The massacre that wasn't

It was a good day for the family of Iraqi journalist Dhia Al-Kawwaz; they turned out not to have been massacred after all. It was not such a good day for the credibility of Iraqi journalism.
By Staff
Journalist Dhia Al-Kawwaz' family members on Al-Hurra TV on Wednesday night, alive and well. Insert: Al-Kawwaz accepting condolences on their behalf in Amman on Monday. © AFP

The story, as it went out on Wednesday, was chilling enough.

Five gunmen had entered the house of Dhia al-Kawwaz' family in the Shaab  neighborhood of Baghdad shortly after 7 a.m. on November 25 and shot dead two of Kawwaz's sisters, their husbands and their seven children, aged 5 to 10. They then blew up the house before leaving in a vehicle with no license plates. Neighbors said police at a nearby post did not intervene.

That was the gist of the alert that went out from Reporters without Borders in Paris, and which many publications worldwide, including, published on good faith.

There was no reason to doubt the report at first. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, at least 206 journalists and media assistants have been killed in Iraq, and threats against journalists and their families are common.

In fact, it was hardly news at all except for the sheer number of relatives killed. 

Al-Kawwaz, an Iraqi journalist in exile for the past twenty years, had recently received threats to stop writing about the Iranian influence in Iraq on his website, Shabeqat Akhbar al-Iraq (Iraq News Network). Shia militias were responsible for the massacre, Al-Kawwaz said, and by extension the Shia-led Iraqi government that supports them. (Al-Kawwaz is rumoured to be close to the former Baath party, and has been very critical of the Maliki government.)

But then the denials started coming in.

The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said there was no record of any such incident in the Shaab neighborhood. Al-Dabbagh said he had personally spoken to Al-Kawwaz' mother on the phone from Kut; she had assured him that she and her family were alive and well.

Of course, it wouldn't have been the first time the Iraqi government was caught in a lie.

Al-Kawwaz held his own, and challenged the Iraqi government to show his family on TV.

Which it did. On Wednesday evening, the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra station paraded Al-Kawwaz' family on TV, including one of the sisters who was supposed to have been murdered.

"We are still alive. Thank God!", she said. "No one attacked us ... militias or special forces. Nobody stormed our home. He even organized a condolence meeting to mourn our deaths. But we are alive. We are ashamed that he is our brother."

Al-Kawwaz' mother went on Al-Hurra as well, saying she had disowned her son.

Meanwhile, at Reporters without Borders headquarters, panic had broken out.

"Our credibility was at stake here," a spokesperson told MENASSAT.COM from Paris, "so we pulled out all the stops."

RSF said it was alerted to the alleged massacre by one of their correspondents in the region. "We called Al-Kawwaz in Jordan but he said he was too emotional to talk and passed us on to somebody else."

When news reached RSF that Al-Hurra TV was preparing to broadcast an interview with his family, they launched their own inquiry and soon had to conclude that there was no truth to the story.

"We spoke to him on the phone again after that. He was very incoherent. He kept saying it was a conspiracy against him."

On his website, Al-Kawwaz confirmed that it was his family members that appeared on Al-Hurra, but he claimed they were being forced to lie and that their passports were being withheld.

(Exactly how the government coerced the Al-Kawwaz family to pretend to be alive is not clear.)

In Baghdad, the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), a press advocacy group and one of RSF's partners in the region, was among the first to smell a rat.

"We had news that a wake was held in Orso for the journalist's family, and that an extremist religious leader attended this ceremony alongside a governor of the region", JFO's vice-president Hadi Jello Merhi told MENASSAT.COM from Baghdad. "We contacted the husband of one of the Al-Kawwaz sisters and he assured us that they were alive. The governor also denied it. We then contacted other family members and found that they were all safe and sound."

Merhi admitted that JFO was hesitant at first to release the true story. "When we discovered it, we did not even want to acknowledge it! We were worried about the backlash from this. We knew some people would use this incident to question other deaths in Iraq. But in the end we had to take our responsibility. The truth must be told whatever the price."

And that price is heavy, Merhi said: "Today, every journalist in Iraq suffers from this incident. We have lost our credibility."

So what's next for Dhia Al-Kawwaz? The Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant against him on Thursday but Al-Kawwaz is not in Iraq so he is probably out of the reach of the Iraqi judiciary.

Al-Kawwaz' career as a journalist is probably over. According to the latest gossip from Jordan, the whole thing had been a ploy to attract international funding for his news website.

Rita Barotta & Gert Van Langendonck

Editor's Note: This story was corrected to reflect the fact that Al-Hurra TV is not an Iraqi government-run station but an American Arabic-language station funded by the U.S. Congress.