Journalists in Iraq put their lives on the line

A journalist who hasn't upset someone or hundreds of people with her reporting on one day or another is a rarity; some would argue an impossibility.

Nevertheless, I've never walked out of the Mail Tribune office late at night to my white 1996 Oldsmobile Ciera and worried that a disgruntled source or reader was waiting crouched by the car's wheel rims to end both my career and my life. Obviously, my sense of security is strong enough that I've just given a full description of my car to a readership that numbers in the tens of thousands.

But cut and paste me into Iraq, and there's no doubt my sense of security would topple quicker than the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdaus Square in April 2003.

Last week, I had lunch with seven Iraqi journalists, who teach journalism at universities in Iraq, at a table in the Gerlinger Lounge at Eugene's University of Oregon.

Some of those at the table had risked their lives for a public service we in the United States, both journalists and their audiences, take largely for granted.

The professors had traveled from Iraq to Oregon as part of a project by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and journalism scholars, including Peter Laufer and James Wallace, chairman of the UO School of Journalism and Communication, to develop a model curriculum for journalism schools at postsecondary institutions in Iraq. The visitors met with journalism professors at UO during the week and took tours of The Oregonian in Portland and The Register-Guard in Eugene to learn about U.S. journalism practices.

Hundreds of Iraqi journalists have died on the front lines of reporting on the news in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, yet they don't get the same press in the Western media as when a Western journalist is killed.

Sihaam Al-Shegeri, media consultant for the Journalism Freedom Observatory in Baghdad and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said through a translator that more than 300 Iraqi journalists had died on the front lines of reporting the news in Iraq. Twenty-six of those were women, said Al-Shegeri, the only woman in the group of seven Iraqi journalists.

Reporters Without Borders reported in September that the total number of media workers killed in Iraq since 2003 was 230.

Iraqi journalists now have protection under Iraq's constitution, which was unheard of during the rule of Saddam Hussein, when media was controlled by the government.

That has prompted the explosion of hundreds of newspapers and scores of TV and radio stations in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, said Abdulameer Al-Faisali, a journalism professor at the University of Baghdad, through a translator. Many of the news outlets are owned by political parties, causing some doubt about their objectivity, Al-Faisali said.

"No one knows what's true and what's not because newspapers in general are not secure," he said.

"It's going to take some time for things to get back to normal. ...The media has a big responsibility to society over there. It has a very powerful message to the community and society because it could actually start a civil war again or change the minds of the people."

Still, young people are clamoring to be trained for the additional jobs these media organizations have created, a phenomenon that can seem strange to journalists such as myself who have seen the staffs at their newsrooms in the West continue to shrink in the past few years.

Enrollment in the journalism school at the University of Baghdad is about 2,600, Al-Faisali said.

The journalism department at the Technical Institute in Erbil in the Kurdistan region was nonexistent during the time of Saddam Hussein. Now, it has a student enrollment of 500, said Azad Dzayi, dean at the institute and a media lecturer.

But Iraqi journalism's growing pains are far from over. Murder remains the No. 1 cause of death of journalists in Iraq, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Al-Faisali put it this way: "There is a tax for everything you write, and sometimes that tax is your life."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

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