It is only just over a week since the announcement that various Iraqi anti-extremist forces would begin trying to push the Islamic State group out of their local stronghold, the northern city of Mosul. But already two Iraqi journalists have died covering the conflict and a further ten have been injured, some seriously.
Last week a sniper from the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group killed cameraman Ali Risan, who was working for the Al Sumaria TV channel, south of Mosul. There was a tough fight in progress between troops from Iraq’s federal police and the IS fighters, in an area with many improvised explosive devices near the town of Shura.
Another journalist, Ahmad Haceroglu, was also killed by a shooter with the IS group, this time in the city of Kirkuk after around 100 IS fighters stormed the city on October 21. Haceroglu was the director of news for the Turkmeneli TV station, based in Kirkuk.
The media rights and advocacy organisation, Metro Centre, based in Iraqi Kurdistan, issued a statement with another ten names on it, of journalists who had been injured, many seriously, during coverage of the fighting around Mosul.
When we organize safety trainings, we often find that some of the reporters just want to be heroes.
Confronted with such a high casualty count after just a few days, the question that many other members of the Iraqi media were asking was this: Were journalists being deliberately targeted? Or were the Iraqi journalists in the wrong place at the wrong time battlefield, on an ongoing basis?
Of course, this is not the victims’ faults. Nonetheless it is also true that up until June 2014, Iraqi journalists had not really had to report from the front lines of any war. When there was death and destruction to be reported on in Iraq, it tended to be a bombing in a city centre or tribal infighting. It was only after the IS group sparked a national security crisis, that journalists began to accompany security forces out onto the battlefield. Over the past two years, most Iraqi media organisations have sent at least one of their reporters out to battlefronts and certainly, there have been attempts to train individuals in how to stay safe in conflict zones. But it doesn’t seem to have worked particularly well.
There are several reasons for this. “When we organize safety trainings for journalists in Iraq, we often find that some of the reporters just want to be heroes on the frontline,” Rahman Gharib, head of the Metro Centre, told NIQASH. “They forget that they are just supposed to be giving reports from the front line and they race the soldiers to get to the fighting. [That attitude] is a big problem and needs to be addressed.”
Watching the Iraqi news on television, it is clear that some of the journalists think they are part of the fighting forces, or somehow employed by them.
For example: Ali al-Mousawi was the reporter travelling with the cameraman who was shot. “We are strong,” he told another television reporter on camera after his colleague was killed. “It is no victory if they kill one journalist, there are another thousand journalists still working. We will be on the front lines of the battle and we won’t go home until we have liberated every last inch of Iraqi land from the IS group.”
The general tone of reports during the operation against the IS group in Mosul has so far been overwhelmingly positive, with regard to the anti-IS forces. And the reporters tend to emphasise the positive and downplay the negative. This may well be a result of pressure on them when they travel with the armed forces.
There are other problems with the war correspondents in Iraq. If the journalists don’t have much experience in this field, then often nor do their colleagues in the armed forces. The military have been criticized for allowing reporters to roam where they wish and for not providing them with enough protection or even advice. They too have an interesting attitude toward their colleagues in the media.
Another example from the Risan case: A few hours after the cameraman’s death, an Iraqi army captain, Raed Shakir Jawdat, was interviewed about it. “Members of the media are fighters, they are fighting together with their brothers, the soldiers, on the frontlines,” Jawdat said. “The fact that Ali Risan became a martyr proves this. And we ask God to help us avenge his death.”
The local Media Freedoms Observatory issued a statement after Risan’s death blaming the federal police for Risan’s death. “The police are responsible for his death because they put journalists on the frontlines, in direct confrontation with IS fighters,” the statement read.
Jawad Kathir, a newspaper reporter, adds that the military forces treat foreign journalists far better and take more care of them, than their Iraqi counterparts. “They provide them with protection and they prefer to give statements to foreign journalists,” Kathir complained. “A few days ago we asked a military unit to help us get to the frontline and they refused. An hour later an international TV crew asked to go on the same trip and they agreed without hesitation.”
In fact, the Iraqi army has already been forced to make some adjustments as to how they work with reporters. “We have decided not to allow correspondents or cameramen to come anywhere near the frontlines or anywhere there is a live confrontation with the IS group,” a statement issued by Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, the spokesperson for the Iraqi forces, said.
The journalists’ employers are not much better, says Gharib of the Metro Centre. “Local media organizations certainly bear some responsibility for casualties among the journalists,” he told NIQASH. “They don’t provide training nor do they provide the journalists with body armour, or helmets.”
Speaking to local journalists, one also finds that security is not the only problem they are dealing with. “When we arrived at the camp allocated for media accommodation, we found rooms that were not really well organized for us. The army had led us to expect something different,” complains Mazen al-Janabi, who often works for foreign media in Iraq and is currently based in Qayyarah at one of the military camps, where many journalists are staying during the Mosul operation.
“Additionally there was no food for us,” he lamented.