“No conflict has been as dangerous or as deadly for journalists as the war in Iraq,” began Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Committee to Protect Journalists at New America NYC on Monday night. But reporters in Iraq were not killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time: They were killed because of what they did – “because they dared to write, to record, to photograph.”
Ahmed Fadaam, former news reporter and producer of Iraqi descent said that in a nation of supposed free speech and democracy after 35 years of dictatorship, the old familiar repression from years past still permeates Iraqi culture. Journalists are considered spies and are often targeted for the specific media outlet they work for, especially Western ones. They are often beaten and threatened by police officers or army members who break their cameras or take them into custody to be tortured.
Hannah Allam, former Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers
recalled that reporting in Iraq became so dangerous, that journalists very often had to “walk away from good stories” for their own safety.
In some ways, Fadaam was at an advantage as an Iraqi: He could go home and talk to friends and neighbors to find out what was really going on. In fact, Iraqis often became the eyes and ears on the ground for foreign staff. Photojournalist Michael Kamber said that listening to the Iraqis was often the key to staying safe. “When the Iraqis said it was time to go, it was time to go,” he said.
And it was often the Iraqis themselves who did the most onerous work in reporting: It was they who frequently checked neighborhood for danger and conducted preliminary interviews for foreign correspondents.
Kamber recalled that the U.S. government began tightening restrictions on what he could report as early as 2004, even forcing reporters to sign documents stating that they could not photograph wounded soldiers without their written permission.
The grave dangers and far-reaching censorship produced a version of the war that was sanitized and incomplete for readers. “I didn’t see my history of the war reflected out there,” said Kamber. His book, Photojournalists on War is a collection of oral histories and photographs taken my journalists who documented for the sake of history itself, knowing that their editors would not publish their pictures.
“We lost 5000 Americans over there,” Kamber said, “but most Americans have never even seen a picture of a dead American soldier.” The Pentagon often said the censorship about dead bodies was a matter of privacy. But Kamber maintains that “if you’re going halfway around the world to invade someone’s country, that’s not a private event.” The images are not a glorification of violence, he says, but rather stand as a warning for the next time “we want rush off on a military adventure.”
The war in Iraq has shaken the Iraqis and their way of life to the core, completely transforming the daily experiences of journalists and citizens alike. Fadaam reflected that as a child, he’d faint at the sight of a butcher slaughtering a sheep. Years later, he would count the charred bodies of car bomb victims without blinking, or walk to the market with his 5-year-old daughter who would ask her father, “did you see that dead man?”