Journalists follow other Iraqis into exile

They are today's Soviet ballet dancers: invite an Iraqi journalist to a conference abroad, and there is a good chance he or she will never go back. Five Iraqi journalists in exile in Lebanon tell their story to
By Khaldoun Zein Eddin
An Iraqi refugee family in Beirut. © Ousama Ayoub / AFP

BEIRUT, Nov. 26, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) - Their names are Najah, Nassim, Bakr, Dina and Awas. All five are Iraqi journalists who have spent the last four years covering the war in their home country.

Today they are in Lebanon.

Ironically, they came to attend a conference about war coverage and the safety of journalists at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

But the conference effectively ended their careers as war journalists because none of them has gone back to Iraq.

"We must cover what is happening but who covers us? We are in danger. We have carried the coffins of our colleagues on our shoulders. If we are killed, who will give compensation to our families? Our society has no mercy. Why should we throw ourselves into such a volcano? Why?"

They recall the actual conference back in September. How some of the  speakers had seemed to belong to another world from the one they had just come from.

Former CNN boss Eason Jordan, for instance, had been shocked when one of the Iraqi journalists said you can get a bullet-proof vest in Iraq for $50. "You cannot be careless about bullet-proof vests. A good one costs no less than $1,500. What good could a $50 vest be?"

And he added: “Your protection is not just your own responsibility solely. It is also the responsibility of the media institutions”.

That brought smiles to the Iraqis' faces.

“Instead of providing us with protection, they say: we have no choice", Dina said. "If you like working here, you are welcome. If not, then so-long. They can’t provide us with protection, or vests, or health insurance”.

Jordan responded: “The smartest decision in this case would be not to cover wars!”

But of course they never had a choice in the matter.

Najah recalled how an Iraqi official gave him and some colleagues to protect themselves.

Nassim, who had received numerous threats from this or that side, said: "When I was in a taxi, I used to keep my hand on the door at all times just  in case I would have to throw myself out of the car to avoid being kidnapped. Each Iraqi journalist has to protect himself because the media institutions in Iraq do not provide its journalists with any kind of protection”.

“I could be kidnapped just because I am a journalist. Some people think that journalists are secret agents”, said Najah.

Covering a war in your own country has its own complications.

“I work for the interest of my country which I love", said Awas. "I convey information but my American editors would often accuse me of being biased towards the cause of my country. On the other hand, I would receive death threats from my own people because they accuse me of being a foreign agent!”

The conference also addressed the need for proper health and risk coverage. More Iraqi smiles.

"When an Iraqi journalist is killed, the compensation given to his family is $300", Najah said. “This sum is equal to a one-month salary since the majority of journalists get paid only $300 per month”.

Jordan's conclusion was what many of them had reached already: “In this case, journalists must think about their families. They must not sacrifice their lives for nothing”.