Iraq no place for fair reporting?
When a country, in other words, threatens to kill a journalist in reprisal for his or her work — reporting the news there “without fear or favor,” as professional journalists are called upon to do — then that country is not just threatening the life of that journalist, but threatening to deny us our right, as ordinary newspaper readers, to know what is happening in our world.
But that is what happened to veteran reporter Ned Parker, Reuters’ bureau chief in Baghdad, earlier this month. The death threats against Parker mounted soon after April 3, when two of his staff filed an investigative story about human rights abuses in Tikrit that occurred after government forces and Iranian-backed militias expelled IS fighters from the town. The two later reported on what they saw with their own eyes: A wave of looting and arson, the lynching of captured IS fighters, the gruesome killing of one prisoner by three federal policemen who, urged by a frenzied mob, took out knives and repeatedly stabbed the man in the neck, slitting his throat.
And finally the two Reuters correspondents saw a convoy of Shiite paramilitary fighters, the government’s partners in liberating Tikrit, dragging the corpse of a suspected IS fighter through the streets behind their car. That happened, and that was reported in Reuters news dispatch. So where is the problem? Where had Reuters erred?
Other news outlets, before, during and after the Tikrit campaign, had reported on atrocities committed not only by these militias — who, one must stress again, operate in concert with Iraqi troops — but by uniformed security officials. According to the New York Times, for example, these officials have been videotaped carrying out summary executions and displaying the severed heads of suspected IS insurgents.
Yet Parker was singled out. Three days after his Tikrit story was released, a TV station owned by Ashab Ahel Al-Haq, an Iran-backed armed group, called on viewers to demand his expulsion from Iraq, hinting at a worse fate.
Then an Iraqi Facebook page that is believed linked to an armed Shiite group began issuing threats against the veteran reporter, with one post claiming that “killing him is the best way to silence him.” Time to hit the road! Ned Parker, knowing that living and working in a country that does not respect the right of journalists to report on government malfeasance in war zones, fled the country, where independent reporters now appear to face a culture of violence and impunity directed against them.
He perhaps did not want to meet the same fate that had befallen Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who reported on the excesses of Russia’s troops in Chechnya and was gunned down in 2006.
Sadly, the State Department’s response to all this has been wimpy.
“The State Department will continue to closely monitor the treatment of international media,” a spokesperson for the government agency said, “and raise objections to any form of intimidation that may inhibit the ability of the media to perform their work.” (In English we can all understand, the statement meant to say this: Ain’t nothing we can do about it.)
And sadly, US President Barack Obama, during his scheduled meeting last week with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi never even raised the issue. Perhaps raising it would have been futile, for bringing up the issue of the sanctity of a free press with the leader of a country that had never had a free press, is like shaking hands with smoke.
One’s understanding of the campaign to dislodge and finally defeat IS in Iraq is that the campaign was meant to bring about conditions in Iraqi society that would transcend the fundamental divide between the Shiite ruling class and the formerly dominant Sunni community. It never transpired that way.
So why Parker? Why target a journalist for doing his job — reporting the facts as he saw them on the ground? The answer is simple: Parker addressed himself precisely to that very point in many of his news reports that he had filed over the previous decade, including during the tenure of the unrepentant Nuri Al-Maliki, the former divisive prime minister.
In fact, Parker wrote a lengthy, and as it turned out a prescient, article in Foreign Affairs in 2012 with this lead: “Nine years after US troops toppled Saddam Hussein and just a few months after the last US soldier left Iraq, the country has become something close to a failed state. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population... the dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.”
When the US withdrew its troops from that ancient land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, many news organizations followed suit. Parker was among the handful who continued to report from there, “without fear or favor.” Now the few — very few — who remain may have become cowed into accepting self-censorship as the price they have to pay for staying in the country. Unfortunately, we too, who care about independent news reporting, will be paying a price too.
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