other channel,” he said.

“The letter was written in imperfect Arabic, and it had some Iranian words - so I’m not working for either station.”

Some journalists said they are considering leaving Basra in order to practice their craft freely.

Al-Fayhaa moved its headquarters to the relatively stable north-eastern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah in March, and Samad said he is considering joining his team there.

Others have quit the profession altogether.

Ali Haddar Salman left reporting for a civil servant’s post, saying journalists don’t feel they can tell the truth.

“I was afraid that if I crossed a red line or criticised a group I would be targeted and join the martyrs of free and honest words,” he said.

This article is part of a special report about Iraqi media from the Institute of War and Peace Reporting ( Safa Mansoor is an IWPR journalist based in Baghdad who frequently reports from Basra. Dhiya al-Mussa is an IWPR trainee in Basra.