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anti-media extremism
team of assassins targets journalists in mosul

Nawzat Shamdeen
Extremists are targeting journalists in the troubled state of Ninawa. After killing the governor’s spokesperson and two TV reporters they distributed fliers saying that any journalist who turned up for work…
10.10.2013  |  Mosul
Iraqi television footage about the deaths of journalists in Mosul.
Iraqi television footage about the deaths of journalists in Mosul.

It seemed a simple assignment for the reporter and camera man from Iraqi satellite station, Al Sharqiya: they would go down to the crowded markets in central Mosul and film the shoppers in action before the upcoming Eid Al-Adha holiday. But while Mohammed Ghanem and Mohammed Karim were in the Sarjakhana neighbourhood, they were gunned down by a group of men armed with pistols with silencers. Their attackers appeared suddenly, let off a hail of bullets and then disappeared into the crowded streets.

A witness, a woman in her 50s, complained about how local police had reacted to the scene. She said she saw one of the victims moving his hand and saying something but police only stood and watched, she recalled, “as the young man’s blood ran out of him”.

“The state of Ninawa – with Mosul – as its centre is witnessing a collapse in security,” says a local police officer who only wanted to be known as A. Mohammed. There are an estimated 50,000 military and security staff deployed throughout the province and there are checkpoints in all Mosul’s major streets.

“But we’re not able to protect ourselves,” the officer explained. “how are we supposed to protect the public?”

About 3,500 of those security staff quit their jobs over the past few days, MP Faris al-Sanjari, a member of the Sunni Muslim-dominated Iraqiya bloc, the major opposition in Iraq’s federal parliament, told NIQASH. “They left their jobs after they received threats from militants and because they’ve seen dozes of their colleagues killed and the homes of other colleagues bombed.”

Journalists like Karim and Ghanem have also been targeted, al-Sanjari said. And not just while they’ve been working but also in their own homes: al-Sanjari was referring to the murder of a presenter for local TV station, Sama Al Mosul, who was gunned down at home in front of his wife and child.

Most recently locals say they’ve seen fliers in their neighbourhoods which threaten journalists and media workers with death if they continue their jobs. Anyone reporting to work risked death, the fliers said.

An estimated 47 journalists and media professionals have been killed in Mosul since 2003. News agency Reuters says that “according to the Baghdad-based Journalism Freedoms Observatory, 261 journalists have been killed and 46 kidnapped since 2003, the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq”.

So it seems clear that Mosul is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world for media workers. The city remains one of Iraq’s most dangerous because of its mixture of ethnicities and sectarian allegiances and as such it has become a battleground for local security forces and groups affiliated with Sunni Muslim extremists, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has connections with Al Qaeda. The Al Qaeda-affiliated militias have been based in Mosul for several years now and are also well known to extort “protection money” from locals to fund their operations.

Muhannad Khaled Hussein, a young journalist working for a public channel in Mosul said he and other staff stayed in their offices and didn’t want to leave after hearing about the threatening fliers in the city. “A lot of journalists have moved house for security reasons and those who haven’t already quit their jobs are trying to leave the city,” he said.

One veteran journalist says he never uses his real name on any articles, he has disabled his Facebook account, changed his phone number and that he’s planning to leave his house for a few weeks, until things settle down – if they ever do.

Radio reporter Talal Majid says that while he stayed on at work, many other employees quit their jobs after hearing about the fliers. “They took them seriously,” Majid says “especially because the fliers were distributed just a few hours after the assassination of Saad Zaghloul.”

On Tuesday Oct. 8, unidentified gunmen went to the home of Saad Zaghloul, a journalist who was also the spokesperson for the governor of Ninawa, Sunni Muslim politician, Atheel al-Nujaifi. They shot Zaghloul in front of his home and then disappeared, despite an army checkpoint nearby.

Al-Nujaifi himself was shocked by the news – his previous spokesperson, Qahtan Sami, had been killed in a very similar way earlier this year, in July. Sami’s corpse ad apparently lain on the street while army officers looked on.

On Wednesday there was a further attack on the administration in the region when the convoy carrying Iraqi parliamentary speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, the brother of Ninawa’s governor was attacked. Al-Nujaifi was not hurt but two of his bodyguards died and others were injured.

Atheel Al-Nujaifi told NIQASH that all of these assassinations were being committed by one group. “It’s a group that specializes in assassinations,” he explained. Al-Nujaifi also thinks that local security forces actually know many of the names of those involved in this group but they have deliberately not taken any action on this front.

While al-Nujaifi is ostensibly the governor of Ninawa, he’s certainly not in charge of the whole of province. Kurdish military forces, the Iraqi army representing Baghdad and local security forces have split control of Ninawa in the past. As a result Mosul has been at the frontline of ethnic tensions in Iraq.

Mosul is also Iraq’s third largest city and is considered by many to be the last urban outpost of extremist Sunni Muslim groups like Al Qaeda. Because of this the city has remained under strict military control – but that security is run by the military and they take orders directly from the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.Al-Maliki is head of a Shiite Muslim coalition ruling the country and the al-Nujaifis are part of his most prominent opposition. So power in Mosul is split.

Al-Nujaifi did not want to name the group that specializes in assassinations and no group came forward to claim responsibility for the murder of the three journalists and the bodyguards. However the fliers distributed in the city shortly after Zaghloul’s murder were clearly the work of ISIS.