In the middle of the night, Mosul-based journalist Ahmed Abu Reeta got a phone call warning him that he was likely to be arrested by fighters from the extremist group known as the Islamic State at any moment.
Back in early June, the extremist Islamic State group had taken over the northern city of Mosul and some of its surrounds and they had started targeting journalists immediately; even before the group’s takeover of the city, their forerunners and allies had also been threatening and murdering journalists.
Abu Reeta and his sister decided to leave their home at once and they fled through neighbouring properties rather than on the street. They were just in time, the Abu Reeta tells NIQASH. Only a few minutes later fighters from the Islamic State, or IS, group arrived, searching for him. They did not find him but despite his mother’s protestations they confiscated his car.
Later Abu Reeta found out that the visit from the IS fighters was actually part of a concerted city wide raid on members of the media in Mosul. That night 12 other journalists were arrested, blindfolded and taken away by the IS fighters.
This attack on members of the press is not the first of its kind in Mosul. When the group first took control of the city in June, they detained five journalists – the group included one female television presenter. Nobody knows what has happened to those people.
The IS group has also been quick to confiscate the property of anyone working for the media. One example was the seizure of the home belonging to Jamal al-Badrani, head of the Sharqiya television channel’s bureau in Mosul. Ten other members of the media suffered a similar fate.
According to journalists’ professional organizations in the province of Ninawa, of which Mosul is the capital, there are around 250 reporters working in the media there. It’s thought that about half of them have left Mosul. If they are still working in the city, the ones who are left try to avoid anyone knowing what they do – they know the Caliph’s eyes are on them. Some local journalists are now working for the IS group, for the radio station they run among other media outlets.
One Mosul journalist tells NIQASH about how frightened he was when he was abducted from out the front of his house; he was blindfolded and forced into a vehicle. When he and his kidnappers reached their destination he thought he was going to be killed – his blindfold came off and he found he was surrounded by a group of bearded, armed men.
“It was hard for me to breathe,” the journalist says. “I thought I was dead.”
However it turned out that the IS fighters simply wanted him to work for them, doing things like reading out the IS group’s press statements.
“When I felt like my life was actually safe, I asked them to give me some time to think about it,” he explains.
However the next morning the journalist, whose name cannot be revealed for security reasons relating to friends and family in Mosul, decided to leave town.
Almost immediately he ran into trouble getting into Erbil, the capital of neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders and military and which has succeeded in keeping the IS group out. He tried to get into Erbil three times but failed each time – his press card didn’t help at all.
Since then the former Mosul local has managed to travel to Baghdad and from there he’s made his way to Istanbul. However he’s now facing a new problem, he says, and its one shared by many other Mosul media: unemployment.
He’s highly critical of journalists’ unions or groups that say they want to protect journalists’ rights. “These organisations allegedly defend the rights of journalists but mostly it they think it is enough just to prepare reports on violations against journalists,” the refugee says. If the names of the kidnapped journalists are published, then this can actually be dangerous as it proves to the IS group that they have the right people under arrest.
“And the heads of various media organisations don’t seem to care about following up on the conditions their employees are living under.”
When they get help, this ex-Mosul journalist and many others say, it is usually on an individual basis.
Back in Mosul, the journalists kidnapped during the same raid that caused Abu Reeta to flee the city, were released two weeks later. Only two still remain in captivity. Those released say that they were not tortured but that they were interrogated and under intense psychological pressure. Every couple of days, members of the group would be taken away and the others were told they had been taken away to be executed. The aim of all the questioning was to obtain the names of anyone in Mosul who was either reporting for, or providing information to, external news agencies.
None of the released journalists wants to work in their chosen profession any more. Some of them say they wanted to leave the city for good too, but it proved to be too late – the IS group recently instituted rules to stop anyone leaving for longer than ten days.
As for Abu Reeta and his sister, they barely made it out. News reports said that 14 journalists had been taken into custody, when in fact it was only 12 – Abu Reeta and his sister had escaped. Other news reports said that Abu Reeta was dead.
On the day after the night raid on Mosul’s media, he received a phone call from a friend who asked him how to get to where he was. “It was then that I realized my friend was speaking under duress – he may have had a gun pointed at him,” Abu Reeta speculates.
However the most dangerous thing that happened to him occurred just on the outskirts of Mosul, as he was trying to get onto the road towards Baghdad.
“I got to the main checkpoint and started to get really scared,” Abu Reeta says. “I knew that at this checkpoint the IS fighters use a laptop to check for the names of wanted persons. I expected my name to be on their lists. However I was really lucky,” he says. “They were too busy to check all the names on the computer and I managed to slip through. As soon as I was through there, I knew I’d survived,” says the young man who managed to get to the comparative safety of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk, with the help of local friends.